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Tommy Leigh

 

 

 

I noticed, as if from a distance, that my hands trembled slightly as I fitted the airway device into the man’s mouth. Once it was in, I repositioned the head, tilting it slightly back, and tried again to get oxygen into the lungs. This time the chest rose. As my partner did a round of compressions, I waited for my turn to ventilate again.

West beach was crazy back then. Once the traffic piled up and the beach filled there was no backup by land.

As I waited, I panned the area quickly. We were surrounded by hundreds of people who were yelling insults, threats, or encouragement. It smelled like a sickly mix of sweat, sunscreen, seaweed, and beer. We were ringed with a small group of cops that barely held the crowd at bay. Nearby, another group of lifeguards, firefighters, and helpful bystanders carved an area out of the crowded beach big enough to land a helicopter in.

EMS Supervisor Tommy Leigh found his way in there somehow by entering down the beach and driving his ambulance down the surf line into the maelstrom. He waded through the crowd as if taking a Sunday stroll. He smiled and said something just smart alecky enough to relax us. He knew all the first responders by name as he joked, instructed, and calmed. Within a couple of minutes, we had a line in the victim, had shocked his heart into a regular rhythm, and Tommy had quickly and efficiently intubated him. While this was going on he somehow also redirected the landing zone to account for wind direction, so cars weren’t sandblasted, had us humming like a well-oiled rescue machine, and had a plan for moving the body safely to the helicopter without the crowd jumping on top of us. He was supportive and calm while maintaining complete situational awareness.

As the helicopter lifted off, he came up to me and clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Not a bad medical response… for a lifeguard”.

Tommy was part of an amazing team that worked EMS in the 80’s and 90’s that was so inclusive and proactive that it had an impact that resonates to this day. They helped Beach Patrol into the formal pre-hospital care chain and are largely responsible for us having EMTs in every truck and being registered as a “first responder organization” with the health district. They were getting hammered with minor beach calls and we took a lot of the burden from them, while stepping up our medical response game considerably. Now we respond to almost 2,000 medical calls a year that Fire or EMS doesn’t have to deal with at all.  For over three decades he was there with advice, training, encouragement, and most importantly, friendship.

35 years later, last Friday night, I sat across from Tommy at his retirement party trading stories and having a beer. After saving thousands of lives and mentoring many of us, he’s finally getting a well-earned “rest” that will involve all kinds of national and international travel.

Thank you, Tommy Leigh!

 

 

Picture courtesy of Frazer, Ltd. on Twitter @frazerbilt

 

Charlotte Blacketer Rescue

A man entered the water with his son and two daughters around 13th street in the afternoon over the 4th of July weekend. It was a beautiful day with small, clean waves and green water. The beach was crowded.

The kids ranged from a very young daughter to a teenager. The little girl was in a lifejacket. They waded out to a sandbar that was about 30 yards from the shoreline and were in 3-4 feet of water. Even though they were well within the designated swimming limit of 50 yards and in a guarded area, a relaxing day at the beach took a turn for the worse.

Senior Lifeguard Charlotte Blacketer relieved the tower 13 lifeguard for his lunch break. Charlotte is an experienced guard who is one of the Junior Lifeguard Program instructors. Because she’s serious about lifeguarding and because she is constantly on the move with the Junior Guard program, Charlotte maintains a high level of fitness and keeps her lifeguard and medical response skills sharp. This was what tipped the scale on this particular day.

The small girl drifted a little farther than her family group. The two bigger kids stayed where they were while the dad walked toward her. Suddenly he stepped off the sandbar into water over his head. He didn’t know how to swim.

Charlotte heard screaming and saw people pointing in the direction of the man struggling in the water. Charlotte reacted quickly, grabbing buoy and fins, and sprinting into the water. She automatically used well-practiced techniques of high stepping, then dolphining, then rolling over to quickly put on her fins before powering out towards the man.

On the way she looked up periodically. Through the sunlight reflected on splashing water, she spotted the man’s head briefly. She caught a glimpse of a bystander swimming while pulling the little girl in the lifejacket towards shore. Looking up to try to see the man’s head again, she saw the two other kids in the safe and shallow area in her peripheral vision. As she neared the area where she’d spotted the head, she switched to breaststroke so she could get a good look around. She didn’t see anything. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as it hit her that she’d lost the man and he’d gone under right in front of his kids.

But then she spotted some bubbles breaking the surface about 10 feet in front of her. She sprinted to the bubbles, did a surface dive, and swam down while keeping her eyes open. She saw a body face down floating beneath her with its arms spread wide.

Charlotte remembers grabbing him and pulling him to the surface. She doesn’t remember how she got her rescue tube wrapped around him, but as she swam him in, he started moaning and coughing. Other guards came out to help pull him in and put him on Oxygen. He was semi-conscious by the time we loaded him in the ambulance and was reported to be stable later that day in the hospital.

 

Photo of Charlotte Blacketer

Pre 4th of July

Hard to believe we’re to the 4th of July. Weather permitting, this could be a massive event, seeing as each weekend since the beach season started seems like a holiday weekend in both the best and worst of ways. Galveston needed our tourists back, and the hotel occupancy rates are just one of several indicators that they’re back, and back with a vengeance! But the corresponding workload on the emergency services and tourist related businesses has been pretty overwhelming.

Just to give a snapshot of the magnitude of workload my staff alone has been facing I’d like to share one important statistic over the past three years. “Preventative actions” are actions that essentially keep people out of harm’s way. Many of them involve moving people away from piers, groins, or anywhere else there are rip currents or tidal currents. But they can also encompass things like swimmers out too far, people in danger of being struck by lightning, etc. It’s generally a result of the combinaton of water conditions and crowds, and is probably the best indicator of how much work our staff puts in. Last week in 2019 we made 8,121, and the equivalent week last year the number climbed to 10,202. This year, the number was 17,506.

With this increased work on a staff that only recently got to 75% of our target number, it’s even more important that you and yours take safety precautions when you go to the beach. The United States Lifesaving Association has recently updated its safety recommendations and we have adapted ours to match that. So when you’re out there, please remember to Swim Near a Lifeguard, Learn to Swim, Learn Rip Current Safety, Never Swim Alone, Designate a Water Watcher, Alcohol and Water Don’t Mix, Feet First Water Entry, Life Jackets Save Lives, Observe Signs & Flags, and Beat the Heat & Block the Sun. An explanation for each of these can be found at www.usla.org. We can’t stress enough that swimming near a lifeguard gives you that extra layer of protection and avoiding swimming near structures like piers and groins greatly reduces your chances of getting caught in a dangerous rip current. In addition to these, in Galveston remember you should also avoid swimming at the ends of the island, because of the strong tidal currents at the San Luis Pass and Ship Channel.

All of us will be out working, along with our network of other public safety groups, Galveston Marine Response, Wave Watchers, County CERT volunteers, and all the other groups that make it happen. And our Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network is on standby just in case we need them.

There’s nothing we like more than to see people come to the beach and make memories by spending time with friends and family. I love seeing all the kids playing in the water, and the smell of Texas BBQ and fajitas being cooked by all the families and friends spending time together. So have fun, be safe, and don’t check your brain at the causeway.

 

Photo by Travis Walser on Unsplash

https://unsplash.com/photos/yqGcu5D63Yc?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink

The Madness

It’s hard to keep up. Summer hit hard. Crowds come early for the weekend and stay late. Friday and Monday look like weekend days and on Saturday and Sunday all 33 miles of beach are blanketed with people. Police, Fire, EMS, and Beach Patrol have all been scrambling to stay on top of all the calls for service. Our statistics show an incredible volume of work performed by lifeguards who are constantly moving people away from danger day after day.

Last weekend we had two drowning fatalities, one Friday morning and another Sunday midday. The total is up to 6 for the island this year. Two in the bay related to a boating accident, one by a jetty that was rip current related, one in a small pond, one was found early morning on the beach, and another appears to have collapsed in shallow, calm water.

In the middle of all this, we’ve run almost continual lifeguard academies. I think we’re on our 6th or 7th academy but have lost track at this point. But we’ve got to keep those towers full to handle all the rough water and crowds. We also ran a jet ski rescue course, dispatch certification course, and have provided training for surf camp instructors and the fire department.

We’ve also been holding our Junior Lifeguard Program for a couple of weeks now. There’s nothing I like more than going out for my morning training sessions and seeing a small group training for the national competition, the guards out there training for the daily training sessions at the start of their shift, the Junior Guards out practicing swimming and rescue board techniques, a jet ski rescue course practicing victim pick up techniques, and a Lifeguard Candidate course out practicing rescue techniques. All at the same time, like a synchronized, frenetic, clock.

Every circus needs a ringmaster and, for us, its our Captain of Operations, Tony Pryor. Captain Pryor does the scheduling, assignments, oversees the Junior Guard Program, and takes care of the thousands of little things that have to happen to make this circus work. But there are many, many other people here that continually amaze me with their dedication and energy. Angie Barton, our Office Coordinator, somehow manages to keep everyone’s time tracked, the computers and office all working, and is usually working on 4-10 pretty significant projects simultaneously, while guards pop in and out of her office asking for one thing or another. Sgt Dain Buck is out in the field making sure all the zones are covered and everyone gets their jobs done. Lt. Mike Reardon, whose been here since the ‘70s, technically works patrol part time, but still finds time to review and perfect the many, many reports we generate. And our Supervisors, Senior Guards, Junior Guard Instructors, Dispatchers, and of course Lifeguards seem to be tireless, infinitely patient, and willing to work themselves into a stupor when needed.

The level of teamwork our staff shows is not easily described, but without it the beach would be a very different place.

Busy Summer Time

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. As I write this, I’m just back in from responding to an impressive 3 person rescue by Captain Pryor and Lifeguard Martinez at 39th street. Looks like one of two kids may have stepped off a sandbar into deeper water and his dad and sister tried to help him and they ended up all having trouble. Fortunately, Lifeguard Martinez showed up just in time for his shift and Captain Pryor was right there with his response. And this is just one of many similar incidents that have happened recently. I for one will be really happy when we get into a calmer water pattern as we get into the summer season.

We have been extraordinarily busy this season so far. Weekends have been incredibly full. The beaches are packed from the East Beach Park all the way to the tip of the San Luis Pass. We’ve been barely staying on top of things with our whole staff stretched to the limit. I’m so proud of our lifeguards who show up early to train before work, work a full day, then some of them are out in the middle of the night responding to boating accidents, lost people, possible drownings, and all kinds of summer madness. Thanks to the safety net of the Beach Patrol, Fire Departments, Police, Sheriff Office, EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and on holidays, County Emergency Response Team we’ve collectively been able to stay on top of it. But it’s clear that there are more people using our beaches, bays, and waterways than ever before. And they’re using them more of the year.

We have enough staff to stay on top of all that we’re covering, but just barely. We still have positions to fill, and as summer wears on we don’t want to burn out the good lifeguards we have now. So starting Monday, June 14th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented 5th academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the UTMB Fieldhouse pool and will launch right into a nine day academy that same day. We’ll pay for all the training candidates receive as they go through the course. And don’t forget our lifeguards just got a pay bump, so starting pay will be $14 an hour plus potential increases for being bilingual or having an EMT. Join our family!

Very soon we’ll start seeing an increase in storms that threaten the gulf. This is a good time for a reminder that its hurricane season, so don’t forget to make your plan and be ready to evacuate if something looks like it’s coming this way. If you’re like my family, they plan on taking a couple trips a year to visit friends and family around Texas, but just wait till the inevitable storm scare to take the trip. Good excuse for a mini vacation.

Hope to see you on the beach!

Memorial Weekend Wrap Up

The little girl sat in the sand with her plastic bucket and shovel. She was completely absorbed in her mission of shoveling sand into the bucket, pouring it back onto the ground, then repeating the process. Stewart Beach was packed. From a distance it looked like living, multicolored moss covered it completely. The girl had happily found a clear space to pursue her mission.

Unfortunately, the clear space was right in the middle of the emergency lane that runs from East to West. There are also corridors that run from the parking lot to the lifeguard towers. Working with park staff and the security detail, we struggle to keep them clear on busy days. But the lanes provide not only a clear spot for us to access people during an emergency, but also provide safe passage for beach service, vendors, and park staff working hard to keep the beaches clean.

I approached the girl, explaining she was in the “road” and asking her if she’d be willing to move to the other side of the poles. I received an emphatic “NO!”, as did the Lifeguard Supervisor for the area. Fortunately, her mom swooped into the rescue. The little girl smiled at me, bouncing up and down in her mother’s arms, as she was whisked away.

About an hour later, a mile and a half down the beach, I got flagged down by a couple who had discovered a lost child walking down the beach. Same girl, same smile. But now we were friends, so she rode happily with me back to her mom, punching random buttons in my truck that delighted her when lights went on or sirens blared. I asked her if she got lost a lot, and she replied, “All the time”. Shocking.

My new friend was one of 35 children we reunited with their families over the Memorial Weekend. Official beach season opened with a bang. We also moved 19,413 people from dangerous areas, responded to 55 medical calls, made 11 rescues, worked 6 possible drowning calls (one of which resulted in a fatality), made 186 enforcement actions, provided 354 tourists with information about the island, and gave water safety information to 4,238 people. This doesn’t include all the good work done by the other public safety groups, the security program for the beach parks, and the staff from the parks, parking, and Coastal Zone Management. One of our guards, who looked like an exhausted prune after spending about 3 or 4 cumulative hours of his 9 hour shift in the water moving swimmers, told me he couldn’t be responsible for what happened the next time someone shouted “easy money” or “Baywatch” at him.

I’m really proud of how well our staff handled the weekend. Especially considering many of them worked solo in towers, unlike previous years when they were doubled up for much of the day on holiday weekends.

If any of us had doubts about Galveston’s tourism bouncing back, I think last weekend took care of that!

Mothers Day Wrap Up

Two boys drifted towards the rocks in the longshore current. Once they got to the point of the longshore current, which pushed from West to East, met the rip current, which pulled out towards the end of the groin, there was no going back. They couldn’t swim to shore or against the longshore current. They had two options. They could swim out around the groin or they could climb up on the rocks. Because they were swimming at 47th, which was not guarded, there was no one to whistle them in or go in for them and swim them around the pier.

Fortunately, this was just another close call. A passing lifeguard patrol truck saw them and made it to them in time to keep them above water as all three climbed up onto the rocks together. They were cut up but alive.

It was a wild ride. We moved 4,664 swimmers, like these two, away from rip currents before they got in trouble. A handful of groins weren’t guarded, and our Supervisors scrambled in trucks to keep swimmers safe in these, and many other areas. Bumper to bumper traffic, beaches and water peppered with people made moving around quickly an impossibility. At one point we had a large, combative guy refuse to get out of the water (for hours), that was ultimately arrested by the Galveston Police Department. Meanwhile we had rescues made by lifeguards, a bike went off the seawall causing a significant head injury, and there were a couple of incidents involving weapons. All to the beat of a steady stream of swimmers moved, lost children reunited, a near drowning in a pool, and enforcements for everything from dogs off a leash to alcohol infractions. The fever pitch was exacerbated by a sand blasting 25 mile per hour South wind. The fun didn’t stop when the sun went down when joined our public safety partners to several nighttime beach emergencies, including a merry band of revelers who, around 4am, decided to drive their truck into the water at the San Luis Pass. The party continued on top of the vehicle, until eventually they came to shore at the coaxing of the public safety groups that responded. One guy tried to make a break for it back to his almost floating truck, but a Jamaica Beach Police Officer and several Galveston Firefighters stopped him.

The crowd looked like a busy Memorial weekend, which is our busiest weekend of the year. I was extraordinarily proud of our crew, who worked so hard and so long in such difficult conditions. From the lifeguards who were in the water most of the day moving swimmer after swimmer, up to Captain Tony Pryor, who worked a 10-hour shift, then came back in for 3 more hours when we had all our vehicles out on emergencies and needed support for the lifeguards and someone to patrol unguarded areas.

Tomorrow, May 15th, we have tryouts, and all employers are hurting for people. Let’s all pray for a good turnout!

Rookies Needed!

One week from tomorrow, on May 15th at 7am we will be holding lifeguard tryouts at the UTMB Fieldhouse. Info is on our website. After the swim, drug test, and orientation, we will launch straight into almost 100 hours of training in 9 days.

We are all holding our breath hoping that recruiting efforts pay off, word has gotten to interested people, and a crowd shows up for tryouts. Now more than ever, Galveston needs a full compliment of guards to protect what has become an almost unbelievable number of tourists that visit our island and its beaches each year.

The academy involves things you would assume ocean guard trying would include. We teach CPR and First Aid that specializes on beach related injuries and emergencies. There is a ton of instruction and time spent on both how to swim and effect a rescue in the surf environment. We train for multiple victim rescues, rip current rescues, and rescues involving specialized equipment like rescue boards, boats, and jet skis. We get into specifics like how to move around on rocks covered in algae and barnacles while waves break on you without getting hurt. Search and Recovery is of course an important part of their training as well. But there are other things you wouldn’t immediately think of. Things like how to be a tourist ambassador, help a stranded dolphin or sea turtle, deal with a panicky parent who has lost his/her child, how to deal with toxic materials, and what to do if you encounter a crime scene. City ordinances, park rules, Beach Patrol policies, and an understanding of all the community programs Beach Patrol is involved in are in the mix. Obviously, there is still plenty of learning that has to happen up in the actual lifeguard towers, but we give them a solid base to work from so they know they can handle anything.

One of the main differences in the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) training that is provided compared to pool or water park lifeguard training is that the standards for beach guards are necessarily much higher, particularly the swim requirement, and the required training hours are 2 or 3 times other lifeguard programs. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an “Advanced” level agency, which involves more training and more requirements for the full time and supervisory staff. Additionally, the training philosophy is different. USLA focuses on a flexible approach where we emphasize general concepts that can be adapted and are easier to remember in a crisis. For example, we teach the basic concept of keeping floatation between you and a victim when making a rescue as opposed to getting too focused on one specific technique. In short, we teach and train for Murphy’s Law.

The bottom line is that when you see the man or woman in our lifeguard towers or rescue trucks, you can feel comfortable knowing they have been through rigorous and practical training to earn the right to be there. Best of the best.

We just need many more. So, if you know anyone who has what it takes…

Rescue

A 5-year-old boy got caught in a rip current on the East side of 29th Street last Saturday and was pulled out to the end of the groin. There was no lifeguard on duty to stop him before he got into trouble and move him farther from the rocks and closer to shore. He began to struggle and started to go under.

A bystander ran to the nearest staffed tower at 27th street. Supervisor Michael Lucero was on duty and reacted immediately by calling in to our dispatch asking for assistance and by running to 29th and into the water.

Both for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and for the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) the number one safety tip is “Swim Near a Lifeguard”. As a description why USLA thinks this is so important they say “USLA statistics over a 10-year period show that the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost 5 times as great as drowning at a beach with lifeguards. USLA has calculated the chance that a person will drown while attending a beach protected by USLA affiliated lifeguards at 1 in 18 million (.0000055%)”.

As Michael sprinted down the beach, a surfer spotted the small boy way out at the end of the groin. He paddled to the boy, who was unconscious and face down at this point, and grabbed him with one arm and the board with the other. He couldn’t get the child to shore but he was able to support him till Michael arrived. As Michael made contact and started back to shore, one of our rescue trucks arrived. Kevin Anderson set up the oxygen kit and Jeff Mullin went to help Michael bring the boy to shore. They found the boy with no pulse and he wasn’t breathing. The trio immediately started CPR and had the boy breathing with a heartbeat by the time the fire department was on the scene. The boy was brought in the Beach Patrol truck to the seawall and passed him to EMS, who took him to the hospital for further treatment.

We know that people are safer when they swim near a guard and take additional precautions like designating a “Water Watcher”, observing signs and flags, don’t swim along, and more. But the challenge is, and continues to be, that Galveston has 33 miles of beaches, over 7 million tourists annually, a warming climate, and a marked tourism increase in the Spring and Fall.  Like many other service jobs, it’s getting harder to find enough people to fill the lifeguard spots. Meanwhile, the demand is increasing both in areas needing coverage and times of year people are swimming. Spring and Fall are particularly challenging as the majority of our guards are students who only work as “seasonal employees”, which limits them to 7 months.

So, understanding our challenges in covering all the areas with swimmers and seeing how quickly tragedy can strike, you understand how important it is that you take the time to find a guarded area to swim in.

Assumptions

The last weekend was a big one. Water and air in the 70’s and nice weather meant tons of people in the water. The entire island seemed pretty full, and the beaches were packed. Traffic was an issue on the seawall most of the weekend, making it hard for emergency response personnel to move around.

We had several “possible drowning” calls that fortunately resulted in everyone being OK. One of these was a pretty dramatic close call, two-person rescue by lifeguards. One of the victims ended up getting transported to the hospital to be checked out but appeared to be in pretty good shape. This was one of those rescues where seconds matter and the guards made contact just as the victims were going underwater. By the end of the weekend, we had 8 rescues, 5,000 preventative, several lost kids reunited, and a ton of enforcement actions under our belt. The lifeguards couldn’t have performed better.

Coming up we have some big beach events. Next weekend is the Adopt a Beach Cleanup, and the weekend afterwards may or may not have a big car club event. Plus, more and more people are visiting the beaches, particularly on the weekends. Will keep all of us on our toes!

I was saddened, as I’m sure many of you were, to hear about the tragedy that happened in Surfside where a father tried to save two children in a rip current and died in the effort. If you ever see someone in the water in distress, call for a guard if one is present or dial 911. Try to throw or extend a reaching object or floatation device without going in the water yourself. There are rescue boxes on each groin in Galveston. Many drownings happen in groups of 2 or more with would be rescuers dying in the attempt. We can’t stress strongly enough the importance of swimming near an appropriately certified ocean lifeguard whenever possible and following the other safety tips on our website www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com

Along with huge crowds of swimmers keeping us busy, we’ve also noticed that people seem to be more on edge than usual. Like the past crazy year with all the national drama, a pandemic, and everything else has left the entire population with a sort of societal PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). An amusing, but disturbing example happened the other day when we received a 911 call from a woman saying her husband and friend were drowning. A rescue truck was dispatched and ran into the water to find the two men were doing fine. They walked back in with the two, talking amicably, and then got back in their truck. A car drove by and yelled “Nice racist rescue @#$%^&*”! The woman and two men were African American. The people in the car (Subaru Outback) were white. My staff was talking about how quick people seem to be to make assumptions and to criticize. And how it seems to play out everywhere- even the beach!