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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.

Dust Devil

Lifeguard 3 Michael Lucero was working the early shift at Stewart Beach last Sunday. It was looking to be a slow day with rain in the Houston area and not many people moving around on the beachfront yet. He watched over maybe 50 people on the beach, with 10 or so in the water.

Since Lucero came to work with us I’ve always been impressed with how attentive and responsive he is. He’s always been really good about being proactive when he works in the tower. He trains hard and regularly, and he is consistently very nice and patient with our beach goers. He took the initiative to train as a dispatcher and this summer he did just as good a job coordinating 32 lifeguard towers, 7 rescue trucks, and a couple of mobile units (UTVs) simultaneously.

He did not disappoint when one of the more unexpected things possible happened Sunday. He came on the radio calmly letting his area supervisor know that a funnel cloud was developing behind his tower to the north. He then just as calmly called in that the funnel cloud had touched down in the parking lot of Stewart Beach and that he was going to move people out of the way.

We have dust devils all the time in the late summer. Usually they’re just strong enough to blow sand in people’s eyes and might uproot a couple of umbrellas. This wasn’t that.

When I got on site I could see the swirly tracks in the sand and it looked like the thing had barreled through with a diameter of about 15 yards. Witnesses reported that, as it came through the parking lot, about 10 of those heavy blue beach trashcans were swirling in the air maybe 30 feet off the ground. It blasted through the umbrella line and reportedly the umbrellas were converted to spear like projectiles while about 20 or so spun around and around.

These same witnesses all said basically the same thing. Before they knew they were in danger, Lucero first cleared the people in the water, and then moved the people on the sand out of harm’s way firmly and efficiently. When it was all over and he surmised that there were no injuries he stepped back up into his tower, called “Tower 6 back on location.” and resumed his duties of overseeing the public.

Obviously this could have gone a whole different way. But Michael was the perfect example of how we want our lifeguards to respond to emergencies. If they’re alert and proactive they can prevent injuries or worse before people even realize they’re in danger. He was quick in his thinking and in his actions without a lot of fuss. And it paid off!

As we look at the next few weeks and associated storm potential, let’s try to follow Lucero’s lead. Make sure you’re ahead of the game if the time comes to act. If officials put out warnings that recommend evacuation do so early and efficiently. And stay safe!

Tower 47 Rescue

Mark Porretto was helping out with the beach service umbrellas early in the morning one day last weekend at 47th. You may recall that the water was extremely rough, and on this day the current was running from west to east with big surf. Mark and I grew up together on the beach. He’s a long time surfer, has worked countless hours on his family’s beach, and even in his 50’s is an incredible athlete who routinely competes in stand up paddle events. I mention this because it’s a very important part of the story.
The Beach Patrol has three shifts of lifeguards. The main one is later in the day when crowds are highest. The early one starts at 7:45am and, after the mandatory skills training session every guard does every day they work, they arrive at the towers before 9:15. The morning shift staffs towers that traditionally have early morning crowds that last all day and into the night. Places like a tower at Stewart Beach and East Beach, 61st, 59th, 53rd, 51st, 37th, and 29th get the early shift on the weekends. Then, when the other guard arrives at midday, these early guards do lunch breaks for 3 towers and rejoin the other guard in their original tower for the busiest part of the afternoon. After 5pm one guard takes care of each tower until dark.
When Mark arrived at 47th there was no lifeguard on duty. He spotted two heads very near the rock groin on the west side. Because of his experience he quickly figured out that they were caught in a rip current. He was quick thinking enough to know to grab something that floats, in this case his surfboard, and quickly paddled out to the two people. Keeping the board between himself and the victims, he got them stabilized on the board. Once they were calm enough he paddled them out past the end of the groin and let the long shore current take them around the end, past the rip current on the other side. He brought them to shore and made sure they were OK before continuing to set up the umbrellas. A little while later he saw another person drifting towards the rocks and did it all again a second time. Three people that very likely could have drowned if Mark had not been quick to spot the problem and had the skill set to effect the rescue.
Mark is a hero and this is not the first time he’s rescued people in the water. But for those who encounter this type of problem but don’t have the skill set or the physical ability to do this there is another, much safer option. We recommend strongly that you don’t enter the water to help someone drowning. Better to throw or extend something. At the end of each groin there is a rescue box that contains a ring buoy and throw bag. Grab the rope and throw the ring and call 911. We’ll be there quickly.

Big Crowds

The Beach Patrol has had a rough season so far. Much of this has been covered in the news and I’ll cover some of this in a future column. But last weekend we saw what is probably the busiest weekend we’ve had in a few years. Many have attributed this to the news stories that happened during and after Memorial Weekend. Others say it’s because we had such a cold spring and everyone was chomping at the bit to get out to the beach. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the combination of crowds and rough weather stretched us to our absolute limits.
At one point of the day we had 4 major calls going on simultaneously including two “possible drowning” calls, a boating emergency, and a CPR in progress call. Threaded through all the big calls was a continual backdrop of lost children (35 or so each day), minor medical calls, swimmers being moved from danger, calls for assistance because people wouldn’t follow lifeguards’ direction, trash can fires, disputes, complaints about music/parking/other people, dogs off their leashes, and a million other things. I was so incredibly proud of how hard our staff worked to take care of their respective parts of the 32 miles of coast line.
The water was no longer blue and clear, although it was still a nice sandy green. But lots of people were asking why we didn’t make the water more blue. I still think some people don’t realize the beach isn’t a water park! But it did get me to thinking about water color and clarity.
There are lots of theories about this but what I’ve seen over the years is that the water follows two basic rules. The first is very obvious. If there are waves the sand gets churned up in the water. So it’s a little less clear than it would be without the wave energy in the water.
The other, and more significant rule, is that if the wind blows from the southwest or west, the current comes from down the coast (from west to east). When that happens, the water gets more brown in color and less clear. There is a very simple reason for that. Just below us the Brazos River empties into the Gulf. The Brazos River is very silty and brown. When it empties into the gulf and the current pushes it up to Galveston.
If the water comes from above us, with a wind from an easterly direction, the water defaults to its normal color of green or even blue. If there is not much surf activity for a couple of days the silt settles out of it and it can get very clear. This happens about half the time, but is typical of the second half of the summer.
So, over Memorial Weekend, with big crowds, media coverage, and beautiful clear water our local secret got out and people know it can get clear and beautiful. I hope they forget before we can’t afford to live here anymore!

Memorial Day Weekend!

All the preparation is done. The equipment is ready, the planning is over, and the time for preparation transitions to the time for action. This week had a great drill to help sharpen our communication strategies and rescue techniques among our group and between our emergency response partners. We finalized plans and schedules and met with our various partners to make sure we’re all on the same page. And our “Night Swim”, when our entire staff goes through a grueling two hour test of skill and stamina, went off without a hitch.
This weekend will see between 250 and 500 thousand visitors to the island. The saving grace is that we are now almost at full strength. We’ll be ready for whatever madness the hundreds of thousands of visitors this weekend bring, as will our partners in the Police, Fire, EMS, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, and Parking teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response, but ultimately our visitors are primarily responsible for their safety and well being.
So, this weekend if you’re going to the beach or anywhere near the water, remember it’s easy to let down your guard when you’re recreating. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:
Swim near a lifeguard- almost every tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection although you are still responsible for your own safety.
Stay away from the rocks- where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current.
Avoid swimming or wading at the ends of the island- The San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have very strong tidal flow. The water there is not only very dangerous, but they are illegal areas for swimming.
Don’t swim alone- your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.
Don’t dive in head first- to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.
Observe warning signs and flags- ours are all bilingual and use icons.
Non-swimmers and children should use lifejackets when in our around the water
Alcohol and water don’t mix- most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, try to remember that, even though you feel invincible, you’re not.
Take precautions from the heat and sun- such as loose fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
Remember the beach isn’t a pool or pond. There are currents, marine life, and the bottom is uneven with troughs and drop-offs. You should be much more careful and be sure to not exceed your ability.
Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go, have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories. Take a well earned break from your routine with friends and family. Just do it safely!

Easter Weekend

I went for a run really early the other morning on the west end. This is the time of year that the beach is just perfect. The temperature is cool but not cold in the morning and the water is warm enough to swim in without a wetsuit. There are not many people on the beach on the weekdays but the weekends are in full swing. As I ran, I noticed some of that colored confetti that’s in the inside of plastic Easter eggs. Later that day, as I drove down the beach making a morning check, I noticed that same type of confetti on the Seawall beaches, at Stewart Beach, and way out by the South Jetty.

What is amazing is that right after this weekend, which brought hundreds of thousands of people down to spend time on the beach, there were so few signs that it even happened. I didn’t see any cans or bottles, trash, or signs of illegal campfires. Just little confetti that was too small for our Park Board Coastal Zone Management crews to pick up. And the city crews seem to have gotten all the trash off of pretty much any public space on the island as well.

Easter has gotten to be a bigger and bigger beach holiday over the past couple of decades. And just like other big holidays it takes a very large network of overlapping groups to handle a crowd that measures in the hundreds of thousands. This is particularly impressive when you consider Galveston’s population of 48,000, and that our support groups are, for the most part, designed to handle a small population.

As I drove from one end of the island to another, morning, day, and evening, I saw hundreds of dedicated Galvestonian workers.  There were cleanup crews working long hours, police security smoothly handling the parks and west beaches, parking ambassadors on the seawall and historical area, police, fire and EMS crews responding to hundreds of emergencies for locals and tourists. And let’s not forget all the people who worked restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, and stores; or the staff of the hospital and all the emergency clinics that worked overtime to handle all that was thrown at them. Definitely takes a village!

All groups were busy including the Beach Patrol. We had that magic mix of crowds and current that keeps us moving. By the end of the weekend we’d moved 2034 people away from dangerous areas, mostly away from the groins where there are rip currents and drop offs. But we also moved people out of the water in the ship channel, away from areas that have underwater hazards, and closer to shore. We also handled a number of lost children, mostly at Stewart Beach Park, responded to a couple of serious medical emergencies and a number of minor ones, performed nearly 100 enforcements ranging from dogs off leashes to alcohol, glass, or fire violations, and helped well over 100 tourists with directions or information.

And the season is just beginning…

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!

 

Spring Break Tryouts!

Spring Break is here! We have lifeguard tryouts tomorrow (Saturday) morning at the City of Galveston Pool at Lasker Park at 2016 43rd starting at 7am rain or shine. Those who pass the swim, drug test, and interview will start the same day in the Lifeguard Academy and will be paid for their training time. Information is at www.galvestonbeachpatrol.com

Last week we left off at the end of part two of a 3 part column on lifesaving history in Galveston. We were talking about the late 70’s, when the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. High drowning rates became a civil and tourist issue and something needed to be done.

Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor and many others all contributed significantly. The result of multiple discussions was that the Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol with a start up grant from the Moody Foundation and annual funding of hotel tax funneled through the Park Board of Trustees (thank you Babe!), who also took over management of the beach maintenance and parks.. The formation of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) as a national organization and the modernization and expansion of the Beach Patrol all happened in 1980 at a conference at Texas A&M Galveston orchestrated largely by Dr. Jim McCloy. Through the USLA many lifeguard agencies helped Galveston to modernize the lifeguard service.

Vic Maceo was the Director of the Galveston Beach Patrol from 1983–2007. During his tenure, a formal lifeguard academy was implemented which eventually  included nearly 100 hours of rigorous training. We implemented USLA’s national standards, formed supervisory hierarchy, started our Surf Condition Flag System and became the first beach agency to use staggered shifts to increase coverage for the same money.

In 2007, Vic Maceo retired, passing the torch to Chief Peter Davis. Shortly after that, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol fell solely under the management of the Park Board of Trustees

Today, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an elite certified “Advanced Agency” by the USLA. We protect nearly 7 million beach visitors annually. We are the designated lifeguard service for the City of Galveston and certified as a first-responder agency through the Department of Health. A staff of over 130 includes lifeguards, senior guards, supervisors, peace officers, and dispatchers. GIBP also has a Junior Lifeguard Program, with nearly 120 kids participating annually, and around 15 community based programs under its umbrella.

Each year we average 110,000 preventative actions, and 200 rescues. Last year alone we provided safety talks for over 23,000 school kids, responded to approximately 1,700 medical calls and made about the same number of enforcement actions.

Because we stand on the shoulders of so many dedicated predecessors, have such a great staff, and are supported by the Park Board, the City, and the Galveston community, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is now widely recognized as one the most professional and proactive lifeguard agencies in the United States.

Mind Over Matter

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

I hate the cold. I’d be happy if it never dipped below 80 degrees year round. I have a lot of friends through the International Lifesaving Federation from all over and I mentioned how cold it’s been here to  the head of the lifesaving federation of Norway and to the Executive Director of the Danish Lifesaving Federation. Big mistake. Telling northern Europeans it’s cold in Galveston, Texas is a little like telling someone from Cairo that the Strand is “really old”.

The reply from Norway was a picture showing a road dusted with snow with what looks like a couple of inches on the sides. It says, “In the USA- Close all the schools there’s no way we can go to school in this weather!” Then it’s followed by another picture of a snow covered road between what looks like huge ice cliffs on both sides. The caption for this one reads, “In Norway- Kids if you do well on this test I promise we can take a bath in the lake, your dad will break the ice for us.”

As if I wasn’t already feeling like a whiner, I then got my buddy’s reply from Denmark. Erik told me how they’d gotten to feeling pretty cooped up since the days only had about 7 hours of daylight and it had been snowing several feet, so they hadn’t seen the sun in a number of days. He and his fellow lifeguards decided to go out for some “training”. They went to a nearby lake, cut a hole in the ice with a chainsaw, then put on really thick wetsuits and dive gear. Dropping into the water with a soccer ball, they inflated their buoyancy compensators so they floated up like corks. Standing upside down on the bottom of the ice they played underwater soccer. He didn’t mention alcohol, but I can only imagine those big Vikings coming up periodically to down goblets of ale between points.

It’s all relative. Those replies remind me how good we have it here where we whine about weather that drops a little below freezing. But there’s a deeper level. A lot of things we experience as discomfort or as an inconvenience can be pretty enjoyable once you shift your mindset. With the right clothes almost any cold is comfortable. Or if you shift your mind further you can redefine what “comfortable” is. An older gentleman that many of you know runs every day on the seawall early in the morning. He is always wearing shorts no matter what the temperature. I passed him early one of those cold mornings. As I passed I thought to myself that he must be suffering. They he gave his usual smile and wave and continued his slow, steady pace down the wall looking the farthest thing from cold or uncomfortable as possible.

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

Cold Foggy Days

The water temperature on the beachfront dropped 12 degrees in 3 days last week. This is a pretty dramatic shift as only a degree or two makes a significant difference when you’re swimming. Because the water is so shallow here on the upper Texas coast the water temperature is constantly changing during the fall and spring. A few warm or cold days can have a big impact. Another factor is when fronts blow through and take the warm water, which sits close to the surface, out to sea which allows the deeper, cooler water to well up.

With recent water temps in the 50’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. Last 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. 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 couple 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, and then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water!