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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.

Lifeguard Program

The first day I worked for the Beach Patrol was in 1983. I stood in the sand early in the morning waiting to get my radio which was passed to me out of our “Headquarters”, which was a smallish trailer in the sand next to the old pavilion on Stewart Beach. There were 17 of us on staff and we worked 6-7 days a week for about 10 hours a day with no organized breaks and no formal training.

Back in ’83 we had no Junior Lifeguard Program, no daily training exercises, no lifeguard academy, no classroom space, very minimal community outreach programming, and no real equipment that needed to be stored on the beach. But even back then we knew the importance of having our headquarters, as humble as it was, on the beach. People needed a central location that right on the beach that was close to the action. They needed a first aid station and a place to hand out daily equipment.

Fast forward 36 years. Our staff tops out at 135 during the summer. We have 5 jet skis, 12 patrol vehicles, a boat, and 3 UTV’s. We have space to hold equipment for work and training; and a classroom for a Junior Lifeguard Program of 125 that is on the beach so they can bounce back and forth between lectures and skills practice. Lifeguard training programs include a two-week long lifeguard academy, dispatch training, Supervisor/Senior Guard Academy, CPR, Emergency Medical Response and much more. Most of this involves running from the classroom to the beach and back repeatedly. On-line courses are held by computer for National Incident Command, Boater Safety, EMT and Law Enforcement recertification. We do classroom/beach courses for at risk, other first responders, and surf camp instructors. And every day before the lifeguards pick up their equipment they run, swim, paddle, and practice skills in the water, on the shoreline, and in the nearby classroom.

Our Headquarters, like pretty much every headquarters for reputable beach lifesaving programs around the planet, is right on the most populated beach. That way we can provide first aid and tourist information while acting as a resource and an informal tourist office for the city. Our dispatchers have a bird’s eye view on the busiest beach on the island and can spot for lost children, water emergencies, and problems developing, while keeping an eye on the lifeguards in the area to make sure they’re safe.

For those who don’t spend time on the busy beaches during the busy times its difficult to fathom the volume we deal with, how busy it is, and what an important role the lifeguard play in keeping everyone safe. For those who do, and who see all the training and structure required to get this done, it makes sense that we need to have our Headquarters where its been for the past decades. If we were not right there on the beach, and on a busy beach, we’d be far less effective in serving the public in such an efficient manner.

Spring Training

The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.

During the spring many agencies including Galveston, step up public education programs in order to do what we can to drown proof students before school lets out and millions flock to the beach. We have increased our numbers of agency reported public safety lecture contacts to the point where it’s almost a half million per year nationally, and locally were hitting over 20,000. Looking at drowning from a public health perspective, there is a concept called “herd immunity”. If the majority of people in a group are inoculated against polio, then the minority who are not have a drastically reduced chance of contracting the disease. By the same token, if a group of people have been educated in how to avoid hazards when they go to the beach, it is unlikely that other members of the group who have not received the “inoculation” of this information will run into trouble. The thing about this is that  there’s not any way to tell how many people our efforts save because they just go to the beach, have a great day, and return home without a problem. But we nonetheless know intuitively that all our collective efforts across the country in this area are making a difference. For example here in Galveston County it’s relatively rare that one of our own die from drowning.

Agency renewal ensures that we are all at least meeting minimum accepted standards when we train new guards and re-certify experienced guards. Since all USLA agencies meet the same standards when we train and certify guards, we are making sure the family that goes to the beach in Jersey, South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, California, or almost anywhere in the United States where they can swim near a lifeguard is protected by professionals who meet standards that ensures the safety of both beach goers and lifeguards. The Galveston Beach Patrol exceeds the national minimum standards by quite a bit.

Many of us tend to get busy in the spring with outreach, recruiting, training, prepping for junior guard programs, and dealing with special events and high beach use during times that our staffing may be less than full capacity. Many of our guards are working in conditions that can add even more risk, such as high surf or cold water. During these times we need to watch each other’s backs even more than when we have a full safety net around us. Our Beach Patrol full time staff works very hard to provide the training and educational tools that our many seasonal guards need when they join or return. That, a healthy respect for the water, agencies doing the best they can to train and equip guards properly, and all of us watching each other’s backs is a big part of protecting the protectors.

“Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate and Train”

For a few months our newer full-time staff members have been getting acclimated to their new jobs. Josh Bailey is one of the 6 new hires we made in October. He’s a great addition to the staff and brings special skills to our team. 

He was originally from Nebraska, then Oklahoma, California, and eventually attended college in Missoula, Montana. In high school he lived in Apple Valley, California where he wrestled, played soccer, and bowled. He also interned in the office of Congressman Paul Cook, where he increased his administrative capability, about working with people, and learned how much you have to apply yourself to effect any type of meaningful change. During college in Montana, he worked as ski patrol at a local resort, but felt like there wasn’t enough action. He also managed a GameStop for a year and a half long stint, which he enjoyed because he was a big gamer, is a decent salesman, and likes people. He also got into lifesaving and was a swim instructor at the local YMCA. 

From there he was ready for a life change. He saw a news program about what was going on here during Hurricane Harvey. He saw lifeguards working in concert with other public safety entities to save lives and knew that was what he wanted to be part of. Since not a large percentage of our nation’s lifeguard agencies operate at that kind of level, Galveston was where he wanted to be.  

Josh showed up here for lifeguard tryouts. He impressed us with his enthusiasm. He also impressed us with a big book of all his accomplishments that he brought to the perfunctory interview that we do with all our seasonal staff. When, at the end of the season, a full-time spot opened up he was hired. We’re looking to build capacity in our organization, which includes leadership development. Josh is full of potential and we decided to hire him even though he had only been here a short time.  

Since Josh started working full-time, he feels that he’s learned a myriad of new skills. He’d never been on a rescue board, done maintenance projects, or dispatched. More importantly, he has developed a deep appreciation for Galveston and Beach Patrol’s place in it. He feels like its an “honor to work for Beach Patrol, which plays such an important part in the community”.  

I chose Josh to lead a group to explore expansion of our core mission. Part of what we’re working on here, which is part of a larger change within the Park Board, is changing our decision-making process to be more collaborative and less hierarchical. So, Josh headed up a group of his bosses to look at what 5 words we feel best expresses the essence of what we do. Josh and his team rounded it out with two additional, and I have to say very important, concepts. Now our mission is encapsulated by the words “Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate, and Train”.  

Nice work Josh! 

 

Fiberglass Towers

The next Beach Patrol year’s budget was just approved by the Park Board and there are a couple of very significant changes coming up.

When lightning comes in the area we walk a delicate balance between protecting the public and protecting the people who protect the public. Our policy, which meets national best practice, is to pull the lifeguards out of the towers when lightning is within 10 miles as we simultaneously warn the beachgoers. Protecting yourself from lightning when you’re on the beach means you get out of the water and off the beach. Don’t be a Ben Franklin! Seeking cover from lightning involves getting to an enclosed structure with plumbing. The second best thing is a closed vehicle. The worst thing you can do is stand under an umbrella or a tarp waiting for the danger to pass. Lots of beaches can clear the area quickly but this is Galveston and there are often hundreds or even thousands of people to clear. We do the best we can with whistles until the guard takes cover, and then we use the loudspeakers on the trucks. Sure the guards do the best they can to guard from nearby protection or vehicles, but this often means that people who choose not to heed the warnings are swimming without supervision until the lightning moves out of the area and the guards can get back in the tower.

Next year we are going to be able to put a couple of modern, esthetically appealing fiberglass towers on the beach. They will have windows and can be sealed up for inclement weather, which means we can work the guards in cold, wind, rain and worse. Shielding from the elements also greatly reduces fatigue. But the most important thing is they can be fitted with lightning rods so guards can safely protect people during times of lightning. We’ll try them out at 61st street and Stewart Beach because these are areas of high use. They are costly, but if they work out we’ll be looking at sponsorship opportunities or grant funding to see if we can figure out how to put more of them out there.

The other really great thing is we have been given the go ahead to hire four additional year round lifeguards! This will do wonders for establishing a career path and leadership pipeline. They will be our trainers as well as having specialized training such as flood rescue, diving, tourism relations, personal water craft rescue, and more. Some may go on to become peace officers. The big advantages though are that we can better address all the beach use we have during she “shoulder seasons” after and before the seasonal lifeguards are able to work. We can greatly increase how many kids we are able to provide water safety training to and hope to hit 20K. Additionally, after all these years we will be able to not only provide emergency response year round, but also patrol.

Big thanks to the Park Board and administration for helping us help beachgoers!

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!

San Luis Pass

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

Holiday Weekend

The morning shift is already out working as the afternoon shift shows up. After clocking in they all run down to the beach to swim, run, and review some type of skill. This morning was hand signals, the other day it was CPR or components of a rescue. They then pile up to the headquarters to clean and then are issued radios, flags, binoculars. Then the army moves out. They drive or ride bikes to their assigned towers, 32 in all. Jet skis are moved into position and launched, the yellow fleet moves out to fill 32 miles of beach which includes 6 zones, and UTVs are deployed to the beach parks and to the San Luis Pass. And on a big holiday weekend like this one, lost child detail areas are established at the beach parks to be staffed with lifeguards and Wave Watcher volunteers. This weekend each tower will be staffed with two guards working a staggered shift. Two units will be on call throughout the nights. Hopefully it will be enough.
For the big weekend, there are a few simple safety tips that can keep you and your family safe while enjoying all that our beaches have to offer. Of course, avoiding rip currents is number one. Rip currents move perpendicular to shore and in Texas typically occur near a structure like a jetty or pier. They create holes or trenches underwater. Although they don’t pull you under, they do pull you out and can cause exhaustion and panic. Obey warning signs and instructions from a lifeguard to be safe. Also, pick a stationary point as a reference, so you don’t accidently drift into a problem area. If accidently caught in one, relax, float, and go with the flow. Call or wave for help if possible. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore until out of the current, and then back to the sand. If you see someone in a rip, don’t go in after them. Multiple drownings often occur when a well meaning Good Samaritan goes in without proper equipment or training. Instead throw a floating object or line to them.
As a general rule, pick a lifeguarded area to swim. Our guards are well trained and are some of the best. You are still responsible for your own safety, but they can provide an added layer of safety if needed. They can also help with first aids, lost kids or virtually any type of beach emergency. It also helps to swim with a buddy, obey warning signs and flags, and avoiding diving in headfirst.
We are now looking at some pretty hot and humid weather so be sure and take precautions. Hydrate with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen with a high SPF, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Overall, use good common sense. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond so you should be extra careful. Non swimmers and children should use lifejackets.
Above all, know your limits. Then go have fun!

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.

Annual BBQ Fundraiser!

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. Tonight is our annual BBQ fundraiser. Come down to the Press Box at 24th and Post Office from 6 till 10pm. You can get a ticket at the door for fifteen bucks. You’ll have great food cooked by people who understand great BBQ- the Galveston Rugby Team. The music by Los Mighty Hooks, who have strong lifeguard ties, will be spectacular. But most importantly, you’ll have all the beach people of the island in one place. Surfers, sailors, beach vendors, fisher folk, lifeguards, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network members, junior guards, first responders, park staff, beach maintenance crew, park board and city staff, and locals who love the beach will all be there. It’s a great chance to let all the people that make our beaches work know how important they are to Galveston. And for 22 years it’s been the beach party of the year!
We have been extraordinarily busy this season so far. Weekends have been incredibly full. The beaches are packed from the East Beach Park all the way to the tip of the San Luis Pass. We’ve been barely staying on top of things with our whole staff stretched to the limit. I’m so proud of our lifeguards who show up early to train before work, work a full day, then some of them are out in the middle of the night responding to boating accidents, lost people, possible drownings, and all kinds of summer madness. Thanks to the safety net of the Beach Patrol, Fire Departments, Police, Sheriff Office, and EMS we’ve collectively been able to stay on top of it. But it’s clear that there are more people using our beaches, bays, and waterways than ever before. And they’re using them more of the year.
We have enough staff to stay on top of all that we’re covering, but just barely. We still have positions to fill, and as summer wears on we don’t want to burn out the good lifeguards we have now. So starting Monday, June 18th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented third academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the A&M pool and will launch right into a nine day academy that same day. We’ll pay for all the training candidates receive as they go through the course. Join our family!
We’re keeping an eye on the tropical wave as it moves into the gulf. This is a good reminder that its hurricane season, so don’t forget to make your plan and be ready to evacuate if something looks like it’s coming this way. If you’re like my family, they plan on taking a couple trips a year to visit friends and family around Texas, but just wait till the inevitable storm scare to take the trip. That way they get out early without any problems even if nothing happens. Good excuse for a mini vacation.
Hope to see you tonight or soon on the beach!