Posts

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.

 

Teamwork Across Texas Agencies

It has been a rough summer on the upper Texas coast up to this point and this has led to some cause and effect incidents that are both interesting and tragic. We’ve had a persistent strong wind for most of the season, resulting in strong lateral current and surf. This has, in turn, led to almost constant strong rip currents near structures and occasional strong rip currents along the open beach. It’s also the reason the troughs between the sand bars have been so unusually deep, even near to the shoreline.

Partly because of the conditions and large crowds there has been a number of heart wrenching water related deaths all along our entire stretch of coastline. But as a result there have been some pretty interesting developments recently that have potential to reduce similar incidents in the future.

A friend from the Sheriff Office contacted me awhile ago to explore the option of synchronizing some of our water safety efforts. It looks like for starters they will be using a modified version of our water safety material on their website and will even use the widget from our flag warning system. This means that if we post a red flag warning of rough surf and dangerous currents the same flag warning will show on their website as well. People can sign up to receive notifications via email or text when we set the flag color for the day and if we change it. Also, if we post special advisories for extra strong rip currents, off shore winds, air or water quality warnings, etc., those warnings will include the Bolivar Peninsula. Additionally, I met with Bolivar County parks representatives recently and they are exploring several options including that of flag warning stations like we have on the seawall, at beach parks, and on the back of lifeguard towers.

As we all know the San Luis Pass has been a problem for years. We’ve reduced the average number of drowning on the Galveston side by an ordinance banning swimming and, more recently, greatly increased signage and dedicated weekend patrols throughout the summer. On holiday weekends we even have help from the County “Citizens Emergency Response Team” or C.E.R.T. These volunteers augment our efforts at keeping people out of the dangerous waters there. This week I spoke at a Brazoria County Commissioners Court meeting about the history and dangers of the area as well as what we’re doing on our side. They are very interested in increasing their drowning prevention efforts. They’ve already put signs on their side which are very similar to ours. They’re looking at putting a law in place similar to our ordinance. This is a great thing.

Quintana and Surfside Beaches are also exploring options.  With re-vamped lifeguard programs at Port Aransas and Corpus now meeting the United States Lifesaving Association national standards as well as the two relatively new lifeguard services at South Padre island the dream of a more standardized network of protective programs for Texas beaches seems to be in reach.

Compassionate Police Work

“Possible drowning, 25th and Seawall Blvd…” came across the radio from the 911 dispatcher.

I was close and pulled up to the west side of the Pleasure Pier. Not seeing anything, I drove to the east side and spotted someone near the end of the “T-head” swimming towards shore with a strong, overhand stroke. A Galveston Fire Department truck pulled up  on the seawall and another Beach Patrol unit pulled up on the sand and Supervisors Joe Cerdas and Mary Stewart got ready to go in. Not seeing any immediate crisis I asked all responding vehicles to reduce to normal traffic.

Bystanders ran up and said the guy had been yelling at people all morning and acting erratically. I asked Joe to give the guy some distance and signal if he needed help. Joe went in on a rescue board and the guy immediately started cussing and threatening him. Joe signaled, Supervisor Mary Stewart took over command, and I went in as Kevin Knight pulled up on a jet ski. We recognized him as one of our beach regulars and corralled him without any real problems. Usually the guy is pretty calm but this particular day he was really agitated. Two Galveston Police Department Officers were waiting on shore. This is where the real story starts.

Officer Sean Migues worked for Beach Patrol for a number of years. He was also a US Marine that, at one time, was assigned to Presidential security. Sean is one of the two officers that works essentially as a tourist police, mostly on the seawall.

The man was ready to fight and you could tell he was barely under control. We made a ring between him and the water since a water struggle is way more dangerous than on land. But Sean, who is an extremely charismatic and affable guy. maintained such a calm demeanor that the guy couldn’t find a way to explode. Once it was clear that this couldn’t be resolved at the scene and the guy couldn’t be released safely, Sean went to work in earnest. He talked the guy into handcuffs so smoothly  that the guy thought Sean was doing him a favor (which he was). Many peace officers would have just put the guy in jail and let him stay there till his episode passed. Someone else would have had to deal with him soon after. But Sean had a hunch and started making calls and somehow found out that he’d been a psych patient and convinced the hospital to re-admit him. Instead of a couple of days in jail for some small charge Sean got him on a path to correct the root of the problem. Compassionate police work requires more effort, but can be life altering.

Sean and thousands of others like him around the country practice this daily. They don’t make the news, but we are all better because they take the path of more resistance.

The final Beach Patrol tryouts are tomorrow! Info is on our website…

Security at the Parks

15,000 people were at East Beach on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. Most were well behaved, but some weren’t. Many were drinking and there had been a few scuffles by 3pm but nothing major. Groups were starting to clump up in the parking lot. Security was moving proactively through the crowded parking lot disbursing the groups and making the troublemakers leave so everyone else could enjoy themselves.

There are layers of security at the Park Board managed beach parks. The primary group on the weekends is the Park Board Security Detail. Although it is managed by a Galveston Police Department appointed person, it is comprised of officers from various departments. Because the Galveston Police Department manages security at these large parks there is a seamless transition to the other city enforcement assets. They can write tickets for city ordinances, coordinate with the GPD patrol division when dealing with traffic issues that cross the boundaries between parks and city streets, and have a direct line for support for issues of a more serious nature.

Mornings on the weekends and weekdays security issues are primarily handled by the Park Board Police Department. The Park Board Police Department falls under the umbrella of the Beach Patrol and is comprised of Beach Patrol full time staff members that are also working as lifeguard supervisors on the beach. Needless to say our capacity is pretty limited since we generally have our hands full with lifeguarding and medical responsibilities, but there are few enforcement issues in the parks during the week and we can typically handle them. GPD patrol division is always a big help when we need it. One nice thing about having our in house police department is that we can filter lots of minor calls for GPD, and we specialize in marine issues and beach related city ordinances.

For safety reasons the Park Board of Trustees, who sets policy, would like the parks cleared on holiday weekends, after large special events, and when there are crowd problems. On Memorial weekend the parks were cleared. Three hours before the parks closed, people were notified that they would need to exit the parks by the designated time. Groups on the beach were told multiple times by officers on 4 wheelers, lifeguard and police using public address systems, and at the gates as they came in. Finally, officers made a “sweep” of the beach and parking lot. Officers did not have to exit their cars. They started politely while most moved and didn’t become more firm until there were a few that did not move after repeated requests. There were no confrontations and no arrests while tens of thousands were moved out of the parks. To me this demonstrates how well chosen the officers that work in these sensitive tourist areas are and how sound the plan is.

There was a complaint. The result was that we had a chance to re-evaluate our methodology. There are nuances about the delicate balance between open beaches requirements and public safety and we want to use best practice.

Doing the right thing means you’re constantly re-assessing.

 

Memorial Weekend

It’s here! Beach season is on us. Depending on a multitude of factors, somewhere between 250-500,000 people will visit the island this weekend. And it won’t stop there. Last year, Galveston tourism set records for visitation and visitor spending. More than 5.8 million visitors came to Galveston Island, spending $687.2 million to generate an economic impact of $951.8 million to the local economy. This was a 5% increase from 2012.

Our tourism experts have been hard at work to keep the tourists coming. All of our major resort hotels have gone through renovations this year and we’ve had several new attractions open, including the new ropes course and zip line at Moody Gardens that just opened a couple weeks ago. In addition, the island just launched its first ever Certified Tourism Ambassador program where we are training hundreds of hospitality front-liners to provide deeper knowledge of the destination and better customer service to visitors. Being that our No. 1 attraction is the beach, they recently launched a new interactive website, www.galvestonbeachinfo.com, that allows visitors to check out surf conditions, weather, beach events and more prior to coming down to the island. Finally, the island offers a lot of free entertainment throughout the summer, such as free Sunday concerts and East Beach or Movie Night on the Strand. Check this out at www.galveston.com.

But once we entice all these visitors to the beach it falls to the various public safety groups to protect them. Lifeguards, Firefighters, Paramedics, and Peace Officers will go into a frenzy starting this afternoon and for the next few days. Memorial Weekend is usually the busiest holiday of the year. We will be ready. Last Wednesday we held our annual mass casualty drill. The scenario this year was a boat accident in Offats Bayou and the Moody Gardens Colonel paddleboat was kind enough to participate and serve as a safe site for rescue and triage of patients. The “victims” were our 27 lifeguard candidates who learned by watching how more experienced responders handled their simulated injuries. These drills are invaluable when practiced right before the busy season. Although the drill went well, we did find a few areas that needed improvement during the debriefing afterwards. We’ll have those rough edges ironed out when we face the inevitable crises over the holiday.

Our lifeguard candidates who made it through the final exam and “night swim” are scheduled to shadow a working lifeguard today as a final phase of their training. They’ll be out along with all the rest of the staff Saturday.

When you come to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, observe warning flags and signs, take precautions for the heat and sun, and keep a close eye on children. Feel free to approach the lifeguard with questions. The guards will be busy, but they’re never too busy to give safety advice, provide tourist information, help find a missing person, or assist with whatever problem you may have.

 

 

Breaking the Rules

Four heavy duty water barricades were interlocked and stretched across Boddecker Drive just before the entrance to East Beach. Captain Tony Pryor sat in his Beach Patrol truck working security. His job was to keep cars from entering East Beach.

In years past we’ve had problems in the beach parks after the Strand area was swept clean of the late night party crowd. There have been tons of litter and glass bottles, occasional fights, and damage to the beach pavilion. Better to just keep everyone out.

As Tony sat just inside the entrance a Lexis came blasting down the road until it stopped at the barricade. Revving its engine, it picked up speed as it quickly turned and shot up the sand dune landing inside of the park. Tony hit the overhead lights and the car came to a stop, rolling down the window. “What?!!” shouted the driver. “The park is closed,” Said Tony, “You’re not allowed to be in here”.

The driver looked at him for a long minute. Then he said, “How am I supposed to get out”?

A day earlier, Officer Kris Pompa led a work crew to get all the signs that had fallen over along the entire beach front back in place before Spring Break hit. Beach Patrol maintains some 230 signs along the entire 32 miles of Galveston Beach as well as along the ship channel and San Luis Pass. As you would imagine it requires a great deal of effort and resources to keep them all up. Friday afternoon he came back from working all day tired but seemed happy. “All the signs are up Chief”, he said as he drove off.

Monday Kris was assigned to a patrol shift. During the month of February this means that he and another person patrol the entire beach front. They mostly work the seawall, Stewart and Apffel Beach Parks, but at least once they patrol the entire beach along the west end from the San Luis Pass all the way to the western tip of the Seawall. As they made it back to Stewart Beach I saw Kris in the parking lot. He shook his head and laughed when he told me that two of the new signs and posts that his crew had painstakingly erected and used a water jet to sink 6 feet into the sand had been ripped out and burned for firewood. These signs warn people about how dangerous the waters are in the Pass and are critical in our attempt to keep people from drowning there.

It’s hard at times to maintain the energy, patience, and positive attitude to do the job that Tony and Kris do. Dealing with the public can be frustrating because you often have more interaction with the people that don’t show others respect. Most of our staff, especially Tony and Kris, are good at finding humor in the tough parts and focus on the millions that enjoy the beach in a positive way each year.

White Pillars

The family of five showed up at the lakeside park in north Texas on Christmas Eve. Camping over Christmas was a long standing tradition and, as the kids were getting older, they were able to take longer hikes.

They followed a trail that ran around the lake. The youngest daughter was seven years old and lagged behind, unnoticed by the older kids and adults. As they made their way back to the campsite they realized the young girl was missing. What followed were something we know all too well- frantic calling and searching and eventually a 911 call.

Multiple agencies responded and researched the area. Eventually a tracker dog focused on a spot not too far from the campsite. A Department of Public Safety dive team arrived. They knew that this was a recovery operation and the time for potential rescue had long passed. They dove for several hours in the frigid waters but found nothing.

Thousands of people saw the heartbreaking story on the news.

Hundreds of miles away a woman in Louisiana woke up in a cold sweat. She had a dream that she saw the young girl in the water just in front of several white pillars. She couldn’t shake the image. It wasn’t a normal dream. It felt so real. Finally, after not being able to go back to sleep, she picked up the phone and made a call.

The woman was so convincing on the phone that the dive commander decided to follow his gut and go back out to the lake. On the far side of the lake there were some white barrels standing upright. They looked like pillars from a distance. He called his team back and they set up to dive. The first diver entered the water and resurfaced with the girl’s body within about 40 seconds.

This is a true story that was recently related to me by the very same dive commander. He was ex military and currently a police chief. He’d overseen the state dive team for many years, had seen a lot, and was definitely not the kind of guy that embellishes his stories.

It’s hard not to hear this and not believe in something. We see the world through our own lenses so some might say it was divine intervention from some type of “higher power”. Others might say its voodoo, telepathy, or an interconnectedness of being. My favorite is a connection that travels through a force that permeates the universe and binds it together (for the Star Wars fans).

It’s surprising how many people in public safety are superstitious. But after these men and women learn to follow their instincts and see patterns in seeming chaos, there is a real reward. There are too many police investigators that solve crimes by weighing the evidence AND following their instincts, or fire fighters that can “read” what fires will do even when it seems illogical.

Sometimes you have to trust your gut to see the unseen.

Police Chief Training

I was in Huntsville all this week for police chief training. The state of Texas mandates that all chiefs go through 40 hours of training every two year cycle. It’s interesting that Texas has so many departments per capita and the majority of departments are 5 or less. Even though we only have 7 certified officers on the Beach Patrol, our staff of well over 100 employees during the summer season makes us one of the larger departments in the room. I’m sure it’s hard to design a curriculum for a group that has such a wide range of responsibilities, but the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) does a good job.

I always kind of dread it, mostly because I have a hard time sitting still for 9 hours a day, but like lots of training we do, I’m always glad I went and bring good things back to the job. The topics are usually interesting and many of them are helpful. Of course we cover updates in the laws and pertinent issues related to whatever is current. For example, the last couple of cycles had sessions on terrorism. There are always really great presentations on management, human resources, and leadership that are easily put into practice.

This session we had a really good presenter named Kelli Arena who was a reporter for CNN for a number of years. She talked about the managing a crisis while handling the media. It was good to hear how this works from a reporter’s perspective. A big part of the discussion was about tension between law enforcement/public safety and the press. Of the 70 or so police chiefs in the room the majority admitted to avoiding the press when able and having predominately negative experiences when dealing with the media.

Our core mission is two pronged. Coupled with rescue, prevention and preparedness is an underlying philosophy that puts a very high priority on public education. This is one reason I don’t share the negative view of the press. I’m not saying there’s been a perfect history, but we’ve been lucky to have a long standing positive relation with most of the media outlets in the area.  Each person that learns about beach safety is one less person that we have to move out of dangerous areas or rescue. The media is an integral part in getting this information out there and has been very generous about letting us piggyback water safety information on to news stories related to events on the beach.

Ultimately all public safety works for the general population. The press is a direct line to the people. Part of the reason we’ve had a good relationship with the press is that we are as open and responsive to them as we can reasonably be. The same for the public we serve. Things work better when we all keep in mind that each of us plays a part in the greater good.

Doing the right thing brings good back to you.