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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.

Hypothermia Story: Part 2

In last week’s column I talked about a young girl who suffered the effects 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 be just an early warning sign for mild hypothermia. Read on..

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 has risen almost 15 degrees and is now getting in the zone of comfortable swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

Hypothermia Story

Many of you probably remember the story from a couple of weeks ago about the little girl who suffered mild hypothermia after swimming in the beach water on a day when the water was 58 degrees over Spring Break. I was fortunate to have a long conversation the other day with her mother and found out there was much more to the story than we originally thought.

The details will be of interest to all parents who take their children swimming in the cooler months. From what I gather the mother and father of the little girl didn’t do anything different than any reasonable and careful parent would do- and they still had a pretty close call.

The family stayed at a hotel on the seawall. The dad took their 12 year old girl across the street to the beach. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but sounds like there may have been another kid or kids involved. It was a beautiful, sunny, warm day and they set up on the beach while the girl went swimming. She was in the water for about half an hour and then came out chilled. She’s a thin and very athletic girl without a lot of body mass. Dad brought her back to the hotel and the kids were playing in the heated pool and then went to the hot tub to re-warm since the girl was still cold.

The parents became concerned when the girl couldn’t warm back up. Her hands stayed white and she was blue around the mouth. At one point the girl lost vision. Rescuers were called and stayed with her until she warmed back up and was feeling back to normal.

Upon hearing the mom’s account directly I was struck by how this story had an almost serious outcome even though the parents did nothing irresponsible. It’s rare that we have a sunny day in the 70’s while the water is so cold. Normally people that swim in cold water warm back up easily. The combination of the girl’s body composition and water temperature were no doubt contributing factors. My guess is that she was having so much fun and the air temperature was so warm that she didn’t pay attention to warning signs as they developed. It’s also probably rare that she swims in water that cold, so neither she nor her parents realized her limits. People vary greatly in how resistant to hypothermia they are. There are many contributing factors so the same person swimming in the same temperature on two different days may react differently.

The problem and danger here is that the way you treat mild hypothermia versus more severe cases varies considerably. Normal things we all do to warm back up when we experience normal mild hypothermia can actually be dangerous for more severe cases.

Fortunately, this case ended up fine and was merely a learning experience and a chance to warn other parents how to avoid a similar incident. Stay tuned for a follow up with more specific information…

Spring Break Update

Spring Break has been interesting this year. So far we’ve had quite a few people down on the island but the weather has alternately been very near perfect or awful. But every time the sun comes out the beaches suddenly fill up so there definitely are people here on the island.

Last weekend the water was in the high 50’s which kept lots of potential swimmers on the beach laying in the sun or making sand castles. But, contrary to predictions, the weather was beautiful with sunny days in the 70’s. Definitely Spring Break weather! We had very few incidents despite the crowd. Since that time, the water has warmed up quite a bit. We did beach water swims both Sunday and Tuesday morning and the water went from 58 to 64 in just 3 days.

Looking back over the last few months we’ve gotten quite a lot accomplished due to the hard work of our full time employees. Supervisor/Officer Kris Pompa singlehandedly has given water safety talks to over 9,200 kids in the area. Supervisor Mary Stewart made 18 recruiting trips to high schools, colleges, and community events. Supervisor/Officer Josh Hale has done a number of enhancements on our website including putting a recruiting video on the home page and a water safety information video under the “Beach Safety” tab. Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas has repaired all of our rescue boards and led the charge in refurbishing our lifeguard towers. And our newest full time employee, Supervisor Lauren Holloway, is nearing completion on the first phase of our virtual lifeguard museum project for the website.

We’ve also got some exciting enhancements on the beach for this season. Last year in the Fall we placed rip current warning signs and doggie bags at the base of every place you can access the sand along the seawall. The Park Board Tourism and Development Department designed accompanying signs that we’ve placed right beneath the rip current signs. These signs are attractive, bilingual signs that inform the public about the most important rules. There are icons to let you know to keep pets on a leash and to clean up after them, to not use glass containers or drink alcohol, and that prohibit camping and open fires. This is a game changer in letting the public know what the expectations are. Most people want to do the right thing and will comply if they understand what’s expected. Additionally, when we don’t let the public know the rules it’s awfully hard to enforce them.

Starting Memorial Weekend we will be patrolling the west end every day of the week instead of just weekends. We’ll also continue the special weekend San Luis Pass Detail that keeps people out of those dangerous waters and gets them home safely.

Finally, we will be starting a new program where at 10am on the Saturday of each holiday weekend we will give free public beach safety seminars at strategic locations along the beach front. More to come on that…