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Winter Dangers

We’re in our typical crazy winter Galveston pattern of weather now, so there are some important things to be aware of when on the water.

With recent water temps in the 60’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

When the air is warm but the water is cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. This week there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition as well as the Coast Guard are kept busy when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass areas. Some can be really close to shore, but have no idea where they are.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person in a reasonable time frame. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once when I was training on my surf ski a few miles from shore and a fog bank rolled in.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water! But with the proper precautions and equipment this is one of the best times of the year to get out there to enjoy your favorite activity on the water. Its uncrowded and beautiful. And this there’s no better way to connect with nature and disconnect from the daily grind.

Busy Labor Day Weekened

Labor Day weekend was interesting. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with sunny skies, blue/green water that was pretty flat all but Monday, and almost no seaweed, jellyfish, or sea lice. The concentration of people on Sunday was impressive with moderately good crowds on the other days. Sunday afternoon it took me an hour and a half to patrol from Stewart Beach to 91st and back, and the line to get into Stewart Beach was backed up onto the seawall.

Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were at their peak, we had several water related calls all happen simultaneously. We had several lost kids at Stewart Beach that we were looking for and the normal calls for guards and rescue trucks moving people away from hazardous areas. Then on top of all that we had a call for a boat wreck off of the end of the South Jetty with 5 people unaccounted for in the water. We also had a call of a possible drowning over by Murdoch’s pier where supposedly someone had seen the person go in and may or may not have actually witnessed them going under. And we had a jet ski on the west end that was floating around in the water without a driver. Any of these calls could have been pretty major, and we scrambled our resources around trying to get enough assets to respond to these potentially serious calls while still handling the normal stuff and while continuing to patrol and be proactive in preventing bad things from happening. It was about an hour of chaos and I think our poor dispatchers probably will have nightmares about trying to stay on top of all of it. But the Beach Patrol staff, and all the other responding groups, handled this crisis period really well. And fortunately, at the end of the hour, everyone was accounted for, on shore, and uninjured. We were able to go back to the normal level of holiday weekend chaos until a little after dark.

All told a the end of the weekend the combination of Beach Patrol, Wave Watchers, and the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team kept 12,562 people from getting in a dangerous position, treated 40 medical calls, reunited 15 lost children with their loved ones, and got all 250-300,000 beach goers back home safely. Not a bad way to end the summer!

Coming up we have an interesting study. Beach Patrol Lifeguard Supervisor and A&M Instructional Associate Professor Amie Hufton is spearheading a research project related to our drowning and rescue statistics. We’re real excited about this because we think it can give us a better idea of who drowns and how we can target those populations. Just as a little teaser we ran 5 years of drowning statistics and came up with some interesting information. Over that period, we’re looking at roughly 70% of those drownings (fatalities and survivals) being Latino, 22% Anglo, and 11% African American. Stay tuned for what Amie and her team come up with.

San Luis Pass Rescue

Daniel Gutierrez and Cameron Larson eased the jet ski up to Bird Island, which sits in the bay very near the San Luis Pass cut. A couple of people were stranded on the island because their jet ski had been caught by a falling tide and was stuck on the island. They found out about the people just as they were about to leave after a long day on the “Pass Patrol”, so fortunately were out there after regularly scheduled patrol times. Suddenly they received a call on the radio about swimmers in distress on the ocean side of the pass.

As they raced under the bridge and towards the beach front, they scanned for signs of people offshore. On their headset they heard that the west end patrol unit was headed out there as well “code 3” (using lights and sirens to get there as quickly as possible). As they came around the bend onto the beach front, they spotted two swimmers who were swimming out from shore. As they came into range, they realized that these swimmers were headed even farther offshore in an attempt to rescue two swimmers that were starting to go under. They also noticed a beach patrol truck pulling up and a rescuer running into the water with fins and a rescue tube. From there things happened quickly.

Daniel drove the jet ski close to the first victim, doing a quick practiced turn maneuver which launched Cameron towards the man, using the wake wave to push him the rest of the distance. He saw out of the corner of his eye that Cameron successfully made contact with the man, who they guessed was between 250 and 300 pounds. But he wasn’t able to do much to help Cameron since he had an issue of his own to deal with. A distance away, the man’s son was starting to go under water. He sped towards the kid and grabbed him in the nick of time, swinging him up onto the rescue sled. Once he made sure the child was OK for the moment he checked to see if Cameron was OK, which Cameron verified by the universal lifeguard hand signal of forming an “O” by putting your hand on your head. He returned the signal, and brought the child to Karina Villamil, who was swimming out to assist. Next he raced to check the first two swimmers, but Mary Stewart had been able to use the PA system in the rescue truck to get them to swim back to shore. Once they were all safe on shore Daniel and Cameron realized the father and son that they rescued were two of the several hundred people they’d already removed from the water in the prohibited swimming area.

By the time the dust cleared late Sunday night, over the 4th of July holiday the Beach Patrol moved 22,430 people from danger, responded to 60 medical calls, rescued 8 people, and responded to one drowning fatality.

Have a Safe 4th of July!

Hard to believe we’re already to the 4th of July holiday! Summer is flying by. We’re fully staffed, as are the other emergency services. But with up to 500 thousand visitors on the island this weekend, make sure you think of us as an added layer of protection and take protective measures to ensure your personal safety and that of your family. If you or yours are headed to the beach, remember not to check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway!

Finally, we’re seeing normal summer water conditions as opposed to the constant wind, surf and currents that have plagued us since early May. We’re also starting to see a slight increase in critters like jellyfish and stingray, but so far it hasn’t been above our threshold to fly the purple flag that warns of high levels of marine pests though. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or saltwater if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short-term event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

Stay far away from groins and piers to avoid rip currents. Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child, on boats, or wade fishing. One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, BBQ, and beer that brings this on? Don’t forget to hydrate the non-alcoholic way, wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses. And of course, avoid swimming on the ends of the island at the San Luis Pass or the Houston Ship Channel.

Forecast looks great. Should make for a great holiday weekend, so come on out to the beach. Just remember to swim near a lifeguard. We’ll have guards at all the towers from early morning until dark. So, stop by the tower and chat with the guard for the latest local beach info when you get there.

We really hope this holiday is a chance for you to spend quality time with family and friends and to remember how lucky we are to live here. Be safe and have a great 4th!

San Luis Pass Patrol

Halaen Betancourt was working our San Luis Pass Patrol last weekend and rolled up on a large group of adults and kids swimming in the ship channel. Most of them were in shallow water, with a few of them farther out. There was an area which was pretty shallow which was semi protected by an underwater curving peninsula that protected them from the worst of the strong tidal current that was flowing. Only the ones farther out in chest to neck deep water were in immediate danger of being swept into the deeper water. Haelen’s partner stayed in the vehicle and she walked over to talk to the adults in the group. The conversation went something like this:

“Hey how are you all? I just wanted to let you know that where you are swimming is really dangerous because of the strong tidal current. That’s why we post the signs that say not to swim and why there’s a city ordinance that prohibits swimming. Would you mind either not entering the water here, or moving to the beach front past the signs where it’s safer to swim?”

“That’s ridiculous! Were fine here. There’s hardly any current and we’re all good swimmers. We’re not moving.”

“I know it feels like it’s not dangerous and believe that you’re good swimmers but things change quickly here with currents and water depth changing with the tide. We’ve had several drownings over the past years so it’s now against the law to swim in these waters here. Would you please move to the beach front where you’ll be safer?”

Now, Haelen is a pro. She’s the daughter of Rudy Betancourt, who was a Beach Patrol Supervisor forever and was my riding partner for ten years. She also swam for the Galveston Island Swim Team under Beach Patrol Captain Tony Pryor for years, helped her dad with his umbrella business as a young kid, was in Junior Guards for 5 years, and has worked as a lifeguard for a long time. She doesn’t ruffle, knows the beach, and is great at conflict resolution. But even she had to threaten involving law enforcement so these people wouldn’t drown. But eventually she got them to stay out of the water, after much back and forth and enduring a lot of accusations and profanity.

That group was not atypical. It’s hard to convince some people to not do things that endanger themselves in general, but especially at the San Luis Pass. We have, up to this point this year, moved well over 7,000 people out of the water at The Pass. Not all of them cause as much of a problem as this group caused Haelen, but a significant number do.

But the extra headache and resources we, and our partner public safety and volunteer groups, spend down on the west end are very much worth the effort. Drownings have dropped very significantly despite increased usage. One has to wonder how many of those 7,000 people wouldn’t have made it back to shore if Haelen and her fellow guards weren’t there.

Upcoming Events!

Game time!

Tomorrow morning (Saturday, May 11th) at 7am Lifeguard Candidates will line up to attempt to become Galveston Island Beach Patrol lifeguards. Those that complete the swim will be interviewed, submit to a drug screening, and join our Spring graduates in a run-swim-run challenge. If they get through all these obstacles, they’ll start the 100 hours of training needed to “ride the pine” and work as a tower lifeguard. It’s not too late to tryout. Info is at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com/lifeguard . While all this is going on, returning guards who didn’t come back in the spring will be swimming, doing paper work, and taking the drug screening test. Many of them will then head out to work for their first day this season. We’re expecting 40-50 candidates to qualify for our lifeguard academy. These new guards will be a welcome addition. Not only have the crowds been unusually large for the past few weekends, but the busiest part of the year is almost on us and we need every trained and able-bodied lifeguard we can get out there to help keep the millions who visit the beaches safe.

Weather permitting there will be a lot going on this weekend with a paddle out ceremony for legendary G-town surfer Chris Hill, La Izquiera Surf Contest and Music Festival at the 91st street Fishing Pier, Bring Your Mom to the Beach Day Volleyball Tournament hosted by the Gulf Coast Volleyball Association at East Beach, Historic Homes Tour, and the Yagas wild Game Cook off. Next week is the annual Beach Review, and we’re only two weeks out from what is usually the busiest beach weekend of the year, Memorial Day Weekend.

The amount of preparation and training that has to happen each year to get all the seasonal staff, partner groups, and auxiliary staff members trained and re-trained is staggering. In addition to the Lifeguard Academy and Supervisor Training Academy within the next three weeks we’re also looking at a Dispatch Training Academy, Public Safety Responders Basic Water Rescue Course, Surf Camp Instructors Water Rescue Course, Park Board Police Firearms Requalification, and a Self Defense/De-Escalation class for our Wave Watchers. Additionally, on May 21st several first responder groups will join us for the annual “Mass Aquatic Critical Emergency Operation” (M.A.C.E.O.) at Stewart Beach. Joining us will be the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who will use the event as a training scenario. Additionally, the new “Tourism Pays” event will be done in conjunction with MACEO. Once the Beach Patrol and the entire beach safety net gets through all this training, we’ll be sharp for Memorial Weekend and the summer. And as anyone who visits the beach knows, we’ll need it!

One thing to watch for is our annual BBQ fundraiser which will be at the Press Box this year on Friday, June 14th. This has, for over 20 years, been the beach party of the summer, so block off your calendar. We need silent auction items, so if you’re in the giving mood contact Tricia at tlimon@galvestonparkboard.org .

Cinco De Mayo

In case you haven’t noticed this beach season started with a bang and has been rolling in like a freight train. Last weekend was packed, and this weekend we’re looking at Cinco De Mayo, which has become a big beach holiday. The following weekend will be another big one with Gay Splash Day on Sunday which can be a big event. That is also the weekend we start our May Lifeguard Academy, so if you know anyone that would like to be a beach guard this summer tell them tryouts are Saturday morning at 7 and info is on our website. We’d like to have 50 new guards so are hoping for a big turnout.

Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862. It’s a bigger holiday here in the US than in Mexico though and has come to be associated with the celebration of the Mexican-American culture. Here on the Texas coast it’s a huge beach family day.

Bill Bower is one of a small, hardcore group of guards who started working at first opportunity in March. Bill joined us first as a Wave Watcher volunteer, then decided that after a lifetime of swimming he’d have no problem qualifying as a lifeguard. In his mid-60’s, Bill sets a great example for our staff in all kinds of areas including commitment, discipline, tourist relations, and enjoyment of a great job with a great bunch of people. He’s been posted up in the 61st street area all spring working one of our busiest areas with ease. He can often be seen watching his water while chatting with all kinds of people enjoying his beach. That’s why its not unusual that he approached an elderly woman walking on the beach and, with his trademark big smile, said, “I notice you walking out here all the time. You should join Wave Watchers.” He said she looked at him with a blank expression. She then replied, “Sir, I walk and do Zumba every day.” He said he took a minute to absorb before the light bulb went on. He asked her how she kept from getting angry and slapping him. He went on to explain that he didn’t say “Weight Watchers” and told her that “Wave Watchers” is a volunteer group that assists the Beach Patrol with a number of things, but it a great fit for people that walk, fish, or even drive around the beach regularly. As the Chief Lifeguard for the Beach Patrol I have to say I really appreciate Bill’s good-natured approach. Instead of dealing with a PR nightmare we’re potentially looking at a new member to our Wave Watcher cadre!

So, buckle up! Its beach season again and looks to be a busy, busy year. Not telling what adventures and challenges lay in store for all of us who work or recreate on the beach. But Bill’s example of patience, humor, and respect will point us in the right direction.

Personal Water Crafts

This has been one crazy summer. We’re in August and there are still tons of people moving around, the water has been choppy to rough with some pretty strong rip currents, and our call volume has been equivalent to days in May or June. Last weekend we moved a couple thousand people away from rip currents, made a number of rescues, responded to several “possible drowning” calls and made the scene of a few boaters in distress. Our lifeguards have been knocking it out of the park and have both prevented and responded to hundreds of thousands of accidents so far this season. They have few tools to help them, most of this work is done with a simple rescue tube and set of fins. For some of the weird stuff that happens farther off shore or in the bay, we go to what has become a vital piece of equipment in recent history for any state of the art lifeguard service- the Personal Water Craft (PWC).
A PWC is a pretty unique vehicle. Because they use a jet drive to funnel water from the bottom of the craft and shoot it out of the back, they have some real advantages compared to a powerboat. They can run in really shallow water because there’s no prop. They also don’t have the danger inherent in a propeller churning when working or playing near the power source.
The Galveston Beach Patrol was the first lifeguard service in the country, and probably the world, to use the PWC as a rescue device back in 1984. We were given two Yamaha Wave Runners for some kind of promotional deal. We used them for patrolling and shepherding swimmers closer to shore but not so much for rescue. We hosted a meeting for the United States Lifesaving Association that year and let everyone try them out. The next year the Hawaiians figured out that you could attach a rescue sled on the back to pick up victims, and history was made. My buddy Brian Keaulana is justifiably credited with being the pioneer of PWC rescue. He and his team used one to make a crazy rescue in a cave on the north shore of Oahu that was videotaped and helped promote the effectiveness of the PWC as a rescue device all over the world.
Nowadays beach guards can drop a PWC in the water almost anywhere and be to a victim within seconds. We use a rescue sled to bring the victims in or use it as a working platform in the water. We can do anything on that sled from CPR to spinal immobilization. We have them placed all over the island during the day for quick access and every Supervisor is a certified rescue operator.
We still make the vast majority of surf rescues the old fashion way- swimming with a rescue tube and fins, or paddling out on a rescue board. But in many ways the PWC revolutionized longer distance surf rescue, and for better or worse, we’ve all grown very dependent on them.

San Luis Pass

At the San Luis Pass, the tide change flows through a gap only about a mile across. It bottlenecks and accelerates the tidal current tremendously. So roughly every 6 hours it changes directions and builds up to full strength. The entire pass is very dangerous, but there are two spots that catch the brunt of the current and are exceptionally so. On the Brazoria side, just on the north side of the bridge there is a little beach park. A point of sand extends into the pass, maybe 200 yards north of the bridge, that diverts the current, which results in a deep area right were the current pulls away from shore. On the Galveston side, the worst part is on the south side, where the beach makes the turn into the channel. There’s a point there where the current runs very close to shore, causing unbelievably strong currents and deep, deep areas. All that current and bottom change is a recipe for death for swimmers, but it makes for phenomenal fishing.
On the weekends in the summer we have a designated “San Luis Pass Patrol” who has the tough job of patrolling the Galveston side of the pass, keeping people out of the water where we’ve posted signs. Since we started the program, drowning deaths have dropped dramatically in that area.
One of our guards who worked out there last weekend was telling me an all too familiar story. He was at that dangerous point, trying to move some people wade fishing. He asked one man to stay out of the water and fish from the shoreline instead. He gave the usual information- “This is a really dangerous area because…. we’ve had a number of drownings in this exact location because….There’s a city ordinance that prohibits being in the water here….Fishing is fine but can you cast from the dry sand?…”. The man refused repeatedly saying basically that, “I’m a BOI…I’ve fished out here for years before the law was in place.. You get [insert important Galvestonian] out here to tell me …..Even though it’s dangerous for them it’s not dangerous for me because….”
This is a collective issue in our society. It’s like the guy that I asked to put his dog on a leash on a busy holiday at Stewart Beach. His response was, “But this is the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet.” That could be true, and the dog was really cute, but what about the rabid beast nearby? The fisherman may know what he’s doing. The dog may actually be on a “verbal leash”. But if we make exceptions for “special cases” where does it end?
If we each think that we can do what works best for us at the time- text while driving, park in the red zone, cut the line, drive where others can’t, swim in the rip current, or ignore any of the rules in place for our collective good and safety, where does that leave everyone else? Where does that leave our society?

Sailboat Rescue

It was an absolutely beautiful evening with clear skies and a stiff wind. The elderly couple and their neighbor sailed around the south jetty and prepared to watch a beautiful sunset. Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong when their boat began having problems and they started drifting uncontrollably towards the rocks.
At 02:13am our “On Call” supervisor, Nikki Harclerode, received a call from the Coast Guard. Apparently there was a 32 foot sail boat with three passengers that was in distress and not able to sail their boat away from the south jetty. The Coast Guard was nearby in a boat, but was not able to get close enough to effect a rescue. The three passengers were not in distress at the moment but were quickly drifting towards the South Jetty and were being tossed around by the waves. Two of the tree passengers were in their 80’s.
Joe Cerdas rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, grabbed his equipment, and quickly jumped in the rescue truck, as did Micah Fowler. They both knew that a call like this would quickly overwhelm any one person. Nikki Harclerode was the on-call supervisor and breathed a sigh of relief as she heard them on the radio. These are experienced lifeguards and they quickly devised a plan. Joe and Nikki grabbed the boat from our headquarters at Stewart Beach and Micah headed out to the scene to try to locate the boat in distress. Joe and Nikki launched the boat at the Yacht Basin and made it around the tip of the South Jetty at around 03:10. Meanwhile Micah located the boat getting pounded by waves, a little less than 100 yards offshore on the west (beach) side of the jetty, and only about 15 yards off of the rocks. The sail boat was in about 4-5 feet of water and was being tossed around by the waves.
Micah figured out that he could drive the whole way out on the east side of the jetty because sand has accumulated over there. He lit up the boat and surrounding area and called directions to Nikki and Joe as they rounded the tip of the south jetty and made the 2 mile run back to the boat.
When they arrived Joe and Nikki easily found the boat following Micah’s lights. The waves were beating on the boat, and it was very difficult to figure out how to get the people off safely. After making a couple of loops around the sailboat they decided to approach from the leeward side and use the pontoon of our boat to wedge against the sailboat. Joe is a very skilled operator and he was able to gently maintain contact while Nikki carefully brought the elder couple across and assessed their condition. By 3:40 the three people were carefully transferred to the Beach Patrol boat. The passengers were exhausted and beat up, but OK overall.
Joe and Nikki drove them back to the Yacht Basin where a friend picked them up.