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Join the Family!

Even though it’s still winter we’ve got just over a month before Spring Break is here. The beach parks kick off on March 8th, but the beaches will be getting busy before that. Our full-time staff, between patrolling, answering emergency calls, and putting the finishing touches on our lifeguard towers, are already starting to do a thousand little things to be ready when the beach pops. We’re prepping for our various programs that will get going in the spring including lifeguarding, Wave Watcher, supervisor and dispatcher academies, and Survivor Support Network.

As always we are hoping for a big turnout to the four lifeguard academies we’ll have this year. It’s been difficult filling the positions we have and covering the beachfront the past three years, even though it’s an amazing job that pays really well. Our two main academies are over Spring Break and the two weeks leading up to Memorial Weekend. Please help us by spreading the word and encouraging anyone you know that is interested to start swimming to prepare, and then to try out to beach a beach guard. The main obstacle to getting a job with us is making that minimum swim time. Our website has tons of info on it and even has sample swim workouts and training tips.

Another area that we’d love to have a big turnout for is our Wave Watcher Program. Wave Watchers go through a 20-hour free course that includes victim detection and beach safety information, CPR and Tourist Ambassador Certification, and information about working with local first responder organizations. After the training our Wave Watchers keep a trained eye out on the beach as they go through their normal life activities. Some are motivated to patrol set schedules and areas or help with lost children at the beach parks. Others just let us know if they see anything developing while they’re driving, walking, fishing, biking etc. This has become an integral part of our program as they are often out in areas or during times of the day that we’re not present. Several Wave Watchers are also members of the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and are trained to come to the aid of families in crisis when their loved ones are missing in the water. The Wave Watcher Academy will take place in April and we’re taking applicants now.

The other big program we have is our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp for kids 10-15 years of age which starts in early June. This program teaches lifeguard and leadership skills while we workout and do all kinds of fun activities and field trips. It’s very economical and we have scholarships available. Most importantly for us, these JGs are the lifeguards and leaders of tomorrow.

Whoever you are and whatever you do there is a way for you or someone you know to join our family. Get on our website or give us a call to find out more information.

We need you and Galveston needs you!

Rip Currents

Over the past few years a pretty vibrant dialogue going on worldwide related to rip currents and how to best keep people safe around them has been taking place. As you all (hopefully) know, a rip current is a channel of water moving away from shore resulting from waves, current and bottom topography. In Galveston they mostly occur near structures like piers or jetties. In Galveston, the USA, and in Australia approximately 80% of all surf rescues occur as a result of rip currents, so they’re the big dog when it comes to beach safety education.

In my work here and in my volunteer roles as President of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and the Secretary General of the Americas Region of the International Lifesaving Federation I’ve been involved in quite a bit of this dialogue. I also had the privilege over the past decade or so of representing the USLA in a task force that worked with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically Sea Grant and the National Weather Service, to come up with and improve upon a public education campaign about rip currents.

A Texas A&M researcher named Chris Houser did a pretty interesting study in Galveston and elsewhere. What was so groundbreaking about this particular study is that it wasn’t just focused on how rip currents work (where they exist and under which conditions, how fast they go, etc). He focused instead on something lifeguards care deeply about- what are peoples’ perceptions of what areas are safe and/or dangerous and how do we get the word out most effectively. He came up with some very interesting conclusions.

In a nutshell, only 13% of beachgoers that were surveyed could correctly identify a rip current. 87% of people preferred to swim in areas that had no waves breaking because they thought they were calm and safe. These areas are calm because no waves are breaking as a result of the rip current pulling the sand out. Also, only a third of those interviewed felt they could swim over 100 yards.

He mentioned that Galveston provides a lifeguard service that basically keeps people away from rip currents, but with most people visiting the beach not knowing which areas are safe and not being able to swim well, we definitely have our work cut out for us! Last year alone we moved around 200,000 people away from dangerous areas, the majority of which were rip currents near the groins and tidal currents at the San Luis Pass and the Galveston Ship Channel.

All this boils down to some very simple advice for you and your family when you visit the beaches in Galveston. Swim near a lifeguard so you have a trained set of eyes to catch it if you get too close to dangerous areas. Also, observe signs, flags, and warnings put out by the Beach Patrol and the National Weather Service.

Wishing you all safe holidays from everyone at the Beach Patrol!

Beach Patrol Safety Precautions

Last week I talked about how we deploy each day and some of the nuances of how we operate. There are some underlying principals that we follow that are related, in that they dictate how we operate with regards to safety of our employees and/or the beach going public. These give a look behind the curtain of how we make many of our staffing and operational decisions. I’d like to share a few of these with you.

We try to have at least a 1 to 1 victim to rescuer ratio. So, if there are 5 victims, we try to have a minimum of 5 rescuers respond and one additional one to stay on shore as a communication link and incident commander. There are times this is impossible and one of our guards must attempt to save two or more people. This is possible, but very dangerous for both the rescuer and the victims. We’ve had a couple of incidents in recent history where the guard was overcome, but fortunately help was close by. Making a water rescue is a risky thing and that’s a big part of why we try so hard to prevent situations from developing that could end up in a rescue.

Stretching our guards too thin is another risk. We attempt to ensure guards don’t work too many hours in a day or in a week. Exhaustion not only leads to inattention, but to a reduction in the physical ability we must maintain in order to work long days and undertake strenuous tasks, like a rescue. There are many things we practice that help, such as scheduling 4 guards for each three towers so one can work an early shift and then give breaks to the other guards later in the day.

Whenever possible we work in teams. Two people to a truck or guards working adjacent to each other allows us to watch each other’s back and protect the public when some of us are tied up with an emergency. This applies to the zone system of coverage we have with both vehicles and tower guards. If a truck is out for more than 5 minutes on something, the other vehicles shift coverage, so they always have every part of the guarded beach covered in case something else happens. The result of quick backup for guards or response to emergencies definitely saves a number of lives each year.

Finally, lifeguard health and safety is critical. It’s a big part of why the guards have a daily fitness and skills training session each day. There is a real cost to letting our staff get exhausted, dehydrated, or overworked. With lifeguarding it’s all about focus, and people can’t consistently pay attention when they’re burned out. The result of ignoring this has a clear result in number of injuries, staff retention, missed workdays etc. If a guard doesn’t come to work or isn’t sharp in this job, it’s a real different thing than feeling tired or listless at a normal job.

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!

Hypothermia

In last week’s column I mentioned the danger of hypothermia as a result of swimming in the cold beach water. While most of us know the basics of what hypothermia is there is specific information that could be helpful, especially when swimming during the colder months.

The Mayo Clinic describes Hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature”. This “dangerously low” body temperature starts at 95 degrees and is more severe the lower it gets.

Your system doesn’t work well when the body is at lowered temperatures. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart and respiratory system failure. Eventually it can cause death. Sounds scary right? Does this mean that every time your kid starts to shiver, he/she is going to have serious problems? Of course not. This may just be just an early warning sign for mild hypothermia.

The first thing your body does when its temperature drops is to shiver. What it’s trying to do is generate heat by causing movement. When swimming, this is the sign that it’s time to warm up. It may be a matter of just sitting in the sand for awhile then jumping back in the water on a warm day. Or when conditions are more serious this is the signal that you need to get out of the water and warm up, now!

Hypothermia is divided into three categories- mild, moderate, and severe.

The symptoms for mild hypothermia include shivering, hunger, nausea, fast breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate. As your temperature continues to drop and moderate to severe hypothermia kick in. Shivering eventually stops and you’ll start to show clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion (even to the point of trying to remove warm clothing) and eventually loss of consciousness, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing. Babies may have bright red, cold skin, low energy and a weak cry.

Warming a person with a more advanced case of hypothermia can be tricky, since you don’t want the cold blood in the extremities to rush to the center of the body. In these cases, you want to call 911 for professional help and to move the person as gently as possible in doors. Remove wet clothing and cover them in lots of blankets. Then wait for help to arrive.

Differentiating between mild and more severe cases can at times be difficult so, as always, when in doubt call 911. But for those cases that we all experience where we’re just shivering a little and our body temperature is near normal warm sun and maybe a hot chocolate is just the thing. Then get back out there and keep having fun!

The good news is that the water is warming up into the 60s, and soon will be comfortable for swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

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.

Beach Season is Here!

It’s was so nice all week to see good weather and everyone out enjoying the beach. There’s always such a quick transition from winter’s empty beaches to spring. Seeing kids on the playground at Stewart Beach, teens playing Frisbee or throwing a ball on the shoreline, people fishing and bird watching, and families along the shoreline is a great reminder of how lucky we are to live on the coast.

Last Saturday we started working seasonal lifeguards from the towers. Leading up to that we had a Supervisor/Senior Lifeguard Recertification Academy, Dispatch Certification Academy, and we started our new Lifeguard Training Academy, which runs all week till Sunday. I’m always impressed with the men and women who choose to go through the academy or to work during Spring Break instead of spending the whole week hanging out with friends. Every year I’m impressed with how dedicated our lifeguards are and how much they believe in our mission to protect people that visit the beach.

Another group that is impressive is our “Wave Watcher” corps. We had a meeting last weekend to talk about how to improve the Wave Watcher Academy, which will be held April 16-19th. This is a volunteer group that works with the lifeguards and spots people that could potentially get in trouble. They help find lost kids, and generally assist in lots of ways. They’re not obligated to do anything after their training course other than keep their eyes open when they go near the beach. But many of them go way beyond. Join us if you have time! Info will be on our website and social media shortly.

The cold front that came through early this week dropped it back down from 70 to the mid 60’s. Those few degrees really cut down the number of people who are in the water. The guards have been busy moving swimmers away from the rock groins, especially since there’s been a lot of current running parallel to shore. But if the water was a few degrees warmer most of the people hanging out on the sand would have been in the water.

Spring Break has changed through the years. We’ve been through periods where this was the place to party for college and high school kids. That definitely still exists, but we’ve really become more of a family destination. Some of that is no doubt due to the excellent marketing that’s been done for the island, which promotes a family destination with lots of options that include eco-tourism, fishing, surfing, horseback riding, historical tours, shopping, and visiting amazing destinations like The Strand, Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn,  and the Opera House. Other reasons for this shift are an ever more responsive police department and increased security at the beach with more of a presence than they had in the past.

Mardi Gras really is the kick off for the new tourist year, but Spring Break is definitely the sign that the beach season is here! Come to the beach and swim near a lifeguard!

 

Teamwork

Calvin Stevens Jr., a new parking attendant, rode his Segue up on the seawall. As he went through his normal routine of helping people park, answering questions about the island, and serving generally as a tourist ambassador he noticed something out of the ordinary. Looking down at the 53rd street groin, he noticed a young man inside the no-swimming area.

Calvin is new to the job but he’s no stranger to Galveston or the beach. His Father, Calvin Stevens Sr. has worked with me in the Park Board system since the late 80’s. He works as a supervisor in the Coastal Zone Management Department. He is very conscientious and serious about his work. Apparently this rubbed off on his son as well.

Calvin Stevens Jr. impressed me at a recent training we put together for “De-escalation and Self Defense Techniques”. I helped the world renowned Grand Master Ishmael Robles teach this course and noticed that Calvin was really focused and serious while still enjoying himself.

As Calvin saw the young man in the no swimming area he waved and yelled telling him not to go any deeper because it was dangerous and pointed at the signs the guy had walked around. The guy heard him but turned around and waded out into the water anyway. Calvin quickly called his Supervisor and told him to call Beach Patrol on the radio. As soon as the guy started walking deeper than his waist he dropped into the hole by the groin and was quickly carried out by the rip current. He struggled briefly then submerged.

Our rescue truck was only 4 blocks away and pulled up within seconds. They saw the guy collapsed on the shoreline. He had drifted out and around the groin and back to shore. He was laying there having trouble breathing and vomiting repeatedly. Our crew stabilized him and got him quickly into an ambulance. He survived and was released from the hospital the next morning.

Calvin has no responsibility to watch the water. He’s definitely busy enough dealing with the hundreds of tourists he comes in contact with each day. But he paid attention when we mentioned the issues with rip currents we have along the seawall. And he was alert and conscientious enough to notice the problem and do something about it.

One thing we’ve been trying to focus on in the Park Board is cross training and increasing communication between departments with the goal of creating a broader network of support for tourists and locals alike. Beach Patrol now teaches all parking attendants, park staff and others first aid and CPR. Along with that we cover topics like how to spot people in trouble and what to do. This de-escalation/self defense course was a trial that we want to repeat with the park staff. And now we are scheduling park staff to join for the rip current presentation of our upcoming Wave Watchers community program.

With people like Calvin Stevens this type of teamwork is a natural fit.  What a great person to represent Galveston!

Spring break Sand

If you’ve braved the seawall during Spring Break you’ve seen the beach getting bigger and bigger. It seems like every time I drive by they’ve made real progress. What a great deal for Galveston!

There will be a re-adjustment period as the sand settles into a natural state. The grain size of sand determines its slope. Beaches with big grains have a pretty severe inclination and those with smaller grains drop off more gradually. So those beaches you go to on the upper east coast or most places out west that have a big shore break (large waves breaking very close to the beach) would have big, chunky grains of sand. We have a fairly small grain size so it’s understandable that someone 20 yards from shore could be in waist deep water. This will also affect what occurs a short time after the new sand is placed. As the grains form a sort of lattice the beach goes from fairly level to having more of a slope. Most of the sand will still be there but the shoreline will appear to move closer to the seawall, then stabilize.

This new sand affects surfing slightly and has a fairly significant, though temporary, impact on water safety. Most of this is due to it essentially making the groins shorter.

Surfers will generally have to move out past the groin, meaning they no longer have the protection of the rocks and aren’t able to use the rip currents as sort of “free ride” to the outside break. Also the groins create really nice sand bars near the end for surfing. There will be a new sand bar forming farther out, but it will take awhile until the sand readjusts. This means mushy waves for awhile.

For the guards the shorter groins means that the lateral current, which runs parallel to the shoreline, won’t have as much to block it. It will run faster without as many obstructions. This means that people will drift to the rocks faster and more consistently. The rip currents are also stronger near the shore which will affect smaller people swimming closer to shore, like children.

Our guards will have to be even more pro-active than usual. They’ll have to keep people farther from the groins and the rips that occur near them. They’ll have to move faster when they get out of their towers to match the speed of people drifting. And they’ll have to watch for the effects of a steeper drop off, which includes deeper water closer to shore and a higher chance of rip currents in areas away from the groins.

You can keep yourself and others safe by staying extra far from the rocks and maintaining that distance. Stay closer to shore than normal and check with the lifeguard when you go to the beach to see if there are specific hazards in that area.

It won’t take long for the sand to shift into its natural state, but it’s always a good idea to swim near a lifeguard.