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2017 Rescue Wrap Up

There are still plenty of swimmers and an occasional person blown offshore when these fronts come through. In fact, last Tuesday, Brandon Venegas and Micah Fowler made a rescue of a kite boarder that had some equipment problems and couldn’t make it back in.

The end of the season gives us a chance to assess how we did this year and to recognize those who performed heroic acts or performed outstanding community service. Last Tuesday, while the rescue was taking place, some of us were at the monthly Park Board meeting giving awards.

First the 54 lifeguards who worked during the storm were recognized. Since most couldn’t be there we will save their framed certificates for our next “All Staff” meeting so they can receive it in front of their peers. Then the guards who performed high water/urban flooding rescues were recognized. Their award is a framed certificate and a Beach Patrol “Challenge Coin” for meritorious acts of bravery. Those who worked the urban flooding were: Dain Buck, Joe Cerdas, Daniel Fleming, Micah Fowler, Michelle Gomez, Mason Healy, Austin Kirwin, Gave Macicek, Sam Toth, Alec Vaughn, Tyler Vaughn, Brandon Venegas, Tony Pryor, me, Park Board Coastal Zone Management department’s Larry Smith, and Joey Walker.

There were three rescues that really stood out this summer. The first was an incredible spot and rescue by Juan Figuerroa from 37th of a group of three in the rip current at 33rd. He rescued one that was actively submerging.

The second was a group of 3 way out by the Pleasure Pier T-head spotted by our Lieutenant of Administration on her way home from the office. She swam out through large, choppy surf and stabilized the group at the head of the rip current until Joe Cerdas made it out on a rescue board and brought them one by one through the surf. Few people could have made the spot of those little heads way out close to the west side of the pier as they drove east to west. Even fewer could have managed to power through that nasty, rough surf and brought people in without mishap through the same surf while navigating around the rip.

The final one also occurred as a very nice spot from the 37th street tower to the rip at 33rd early in the morning before all the guards were out. David Garcia called it in and ran down to find two groups of three. He kept one group afloat which included an unconscious man. I arrived first with Lifeguard Camilo Murillo. Camilo went to the second group and was later assisted by Hallie Pauling, to bring all three to safety. David passed the unconscious person to me, brought two to shore, returned to help me bring the last one in as I gave rescue breaths.

All in all this is one of the busiest seasons we’ve had with rough conditions and big crowds most of the summer. But, as always, our crew rose to the occasion.

 

Lifesaving and the Future of Drones

Drones are a hot topic right now in a lot of areas, but the international lifesaving community is becoming more and more interested in them as we look to see the newest developments. It is however hard to separate fact from fiction in a world where a YouTube video can go viral and become “fact” simply because there are so many people that see it and it takes on a sort of critical mass.

Over the past few years there have been a number of internet hoaxes related to lifesaving and drones. Usually the story is that a drone manufacturing company is testing a drone in an area working with the national lifeguard program. These drones reportedly can drop some type of floatation device, such as an inflatable ring buoy to a person in distress in the water. In the videos a person is in the process of drowning and, just as they submerge the flat falls magically within their reach. Then, even more magically, the person has the presence of mind to swim a couple of strokes and grab the buoy. Through the work I do with the International Lifesaving Federation, some of these stories come across my desk to look into. So far, when I’ve followed up with the national lifesaving groups in Brazil or Venezuela or wherever else, they’ve turned out to be clever marketing ploys with no basis. But that may change soon.

Drones are being used already in some beaches for overhead surveillance. They fly regularly at a couple of beaches in California for shark spotting. They’re used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. But actual rescue or search and rescue activities appear to still be a little out of reach. The drones that are within the range of most lifeguard programs budgets typically have a flight time of 20-30 minutes, can’t carry much payload, and don’t operate in winds over 20 miles per hour. My guess is that when the cost goes down a bit and agencies can get their hands on drones that have an hour or more of flight time in rougher conditions this may change and they’ll be helpful when looking for missing people.

There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, then grab them and tow them to shore. Even that they could initiate CPR and maintain until first responders arrive. Still seems a bit like science fiction, but we’re probably not too far away from some real developments. Real enough that the International Lifesaving Federation is starting the conversation about how this type of technology could augment some of the more progressive and resource rich lifesaving services around the world. Even now, larger drones that look like mini airplanes are being used for mountain rescue and are able to drop survival packages to people. In places like Australia they are being used as a way to keep an eye on remote beach locations that lifeguards don’t regularly cover.

Double High Tides

Last weekend was the final day for the seasonal lifeguards to work. This means no more towers or tower lifeguards until next March. We’ll still have patrol units staffed with our fulltime guards out until December, and they’ll be back out patrolling on February 1st. We’ll also respond to 911 calls anytime day or night as we do all year long. But it’s a really good time to remind your family, friends, and loved ones about the basics for beach water safety.

The main thing to remember is that rip currents, which pull away from the shore out to sea, are generally strongest and most prevalent next to structures like rock groins and piers. So be sure if you swim to stay far from these areas and remember the longshore current will pull you parallel to the beach. Pick a fixed object well away from the rocks and use it as a reference point. If you can’t just walk or swim in place, come to shore periodically and walk back down to the area you want to stay in. Also remember not to enter the water at the ends of the island. The ship channel and San Luis Pass both have very strong tidal currents. These areas both have a history of drownings and should be avoided. If you fish, fish from shore.

Lots of people have been talking about the high tide event we had over the past couple of weeks. Actually there were two high tide events back to back and we saw almost 4 foot above normal tides at times. Both the beach and bay were really full and we even experienced minor flooding on some roads and elsewhere. There were several factors that at times combined to cause this:

  1. Full Moon- when the moon is full, it exerts greater gravitational force on the ocean, causing a higher than normal high tide.
  2. East Wind- When the wind blows to Galveston from the east or southeast it blows across a greater distance of water than from the west. This piles the water up ahead of it causing the tides to be higher than normal. So a stiff east wind blowing for a few days can typically cause both the high and low tides to be a foot or more above what a tide chart (astronomical tides) would indicate. The week before Hurricane Nate came through had both a full moon and east winds, so we saw tides up to 3.7 feet above the average (mean) tide.

-3. Storm Surge- Nate’s spinning pushed water ahead of it which caused a storm surge. This repeated the event of the 3.7 foot above normal high tides.

There were times over the past couple of weeks that two or three of these factors combined to cause tides that were much higher than normal. It was a pain in some ways but sure did keep people that fish and surf happy! Perfect clean waves and sunshine were a great way to close out the guarding season.

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.

Pleasure Pier Rescue

The waves weren’t that big but there was a steady current running from east to west. After clearing the Pleasure Pier, it made a wide long loop to shore and, on the inside, pushed west to east. The new sand with its steeper drop off caused the waves and current to pile up and push offshore and towards the pier.

The three people shared two inner tubes between them as they entered the water between the Pleasure Pier and the groin at 27th street. They floated along and were unknowingly pulled towards the Pleasure Pier and out in a strong rip current. Waves and current mixed about half way out causing really choppy conditions. They tried to paddle towards shore but it was a hopeless battle. As they neared the end of the pier they really started getting scared and began to panic.

Lieutenant Kara Harrison runs the administrative arm of the Beach Patrol. Although not required to by her job description, she chooses to maintain her training, swimming , and skills each year. She re-qualified her lifeguard skills earlier this year and maintains them.

Kara was on her way home at the end of her shift from her office at Stewart Beach. As she passed the Pleasure Pier, her experienced eye caught a glimpse of three heads way, way out near the “T Head”. She called in that she was going in on three swimmers in distress.

Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas and Supervisor Gabe Macicek were at 10th street when the call dropped. They flipped on their lights and sirens and headed quickly to the area. Gabe maintained radio communications and Joe grabbed a rescue board and headed out to help. What followed was nothing short of amazing.

Joe is a full time Supervisor and a gifted “waterman”. He is our top paddler and stands out as a top athlete in an organization of incredibly gifted athletes. His rescue board cut through the chop and current like a hot knife through butter. One of the group had drifted off on an inner tube while Kara struggled to maintain her ground with the other two. He brought the first victim to shore and looked back out.

Meanwhile Kara was using her rescue tube and one of the inner tubes to keep the victims stable. She swam hard to keep them from drifting into the waves that piled up near the pier. They were ok for the moment but were unable to make progress towards shore.

Joe powered back out and took another victim in. Kara, with her lightened load, was able to make progress into the rip current and was about half way in when Joe relieved her and took the third victim back to shore.

Back on shore they heard the rare words lifeguards love to hear from a person they saved:

“If it wasn’t for you guys we would never have made it back in. You saved our lives”.

Kudos to Kara and Joe for an amazing rescue!

Mary’s Rescue

Last Saturday we almost lost several lives, including one of our lifeguards.

The incident started relatively harmlessly. 5 people were swimming between the Pleasure Pier and the 27th street groin. There was a spot where there was a very weak rip current. A gentle drift that pushing offshore. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But the 5 people were having a bit of difficulty returning.

The lifeguard from the nearest tower went to check. When the rescue truck made the scene they called in that no one was in distress but that Supervisor Mary Stewart was going to go in and help the guard move them closer to shore.

As they do at times, things escalated rapidly. Three of the victims, escorted by the tower guard’s made it in with minimal help. This is normal stuff. Two of them, a child and a man who went to help the group to shore, were floating on Mary’s rescue tube as she towed them to shore. It was, at this point, a simple rescue like the multitude our guards make each year.

But suddenly Mary was pulled underwater. It seems that the man started panicking. She was instantly catapulted from a situation where she was making a routine rescue, like she has done scores of times in her 11 year career as a lifeguard, to a struggle for her very life and the life of the two people she was trying to help.

As she tried to hold the child up she grappled with the man. There were times she felt like she’d have to make the choice between letting go of the child to try and save herself, or giving up and going down. All three lives hung in the balance.

In Mary’s words, “…someone’s life was slipping from the palm of my hand, as I struggled to maintain mine. The feeling of being someone’s only hope to live, while trying to hold onto your [own life] at the same time is indescribable. In an instance your whole life flashes before your eyes; every struggle, every tear, every laugh, every smile. You don’t realize your own strength until you come face to face with your greatest weakness.”

In the end, her grit, training, fitness level, and fellow lifeguards gave this near tragedy a happy ending. Everyone made it to shore and lived to tell.

Every lifeguard who works enough time faces what Mary faced. A moment when you realize that fitness, training, and good intentions only get you so far. You have to dig deep beyond the physical part of you and draw strength from…somewhere else. And then, after passing though the crucible, you realize what you are and what you are actually capable of.

Mary later wrote, “For those of you fighting unbearable battles or drowning in despair- refuse to give up, refuse to sink… Your real hero is right there holding on to your…hand. And if you hold on long enough , you may just get the chance to be [a hero yourself.”

Brian Kyle Letter

Brian Kyle, who is the Lead Meteorologist for our local weather office, wrote the following:

Whistles were going nuts on the beach. Initially, I didn’t think much of it. I figured it was the Galveston Island Beach Patrol directing unknowing swimmers away from one of the many rock groins where deadly rip currents are frequently located.

But something was different on that afternoon. I was pushing my daughter into waves on her surfboard that day. The whistles kept going. And going. And going.

I glanced toward the beach and saw people pointing to the horizon. Near the end of the groin a 3-4 year old boy was thrashing & panicking as he was caught in a rip current. I pushed my daughter in on a wave and I swim over to help. As I got there the lifeguard was already arriving! The boy’s panicking mother nearby as well! The guard rescued the boy. I took off my rashguard and handed one end to the mother.

There are several things that stand out to me. First, I thought about how well trained, fit, and proactive the lifeguards are. They love what they do and are humble. (I’ve been told by multiple career lifeguards about rarely being thanked for saving lives!). I also think about the training I’ve learned from them – don’t become a victim yourself by trying to save someone – hence giving the woman my shirt instead of my hand.

Another thing is we both kind of knew this type of scenario would have a pretty good chance of happening that weekend. I work for the National Weather Service. Our office had been watching computer models indicating the potential for nice, warm weather but probably also above normal waves. Peter Davis and his crew at Galveston Island Beach Patrol knew that combination would be cause for concern. They knew favorable weekend weather early in the beach season would draw large crowds. But they also knew many visitors would be unprepared for the surf.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol has served as an exceptional partner to the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service Forecast Office since the 1990’s. During this time period, the lifeguards have served as hazardous weather observers and have reported timely beach conditions and rip current information to our weather forecast office on a routine basis (now daily).

This has made our job easier as coordinated information, statements, warnings from both agencies have played a critical role to the mission of safeguarding and protecting the lives of the five to seven million patrons that visit beaches along the upper Texas coast each year.

In addition, under the leadership of Chief Peter Davis, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol contributions have played key roles to the NWS research community, and have also helped shape the local and national rip current and lightning awareness programs.

In recognition for the exceptional service and contributions they provide, both locally and nationally, the National Weather Service presented Galveston Island Beach Patrol a Special Service Award on September 22nd for their much appreciated efforts!

Sandbars

I got an interesting call from a local woman who told me to write about what it means to “step off a sandbar” and why that can cause someone to drown. The woman, now in her 90’s, said when she was young she had to hand her 3 year old to someone else and trust him to bring her child to shore when she “stepped off a sandbar” herself.

Most of what we focus on in beach safety involves rip currents. Rip currents, responsible for 80% of rescues in the ocean (and presumably drownings) run roughly perpendicular to shore and are formed when water brought in by waves has to find a way back out past the surf zone. In Texas our strongest and most predominant rip currents are formed near a structure like a jetty. This is why we recommend people stay away from the rocks and why we post our towers on the seawall near the groins. If you’re caught in one, float with it and you’ll likely return to shore on your own. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore, but never try to swim directly into a rip current (directly to shore).

The phrase “stepping off a sandbar” refers to times when someone is standing in relatively shallow water and currents or waves push them from the shallow sandbar into a trough where the water is deeper. Just as is the case with rip currents, if you simply relax and float you’ll be fine, but bad things happen when people panic or choke on water.

At our beaches we have a sandbar and trough system, both of which run parallel to the shoreline. As you walk into the water from shore you’ll step into deeper water, then shallower water, than deeper, shallower, and so on. Gradually it gets deeper and deeper but we have 4-5 sandbars and troughs before it gets deep enough for the bottom to level off. The sandbars farther from shore need bigger waves to break on them but the first couple are easy to spot by the breaking waves even from shore. Waves break in water about 1.3 times their height, so an experienced guard or person can tell water depth by looking at the waves. The waves don’t break in the deeper water so the troughs are calm looking areas between the sandbars.

The difference in depth between the sandbars and troughs is exacerbated by long shore current, which runs parallel to shore. The longer and harder it runs, the deeper the troughs. Generally when the current lets up the bottom levels off to normal in a couple of days, but this past week it was so calm that the normal “jiggling” of the bottom sand didn’t happen and there was a neck deep trough very near the shoreline all week.

Generally the most important way to be safe is to swim near a lifeguard, but it’s also a good idea to stay in shallower water than you would in an artificial environment.

Puerto Rican Beach Story

Wispy clouds scudded across blue Puerto Rican sky as the woman entered the water to cool off. 10 steps into the water the bottom disappeared. Surprised, she swam to the surface and began to swim back to shore. To her dismay she found herself being pulled out to sea despite her efforts.

The current ran, as it normally does from right to left down the beautiful Puerto Rican beach. As the farthest point on the left side, in front of a beautiful 4 star resort, there was a rock groin and breakwater that extended out into the ocean. Just like in Galveston, there is always a rip current by the rocks.

Suddenly, as the woman was pulled near the rocks, she hit a turbulent area. A wave broke over her head. Coughing and sputtering she made it back to the surface, but she’d choked on some water and found it hard to breathe. Panic gripped her as she realized she couldn’t make it back, and she was disoriented by the rough sea. She thought about her children and husband up in the hotel room. She remembered a load of laundry that she’d left in the dryer back in her New Jersey home, and then wondered why that would occur to her. The realization that she would not survive this event hit her like a punch to the gut. She struggled harder despite having trouble breathing. She quickly tired and felt impossibly heavy. She started slipping under water.

The resort offered all kinds of amenities, but the main draw was that it sits right on a very beautiful beach. The designers and investors thought about every little detail so their guests would have the ultimate experience. Every little detail but one. It sits right in front of a permanent rip current, and rip currents are the cause of 80% of ocean rescues (and likely ocean drownings). They didn’t plan for a beach safety program for their guests. Like many resorts around the world, this one was placed on a beautiful beach without thought to the safety of the beach itself.

Just as the woman slipped beneath the surface strong hands grabbed her. She found herself floating on a ratty old boogie board as a man yelled in Spanish and kicked her back to shore. Upon arriving to safety the man walked off and she sat down numbly. After a time she looked around and saw the man selling coconuts to tourists out of a shopping carts. Behind him under a bench she saw an old sleeping bag.

This beach sees about 10 drownings a year, usually rich tourists. The man selling coconuts averages 5 rescues a day. Partly because of the success of Galveston’s beaches, I’m part of a small team from the United States Lifesaving Association working up a proposal to combine private sector funding with governmental management of a beach patrol there. Until then, our hero, who is 62 years old, will hopefully be hard at work…

 

Image by cogito ergo imago.

Late Summer Safety

Late summer brings some real significant changes to the beachfront that can impact what you need to do to stay safe. In spring and Early to mid-summer we are almost overwhelmingly concerned with rip currents and keeping people out of them. As we move into hotter weather and calmer water conditions other concerns come into play as well. With a few safety precautions you can avoid most or all of these.

To be clear, rip currents are the primary safety concern on the beach year round. The current running perpendicular to shore that is generally found near the rock groins is a constant hazard. It pulls offshore and takes sand with it leaving a trough. Even on the calmest of days you want to avoid swimming or wading near structures that stick out into the water, obey warning signs, and swim near a lifeguard that will remind you if you slip up. If caught in a rip, stay calm, call or wave for help, and just float. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore until you get out of the rip current and then to shore. If someone else is caught in one don’t go in after them. Call 911 or signal a guard, throw a float or rope and/or extend a reaching object to them.

But now that we’re in a calmer weather pattern and the heat has hit be sure and take precautions for the heat and sun. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothing, apply sunscreen with a high SPF rating, wear protective glasses with a high UVA and UVB protection, drink plenty of fluid, and seek shade periodically. If you feel weak, dizzy, or disoriented and have paler than normal, clammy skin you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Get cool and out of the sun, drink fluids, and self-monitor. If left unchecked this can lead to heat stroke, which is an extreme emergency. If you stop sweating and have hot, dry skin and a reduced level of consciousness it’s critical that you cool down and get to a hospital as soon as possible.

When the water gets calm lots of critters can move closer to shore unmolested by heavy wave action. We’ve seen a drastic increase in stingray hits the past couple of weeks, including a couple of lifeguards. The barbs are loaded with nastiness and usually break off under the skin causing certain infection. Treatment is lots of heat on the puncture site which alleviates the pain rapidly. You should always seek medical care so they can check if there’s a broken off piece of the barb in there and start you on a course of antibiotics. The good thing about stingrays is that they’re easily avoided. Shuffling your feet when in shallow water lets sting rays and a bunch of other critters know you’re in the area so they can make a quick getaway. After all, if some giant, weird looking creature tried to step on you, wouldn’t you fight back however you could?