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Full Time Staff Competition

High stepping into the frigid water we all chose different strategies. Some circled wide, choosing to run a little farther up the beach to account for a moderate lateral current. Others went straight in. Muffled sounds of discomfort were heard over the breaking surf as they hit the first trough and started a series of “dolphin dives”, using their feet to push off the bottom repeatedly. A wet suit is only warm after the cold water gets in and your body warms it up, so the first 5 minutes can be awful.

Once we got to chest deep everyone started swimming. As the old man in the group, I need more warmup time, so entered the water last. Hoping that experience and training would help me in lieu of raw physical ability, I ignored the panicky feeling that first immersion always brings, and focused on a long regular swim stroke and good sighting of the buoys so as not to lose too much time by not swimming in straight line.

As we rounded the first buoy and set our sights in the second, things got complicated because there was just enough fog to prevent seeing it at first. So, we had to use reference points to get a general sense of direction and hoped for the best. Andy Moffett shot ahead and maintained the whole race, and we all used him as a reference point. Or guinea pig.

Coming off the first lap we were warmed up and the water conditions were no longer an issue. I came out after Andy and looked back. Micah Fowler was close, then Jeff Mullin and Joey Walker neck and neck. A little behind them was Dain Buck, then Kevin Knight, Micah Fowler, and Michael Lucero. From there another run, a lap using rescue boards, run, swim, another rescue board lap, and a double run.

The real race was between Jeff and Joey, who went back and forth the entire time. Both are big cross fit athletes, so it was an aerobic battle. Dain took a little while getting going, but he’s a real experienced water guy whose been with us for years. Once he found his rhythm, he used wave and current knowledge to blast by. He almost caught me at the end by catching a great wave all the way on the outside.

We use competition quite a bit to maintain the high level of fitness required of ocean guards and have periodic competitions to motivate the crew. This was a team event between full time staff members. All winter we’ve done once a week training of this exact course to maintain fitness, keep everyone continually adapted to cold, and make sure everyone is intimately familiar to which wetsuit and equipment to use for a variety of conditions. This was the final test between teams and who gets bragging rights. But from here we’ll move on to requalification times for all the staff in the pool, a night swim, daily workouts, and Sunday races.

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!

This Coming Year

We just finished the budget process for the Beach Patrol’s next year and I gave a short presentation on Beach Patrol in general, the coming year, and where we’re headed to our Board of Directors. I though selected parts of this might be of interest. I think it helps get the point across that we are not just a lifeguard service but an overall safety net with many different pieces all working together.

The mission of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is to provide professional lifeguard service to the City of Galveston’s beaches through the direct prevention of and response to aquatic accidents and through public education. We felt public education was a big enough part of preventing drowning deaths that it should be in the defining sentence about the service.

Annually we average 170,000 Preventions (moving people away from danger), 150 Rescues, 1,800 Enforcements, and 1,800 Medical Responses. The medical and enforcement responses are mostly cases of being able to filter calls for the police, EMS, and fire departments. If we treat minor medical emergencies or do things like settle disputes or enforce ordinances those are calls that the other departments don’t have to waste time and energy responding to. Its helpful that we have a very small in-house police department.

We routinely patrol 33 Miles of Beach but provide emergency response to over 70 Miles of Coastline all year. During 7 months of the year we proactively guard 9 miles of beach out of 32 lifeguard towers. In the summer we provide daily west end patrols and weekend patrols at the San Luis Pass. Just in the past 5 years we’ve taken on a San Luis Pass patrol on summer weekends, 7 day a week summer patrol of the west end, and guarding the new “Babe’s Beach” west of 61st.

We are involved in a multitude of community programs including the Junior Lifeguard Program, Water Safety School Outreach (26,000 kids this year), Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, Basic Water Rescue instruction for public safety and surf camp instructors, and the Galveston Marine Response Group. We are also enhancing operations with a couple of new enclosed fiberglass towers with coastal marine life wraps on them next year. All of this will be accomplished next year with a budget of only 3.1 million, 117 seasonal employees, and 14 fulltime employees who have lifeguard training plus the addition of Swiftwater Rescue, National Incident Management System certification, are Personal Rescue Water Craft Operators, Certified Tourist Ambassadors, EMTs, Red Cross/USLA Instructors, some are Peace Officers, and more.

This coming year we are focusing on a patient transport capable vehicle for the San Luis Pass to help get people off the sand to EMS units, growing our year round staff’s SCUBA capabilities and getting our new tower sponsorship program off the ground.

We also are focused on the establishment of sustainable levels of service within new budgetary constraints so we can make recommendations on what the minimum necessary are to prevent drowning rates from increasing. As we move into a future with increasing beach use, we need to address the need for growth with future beach nourishment projects, funding challenges, a marked increase during the shoulder season of fall and spring and even winter, increase in use of west end beaches, and creative funding solutions to help us target higher risk drowning populations.

Labor Day

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

We’ve had a number of close calls in recent weeks. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are normally very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point, and that point is sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. Things can go wrong quickly in the water, so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment, or seconds of inattention, for things to break bad.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, for advice before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water, remember to take a moment to be aware of your surroundings and potential risks. You also want to remember the basics, such as not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers and children should wear life jackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact, we are certified as an “Advanced Level” lifeguard agency.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily. We will be out in force, along with our partners in public safety. Additionally, the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) will be at the Pass, Beach Patrol Wave Watchers up and down the beach, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network will be on standby.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. See you on the beach!

Hardworking Guards

Typically, the month of August sees some calm, hot weather. We’re now in the latter part of summer and things are still not dying down. We continue to have wind and current with some fairly strong rip currents near the rock groins. It has been calming down a bit and we’ve finally started seeing an occasional “green flag” day with calm water. Its been hot, but not overwhelmingly so on the beach since we still have a bit of a breeze.

What all this wind and rough water has done to us has been a mixed blessing. Rough water means the staff stays sharp. The guards move fast and are proactive. They keep people far from dangerous areas like near the rocks and piers. The supervisors stay alert, constantly moving and checking with the guards regularly. Dispatchers are quick to respond and are also proactive, often getting the guards in the field information before they even ask for it. By this time of the summer. But these are long, tense days. We have close calls all the time when guards go out for rescues and those who are not directly involved in backing them up have an agonizing wait until someone gets on the radio telling us “I got the OK sign”, or “Guard and victim are both back on shore”. Guards who work crowded, busy areas spend hours running back and forth from the shoreline or in the water back to the tower. They’re wet constantly. They’re sunburned and dehydrated from so much activity. All of this takes a toll.

Anyone who works in or around public safety organizations know that organizations are like people. Some stress is good. It increases performance, keeps staff involved and engaged, and facilitates teamwork. But too much stress or too long in the “zone” and all those good things go bad quickly. Responders can feel overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful, and/or short-tempered. As an “organizational organism” an entire group can suffer from these symptoms. And for the Beach Patrol, all the close calls, emergencies, tragedies, long days, and environmental challenges can wear us out and cause us to crash if we don’t remember to relax and recharge. Staff will begin to squabble among themselves or start to find fault in their supervisors or managers. Some of this is normal and unavoidable. Our guards work really hard and perform really well, and that comes at a price.

Sometimes the remedy is as simple as a few calm, uneventful days to help us remember how nice it is to go to the beach for work every day. Other times we organize ways for the guards to interact together, relax, and enjoy each other’s company away from the pressures of work. Last week we had our final competition of the summer, which was the “beach flags” event. Picture musical chairs with hose, except with adrenaline charged super athletes wearing costumes. We also had our annual “Lifeguard Banquet” which a committee organized and involved food, awards, and a pinata.

Here’s to our hardworking guards!

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.

Sunday Race Day

The sun was just peeking over a horizon and the rough, windblown surf showed pink highlights as we lined up. Legs vibrated and hands showed white knuckles on our racing boards as the call came out, “Paddlers take your mark…. GO!”

The current swept from west to east, but I hedged my bets by lining up on the east side, hoping some of less experienced racers would overcompensate by playing it safe. As we punched through the inside break, to my right was Joe Cerdas and Kevin Anderson. We were first through the inside break and had a bit of a jump on the rest of the pack. But I knew there were some fast people in that group.

I edged up and was in first for a bit. Visions of reclaiming the rescue board race title danced through my 53-year-old head. But then we hit the outside break. Joe and I got nailed by 5 or 6 giant piles of whitewater. In the chaos I saw Kevin clear the break, barely skating around the big set waves, and streak around the first buoy. Finally, Joe and I clawed our way through and rounded the buoy. I expected the pack to have pulled ahead, but most of them had troubles of their own. Taylor Stickline was the exception, and he paddled straight through the outside impact zone unscathed.

I tried to take deep strokes and control my breathing as we headed to the second buoy. Taylor hung tough but angled too far out. I focused and ignored burning muscles, pulling a little ahead of Joe. I still had a chance at 2nd, but I knew Joe is exceptional at catching waves and reading currents, so I was far from in the clear. I rounded the buoy and tried to stroke into an outside wave. I caught it but slid sideways, so only got a short ride. As I recovered and straightened out, Joe flew by on the next wave. Looking behind me, a solid 5-foot monster reared up. It broke hard and I was tossed forward. Somehow, I held on to the handles of my racing board, which was completely sideways, while getting bounced around by the whitewater. I saw a blue board floating on the inside to my left. I assumed Joe had lost his board and that I’d caught him. I snagged a small, foamy inside wave and rode it to shore against a small rip current. But, as I stood up in shallow water, Joe ran by from my right, passing me and sailing through the finish gate. The board I saw belonged to one of the competitors that didn’t make it around the course.

We have two races early each Sunday. Surf racing can be anyone’s bet, which is a huge part of the fun. Speed, training, experience, trickery, and luck are all in play. But there is no way to better hone rescue skills than to push and learn from each other in the conditions you might have to save someone in.

Busy Weekend

Memorial Day Weekend was a big one. Saturday started off like a normal busy weekend, but by Sunday afternoon we were at full throttle. There was a moment later in the day on Sunday that we were working a possible double drowning, a swimmer in distress that was rescued but had to go to the hospital because the victim was submerged briefly, a car wreck, and multiple missing children. We have 6 zones with a rescue truck assigned to each of them. 4 of our six trucks assigned to zones were tied up for quite a while, leaving the rest of us to race around trying to cover all the regular minor issues.

Here is a brief overview of our main statistics categories:

Preventative Actions (moving swimmers from danger but not making physical contact)- 18,027

Rescues- 15 (three of these went to hospital because they were submerged before we got to them- all appeared to be in OK condition)

Medical Responses- 24

Lost Children Reunited with Parents- 16

Enforcement Actions- 64

Beach Water Safety Talk Contacts- 4,235

Drowning Death (body was recovered)- 1

The drowning death at the San Luis Pass was a tough one. The man who drowned in the middle of the night was from a large Salvadorian community up in Houston and by mid-morning there were over 45 friends and family members on the beach. I joined the Galveston Police Department and the Coast Guard to brief the family on the recovery, and then the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network took over and provided shelter, sustenance, and counseling until it was time for them to transition off the beach. It’s an unimaginable thing for family to deal with, but for me its comforting to work with such compassionate and professional people from the various groups that we work alongside. I think it made a big difference to the family as well in a time they most needed support.

Speaking of which, its impressive watching the Police Department doing so much on the west end with the mounted patrol and regular patrol. We also felt like all the various Park Board and City of Galveston groups that worked the weekend did a fantastic job. Kudos to Park Board Parks, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Board Security Detail, and Seawall Parking Ambassadors! We also really appreciate the work done by the County CERT Team at the San Luis Pass, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston Fire-Police-EMS, Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue, Coast Guard, and the Gulf Coast Search and Rescue Squad, who found the body.

Moving forward, next Monday is our first day for the Junior Lifeguard Program and its not too late to sign up. We’re also looking at a new Lifeguard Academy to start on June 17th. And, of course please save time in your busy schedule to join us for the Annual Beach Patrol BBQ fundraiser on June 14th.

Summer is definitely underway…

Thanks to everyone! Here’s to a good summer ahead.