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Wave Watchers

The lifeguard at tower 61 was getting a little overwhelmed.  She was moving as fast as she could but the current kept moving swimmers towards the dangerous area by the rocks. She barely had time to move swimmers and get back to her tower before jumping back down. As she climbed up to her tower, she heard a whistle. She looked down and was relieved to see a man wearing a blue shirt blowing a whistle to remind swimmers to stay out of danger.

The dispatcher checked the Beach Patrol cell phone and saw that the special app had a couple of new notifications on it. One of the Wave Watchers had been on the way to fish at the San Luis Pass and noticed a bunch of people in the water. Another was riding his bike along the seawall and saw a bus full of small children in swimming gear pull up at an area without a lifeguard. The dispatcher called the area supervisors for the west end and the seawall and let them know.

On the 4th of July weekend, the frantic parents of a lost 3-year-old child ran down the beach yelling for assistance. The tower lifeguard in the area asked them what was wrong, and they said they had lost sight of their child. After a quick check on the radio the lifeguard referred them to the big tent behind the next tower, which was the designated place for the “Lost Child Detail”. When the parents approached, they found a woman in the distinctive blue “Wave Watchers” shirt sitting with a lifeguard. Both were using beach toys to play with several children, including the lost 3-year-old.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy which is free of charge. The Wave Watcher team serves as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

The Academy is free of charge and will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, as well as beach safety. Attendees will receive certifications in both CPR and as Certified Tourist Ambassadors.

Once through the Academy, Wave Watchers will form a cadre of informed beachgoers who have “the eye”. They can spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us, or other emergency service groups, so we are able to prevent the situation from escalating. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement is completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew, contact us at beachpatrol@galvestonparkboard.org. There are no restrictions on who can participate and no physical requirement (like swimming, running, etc.). Everyone is welcome.

We have an academy starting April 8-12 from 8-12am. We need you to join our team and our lifesaving family!

Spring Break

Mardi Gras is the official kick off of the tourist season, but Spring break is definitely the sign that the beach season is underway.

We have lifeguard tryouts tomorrow. There is information on our website. We will have the first annual Lifeguard Academy running during Spring Break. We also have many of our returning seasonal employees coming back to requalify and start working, so there will be tower guards out from here on. We’ve scheduled a full complement of rescue trucks on patrol covering much of the island as well as continuing the on-call service we provide year-round. All the other emergency service groups are similarly prepared.

But even with all those extra layers of protection, you and your family’s safety rests primarily in your hands. So please get everyone you know to swim near a lifeguard and stay far from the rock groins. Tell them not to swim at the ends of the island, don’t drink and swim or drive, enter the water with their kids, pay attention to signs and flags, don’t swim alone, and don’t dive in headfirst. And remind them to stay hydrated and protect themselves from the sun.

The three areas you should be especially aware of when it comes to safety over Spring Break are rip currents, the danger of hypothermia, and the ends of the island:

Rip Currents are narrow currents that pull away from shore. Typically, here they occur near the rock groins and piers and don’t go much past those structures. They pull out but not under. They pull sand with them so the areas near these structures can be deep. It can be dangerous for most people to swim in that area so we have signs warning people away and post our lifeguard towers in those areas to the guards can help remind swimmers to stay far from the area. If for some reason you are caught in one, you should relax and float and don’t try to fight or swim against the current. If you can swim well, try swimming out of the current by swimming parallel to the shore one way or the other. If you see someone in the rip, don’t go in after them. Instead throw a line or float, like the ones in the rescue boxes on each groin.

Another big danger right now is that the water is VERY cold. You don’t want to stay in long before coming to shore and warming up. If you feel sluggish and weak, or start shivering, leave the water immediately and get warm.

The third thing you really want to watch for is on both ends of the island. The tidal flow bottlenecks at both the ship channel and the San Luis Pass. It’d dangerous to swim or wade in either place.

All that said, this is definitely the time to get out and enjoy some nice beach time. If you take a few reasonable precautions it will be worth the effort.

And say hi to the lifeguards while out there!

Do You Have What It Takes?

At 7am in the morning a group of swimmers stand near the pool getting a briefing. In groups of 10 they enter their assigned lanes and swim 10 laps, which is 500 meters. About half of them make it under the required time. These are interviewed and take a drug test. Those that make it through all three phases qualify for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol Lifeguard Academy.

When I started as a lifeguard back in 1983, there was no formal training and no special first aid course other than what I got when I took the Red Cross pool lifesaving course. I was just given a radio and sent to work. We’ve come a long way since then and now have a comprehensive training course that is over 90 hours long. And we pay those who qualify to attend!

Next Saturday, March 9th, is the first of two tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. We will have an academy over Spring Break and another in May. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. They are certified in CPR, First Aid, and beach lifeguarding. They also go through training in tourist relations, city codes pertaining to Galveston’s beaches, Gulf Coast ecology and marine life, and near shore topography and hydrology. Coupled with all the classroom work is hands on training in how to swim and make rescues in surf, search and recovery, and the basics of lifesaving sport. It’s a busy week and we’ll do it all over again the second week in May.

In addition to training for new lifeguards we are starting our annual training session for dispatchers, supervisors, and personal water craft rescue operations. By the time Memorial Weekend hits, we’ll be up to speed. Despite the huge amount of effort all this requires of our permanent staff members, who are all medical and lifesaving instructors, there’s a big payoff for both our staff and the public. The inconsistent training that once took a whole summer is taught in a uniform manner. Each employee is taught the same material and instilled with similar core values. Any one of our guards can handle whatever is thrown at them when they complete the training.

So, for those that would like to try being a beach guard, I hope you’ll give it a shot. I’m so happy I tried out all those years ago. For me it was a life changer. Not many people get to go home at the end of the day with the knowledge that they prevented people from getting hurt or worse. Not many people have the privilege of reuniting lost family members or treating people who are hurt. Not many people can say that they saved a life as part of their job.

Lifeguards for Life

With its tin roof the small house looked unassuming. It was precariously perched on the side of a steep hill with other houses. Vegetables grew in small plots interspaced with clothing lines and chickens clucked, scratched and pecked. I paid the Taxista and walked up the manicured path to the door. As I raised my hand to knock, the door sprang open and Juan limped over to me and grabbed me in a giant bear hug. Juan’s sister came up behind him and pulled me inside. Rosa can’t see very well, and Juan has a hard time hearing, but we somehow managed a lively conversation. Rosa served tacos that were so spicy that Juan and I were pouring sweat. After 20 years of working with the guards in Veracruz, Mexico, this had become our tradition, and is one of the things I look forward to the most each time I visit. Juan was the first lifeguard I met back then and was, at the time, already a veteran. Now he still works the beach, and despite a bad leg and being almost deaf, he still mentors the youngsters, swims like a fish, makes several rescues, and prevents thousands of drownings each year.

The snow came down so hard we could hardly make out the door of the house on the side of the mountain in Utah, just a few miles from one of the least publicized and best ski areas in the country. As we stepped out into the bone chilling cold, we were ushered in. Bob Burnside, now in his upper 80’s, led our small group in to be greeted by an assortment of working and retired lifeguards from various beaches. Bob dove into a fierce political discussion with another octogenarian that escalated almost to blows as the night wore on. Apparently, this is a regular thing according to the other lifeguards. Bob is the first president and current unofficial spiritual guide for those of us who are involved with the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA). He skis every day and seems to have attracted a small, hard core group of surfers and lifeguards to switch their focus from riding waves and saving lives to carving frozen water. But every conversation eventually comes around to their years and years of saving lives or current issues in the lifesaving community.

The United States Lifesaving Association is America’s nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. The USLA works to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means. Our motto is “Lifeguards for Life”.

I don’t think I fully understood the meaning of the motto until recently. Whether you’re with a group of guards in houses in Veracruz or Utah, a surf club in Australia, or anywhere else lifeguards gather, there is a common understanding of the unique risks, sacrifices, joys, and challenges open water guards experience and face. And wherever you are you have family and a shared mission.

Lifeguards for Life

Foggy Days

Sitting in the lineup waiting for a wave, the small pack of surfers could barely make out the dark silhouette of the rock groin. The heavy fog and lack of wind made for an eerie scene. They could hear voices from surfers at the next groin and from people walking on the beach, even when they were speaking in normal conversational tones.

One surfer saw a dark mass looming in front of her and spun around to paddle into a wave. She popped up and cut down the smooth, opaque glass. She could feel the spray beating on her wetsuit and hear the hoots of the other surfers as if they were right next to her. Suddenly the rocks appeared before her. She kicked out and the rip current by the rocks pulled her back out to the lineup.

Having so much moisture in the air can be a bit unnerving because the water in the air conducts sound more than on a normal day. But surfing in the fog can be a great experience. Typically, on these days there isn’t a ton of wind and the air is fairly warm. Spring on the Texas coast can often be foggy, as the colder winter water interacts with the warmer air.

But fog can be dangerous because it’s so easy to get disoriented. On days where the sun doesn’t show through and there’s not a prevailing wind direction, once you’re outside of the surf line there are no references. Its easy to think you’re paddling to shore when you’re headed out to sea. A few of us train and race on something called a “surf-ski”, which is essentially a long, skinny kayak designed for the ocean. I learned years ago to always have a compass on my watch for times when a fog bank rolls in and I’m offshore. It only takes getting caught 2-3 miles offshore once to never forget a compass again.

For lifesaving, fog has special challenges. Even the simplest things can be complicated. This week we had to walk out on the groins to see what the surf conditions were, so we could set the flag color. Later in the spring we’ll have at least a few days were our trucks have to stop and walk out on each jetty to make sure there are no people getting close to the rocks. The other night we responded to a call where someone thought flares were set off in Offatt’s Bayou. It was so foggy our Supervisor couldn’t see anything. And the only boats that can search need to have radar and a GPS, and even then need to be extremely careful.

Fog is just another reminder how the winter months present challenges when going in the or on the water. The main thing to remember is that because there is less of a safety net and more things that can go wrong, you need to plan carefully in advance and take more safety precautions than normal.

Lifeguard Program

The first day I worked for the Beach Patrol was in 1983. I stood in the sand early in the morning waiting to get my radio which was passed to me out of our “Headquarters”, which was a smallish trailer in the sand next to the old pavilion on Stewart Beach. There were 17 of us on staff and we worked 6-7 days a week for about 10 hours a day with no organized breaks and no formal training.

Back in ’83 we had no Junior Lifeguard Program, no daily training exercises, no lifeguard academy, no classroom space, very minimal community outreach programming, and no real equipment that needed to be stored on the beach. But even back then we knew the importance of having our headquarters, as humble as it was, on the beach. People needed a central location that right on the beach that was close to the action. They needed a first aid station and a place to hand out daily equipment.

Fast forward 36 years. Our staff tops out at 135 during the summer. We have 5 jet skis, 12 patrol vehicles, a boat, and 3 UTV’s. We have space to hold equipment for work and training; and a classroom for a Junior Lifeguard Program of 125 that is on the beach so they can bounce back and forth between lectures and skills practice. Lifeguard training programs include a two-week long lifeguard academy, dispatch training, Supervisor/Senior Guard Academy, CPR, Emergency Medical Response and much more. Most of this involves running from the classroom to the beach and back repeatedly. On-line courses are held by computer for National Incident Command, Boater Safety, EMT and Law Enforcement recertification. We do classroom/beach courses for at risk, other first responders, and surf camp instructors. And every day before the lifeguards pick up their equipment they run, swim, paddle, and practice skills in the water, on the shoreline, and in the nearby classroom.

Our Headquarters, like pretty much every headquarters for reputable beach lifesaving programs around the planet, is right on the most populated beach. That way we can provide first aid and tourist information while acting as a resource and an informal tourist office for the city. Our dispatchers have a bird’s eye view on the busiest beach on the island and can spot for lost children, water emergencies, and problems developing, while keeping an eye on the lifeguards in the area to make sure they’re safe.

For those who don’t spend time on the busy beaches during the busy times its difficult to fathom the volume we deal with, how busy it is, and what an important role the lifeguard play in keeping everyone safe. For those who do, and who see all the training and structure required to get this done, it makes sense that we need to have our Headquarters where its been for the past decades. If we were not right there on the beach, and on a busy beach, we’d be far less effective in serving the public in such an efficient manner.

Spring Training

The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.

During the spring many agencies including Galveston, step up public education programs in order to do what we can to drown proof students before school lets out and millions flock to the beach. We have increased our numbers of agency reported public safety lecture contacts to the point where it’s almost a half million per year nationally, and locally were hitting over 20,000. Looking at drowning from a public health perspective, there is a concept called “herd immunity”. If the majority of people in a group are inoculated against polio, then the minority who are not have a drastically reduced chance of contracting the disease. By the same token, if a group of people have been educated in how to avoid hazards when they go to the beach, it is unlikely that other members of the group who have not received the “inoculation” of this information will run into trouble. The thing about this is that  there’s not any way to tell how many people our efforts save because they just go to the beach, have a great day, and return home without a problem. But we nonetheless know intuitively that all our collective efforts across the country in this area are making a difference. For example here in Galveston County it’s relatively rare that one of our own die from drowning.

Agency renewal ensures that we are all at least meeting minimum accepted standards when we train new guards and re-certify experienced guards. Since all USLA agencies meet the same standards when we train and certify guards, we are making sure the family that goes to the beach in Jersey, South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, California, or almost anywhere in the United States where they can swim near a lifeguard is protected by professionals who meet standards that ensures the safety of both beach goers and lifeguards. The Galveston Beach Patrol exceeds the national minimum standards by quite a bit.

Many of us tend to get busy in the spring with outreach, recruiting, training, prepping for junior guard programs, and dealing with special events and high beach use during times that our staffing may be less than full capacity. Many of our guards are working in conditions that can add even more risk, such as high surf or cold water. During these times we need to watch each other’s backs even more than when we have a full safety net around us. Our Beach Patrol full time staff works very hard to provide the training and educational tools that our many seasonal guards need when they join or return. That, a healthy respect for the water, agencies doing the best they can to train and equip guards properly, and all of us watching each other’s backs is a big part of protecting the protectors.

Japanese Coastline

We pulled up a little before first light and parked under an overpass. We sat in the van as the world turned slowly from black to dark grey. The guys spoke quietly in Japanese, but even without understanding the words I could detect an underlying tension and excitement to their voices. A big swell was reportedly hitting this section of the Japanese coastline and we’d driven the better part of the night from Osaka to be here. The beach wasn’t much to look at, just a thin strip of brown sand, but we could hear and feel the growling, vibrating surf with each pounding wave. As it got light enough to make out the surf, I could see we’d definitely hit the swell right on.

Onosan was the leader and not only did he have a successful surf shop, but he’d surfed professionally and had spent a couple of years on the world tour. In true Japanese fashion he had a whole possessed of disciples. As we paddled out through the big surf I stuck close to Onosan. There’s nothing like local knowledge and he seemed to know exactly how to find the rips to get out and how to time it perfectly between sets.

It was fully light by the time we made it to the outside. It was bigger than I thought and I had some serious butterfly’s. None of the disciples had made it all the way out but I spotted them on the inside break. None looked good but they were dropping in with no fear and a sore of reckless abandon. Onosan had taken a couple of big ones before I worked up my courage to drop in on a juicy 12 footer. After that , following him I started adjusting and catching good rides until I got caught in a close out and my leash broke. It was a long swim in and I had to detour around a fat rip current. But I switched out leashes and made it back out.

Suddenly I heard shouting. Several of the disciples were trying to get a swimmer to shore and he almost choked one of them who got too close. They had him on a board but that rip current was keeping them out while the waves pounded them all. A fire truck arrived and some guys in bunker gear yelled from shore. I paddled to them and we ended up swimming sideways out of the rip and eventually to shore. The guy was in bad shape and left in an ambulance. But the surfers spotted Onosan catch a nice tube on the outside and excitedly ran back into the water.

Hopefully that beach has a lifeguard service by now!

Winter Workout

You stand on the beach, wind whipping around you and easily penetrating your wetsuit. The air
temperature is in the mid 50’s, but the real feel temp is in the 40’s. It feels wrong to be standing
exposed, really wrong to be about to get in the water, which is in the mid 50’s.
The small group starts to jog down the beach. Because of the rubber hood sounds are different. Internal
sounds, like your breathing and heartbeat are uncomfortably loud, as is the wind. But everything else is
muted. As you run, your heels seem to make a metallic spring sound when they hit the sand. Your feet
are starting to get numb, so you are careful to avoid shells and bits of debris. You wouldn’t feel it if you
were cut.
Entering the water brings an involuntary sense of panic. Where your skin is exposed, there is sharp pain.
You force yourself not to turn back, but instead to take high steps until you get to chest deep water.
Piercing streams of water creep up your legs. Then comes the worst part.
You dive in and several things happen simultaneously. The water pours down your suit from the neck. As
it hits your chest you feel like you can’t breathe. But its hard to even think about that because the
source of the most discomfort is your face. You have an ice cream headache where your forehead used
to be. The skin on your face feels like ice is being rubbed on it. And when the water enters your mouth,
it hurts our gums and teeth. As you start to swim you take a breath, and ice-cold water pours into your
right ear and feels like it goes all the way into your brain. This is the point that you have to trust in mind
over matter. You tell yourself it will get way better in 100 strokes.
You reflect on the fact that wet suits only work when there’s a thin layer of water between your skin and
the suit. But when the water enters its basically the same as jumping in the water with nothing. So,
there’s a gap from entry until the suit gets water in it and the water is heated to body temperature.
There’s also an adaptation period for skin to adjust to the cold, but for water in the upper 50’s and
higher this will happen. Knowing all this and reflecting on it helps a bit. 5 minutes makes a huge
difference. Also, experience helps you know what wetsuit thickness and pieces to wear for certain air
and water temperatures, as well as activity levels. And you begin to trust that things will get better, even
comfortable, for as long as your body is able to continue generating heat.
After the hundredth stroke you realize that you feel ok and you can focus on the workout.
Doing this a minimum of once a week keeps our winter crew ready to make rescues in all types of
conditions.

Water Safety

Before you get to beach safety, there are a number of precautions that should be in effect. They are like the stepping stones you take before you even get to the point where you would swim in the surf. Water Safety USA is a national group composed of 14 of the major players involved in water safety and drowning prevention. Some of the groups involved include the Center for Disease Control, Corps of Engineers, YMCA, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, National Swimming Foundation, American Pediatric Society, Coast Guard, etc. I sit on this group as a representative of the open water lifeguards, the United States Lifesaving Association. 

With Water Safety USA one of the main things we’ve been working to achieve is common ground for water safety messaging. So we’ve been working towards coming up with shared messages that we all have in common. However, it’s not enough to give the same message different ways. We, as much as possible, are trying to use the same wording for messages we share so as not to confuse the public. One of the hard things about public water safety messaging in the USA is that there are so many groups putting out different messages. Sometimes it conflicts and sometimes the message is the same but we say it in such a different way that it’s confusing. We’ve so far agreed on a message about learning to swim, wearing lifejackets, and designating a “water watcher”. Learning to swim is really about swimming to survive, not about competitive swimming. But, as they say, swimming is the only sport that will save your life, so the focus is on getting to safety. Wearing lifejackets when boating or when in or around the water for non-swimmers and children is pretty obvious, but it also involves wearing the right kind of lifejacket. The wrong kind of lifejacket can float you face down, so that’s not too useful for non-swimmers or unconscious people. A water watcher is a term used for a person designated to have the sole responsibility of focusing on the people in the water. An example is if there is a pool party, one adult is always keeping an eye on the kids who are swimming. The adults could trade out but someone is always assigned to do that and just that. Talking, playing on the phone, or doing anything that could distract is not OK. 

All of these apply to going to the beach as well, but then you additionally would add things like swimming near a lifeguard and avoiding rip currents, which in our case here in Galveston typically mean not swimming near rock groins or piers.  

The plan for Water Safety USA is to continue looking for common themes, but we’re starting another, larger project as well. We’re starting work on a national water safety plan. Many of the developed nations have one, so there are plenty of resources out there. The goal is define strategies and set targets to reduce the amount of drownings we see in our country each year.