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Operations

Here’s how Beach Patrol operates on a normal day:

7:15AM- “A Shift” Supervisor truck calls in service. As they patrol, they put up the appropriate colored flags at the 5 seawall locations, post the flag color and any special advisories on the website, report the rip current threat level to the National Weather Service Houston/Galveston Office. They also pick up a jet ski at our headquarters and bring it to 61st and sand in case we get emergency calls around that part of the island.

7:30AM- “A” shift lifeguards and dispatchers show up at the office. Dispatchers run through a series of morning checks while the guards run out on the beach for a 45-minute training session that includes both physical and mental practices. For example, they may swim, practice rescue board techniques, then run through hand signals or CPR.

8:00AM- Junior Lifeguards age 10 and 11 show up at either the beach or pool. They swim, have a classroom session, run out to the beach for beach exercises, come back up for class, and run back down to the water for another water session. They go back and forth from the classroom to the waterfront multiple times in their 4 hours session.

9:15AM- “A” shift guards are back from their workout, have been issued radios and flag bags, and head out to their towers. Once there they put up the two flags – one is the Beach Patrol logo and the other whatever the warning flag color of the day is. After that they check the water in their area to see where the danger spots like strong currents or holes are. They’ll do this again halfway through their shift because all can change quickly. These are more senior lifeguards, so they’ll end up doing lunch breaks once the later shift shows up at their towers. Each 4 towers is staffed by 1 “A” and 3 “C” shift guards.

11AM- “B” Shift Supervisors arrive and help patrol the beachfront since its normally getting busy and one truck isn’t enough to cover. A few guards come in this shift as well. On weekends 2 drive out west, pick up a UTV from the west end fire station and patrol the San Luis Pass.

11:45AM- “C” Shift Guards show up and go do their daily training on the beach. When they finish, some go to the towers and some stay up in Headquarters to clean before going out. When they all get out all 32 towers are covered.

1PM- Second class of Junior Guards shows up for their 4-hour session.

1:30PM- “C” shift of Supervisors shows up and, after checking trucks’ equipment, head out to cover all 6 zones. The “B” shift supervisor truck heads out to cover the 18 miles of west end.

5PM- A shift gets off work and the Junior Guards go home.

8:30PM C shift Guards off duty

9:30PM C Shift Supervisors off duty and late shift dispatchers leave

9:30PM- 7:30 AM- “On Call” Supervisor stands by to respond to emergencies.

Change Overtime

A group of 17 stood in the sand outside of a green and white trailer at Stewart Beach. Their feet were so dark they had a greenish tint against the white sand because they worked with minimal sun protection. Walkie talkies were issued as they joked around and made plans for after work.

In 1983 we only had 17 lifeguards on staff. We made $2.75 an hour and worked 6-7 days a week. New guards moved around, but guards with more experience primarily worked one tower and were assigned the more challenging ones. There were no formal lunch breaks. Instead, you took a quick break if you felt no swimmers would get in trouble. Most of us brought our lunches. There was not enough sand on the seawall for people to use lots of the areas, so we only covered about a third of the groins. Most of the crowd was at Stewart Beach and Apffel Park (now “East Beach Park”). There was no formal lifeguard training academy, you learned from other guards as you went along. Because of the lack of coverage we made a ton of rescues, especially when working the mobile patrols. We also broke up lots of fights and dealt with many more drowning fatalities than we do now.

Stewart Beach was the heart of the beach life for us. Not only was that where we started and ended each workday, but things were booming. There were two huge clubs on the beach that had live rock music. Some of us worked as bouncers after our lifeguarding shift. There were bumper boats, go carts, two water slides, little vendor shacks on the sand, miniature golf, and more. A lot of us would go to the blues bar at one of the water slides after work and hang with the local crew, bikers, and whatever tourist was brave enough to wander in.

The changes from then to now are significant. We have about 100 more guards on staff and cover every groin, for many of which we provide a double shift and work till dark. Guards have a set lunch break and reasonable hours so they can stay sharp and attentive. A formal academy and daily training ensures consistency, professionalism, and reduced liability for the city. We also provide both patrols and emergency response 2/7/365. And we make over 200,000 preventative actions a year instead of waiting to react to a crisis.

So maybe its not as fun now as then. But now we have quick backup for the guards when they get into the life-threatening situation of making a rescue. We work in tandem in the trucks more of the time, so our Supervisors are able to watch each other’s backs. And we don’t leave the public unprotected during working hours.

The thinner you stretch your resources, the more risk for guards and the public. One important measure of success is, because of our level of resources, we now average, with 7 million tourists, 6 drownings instead of 18-25 annually.

Pleasure Pier Rescue

Late in the day on Sunday, September 29th two young women entered the water underneath the Pleasure Pier. It was a very rough day with red flag warnings and rip current advisories, and the beach was crowded with thousands of swimmers in the water. This late in the year we didn’t have enough guards to staff tower 25.

The two women stepped into a deep area caused by the interaction of the current and posts and were swept out by a strong rip current. They flailed in the water panicking. One was able to grab a barnacle encrusted post in a bear hug and keep herself above water. The other tried to make it to the next post and repeatedly tried to climb up, ripping the skin off her fingertips and getting sliced by the barnacles. She started to go under and began to “climb the ladder”, meaning she was actively drowning and ineffectively throwing her arms out in front of her to catch one more breath.

Supervisors Michael Lucero and Mary Stewart were both at tower 24 checking with the lifeguard, Matthew Sicilio, when they saw a familiar figure in a blue shirt waving them over. Carlos Guerra, one of our most active volunteer Wave Watchers was patrolling the area and spotted the two women in trouble. On the way the police dispatcher said they’d received multiple 911 calls and were sending the Galveston Marine Response group (fire, police, and EMS). They arrived to find a large crowd yelling and pointing but no one could actually see either of the two women.

Lucero grabbed his rescue fins and tube and ran under the pier as Stewart assumed “Incident Command”. She directed Lifeguard Matthew Sicilio to run from his tower at 24 and help Lucero. Lucero then “dolphin dove” to the east side and then used the same rip current that sucked the women out. But for him it was a way to get quickly away from shore. He looked back to see Carlos using Beach Patrol signals to direct him to the victims, who were under the pier and hard to spot. He found the first one hanging on the post and saw the second one trying ineffectively to latch on to the next post out. He asked the first woman if she could hang on a little longer. When she said she could and told him where her friend was, he swam farther out and got to the second woman just as she submerged for the final time.

Matthew Sicilio and long-time surfer Erich Schlegel swam out to help. Matthew ended up taking the second victim in and Erich helped make contact and then helped Lucero bring the first victim to shore. They turned the two women over the fire and EMS on shore as the police provided crowd control. One was transported to the Emergency room in stable condition.

This was really close. Many threads of our larger safety net had to come together to save these two women.

Public Safety

Dropping off the seawall heading west on 3005 I spotted a man lying in the middle of the road. Two other guys were attempting to help him up and pull him to the side. There were a couple of cars parked all crazy on the side of the road. The man was bleeding on his legs and arms. Thinking a car had hit the guy, I pulled over and put on my overhead lights, called for EMS, Fire, and Police backup, grabbed my trauma kit, and stepped out to the group while pulling on latex gloves.

Surprisingly, no one had hit the man. The two cars were Good Samaritans who pulled over to help the guy. He told me he had tripped and fallen. As I evaluated him, I saw no evidence of intoxication, he was wearing old and unwashed clothing, and he was oriented for the most part, aside from thinking he was in Bolivar. The cavalry arrived, blocked traffic more effectively, and EMS ran some tests. While that was going on, a firefighter began helping me clean and bandage his wounds, some of which were several days old. We also cleaned what looked to be old dried excrement off his legs. There were probably 10 of us there in total and to a person everyone was supportive and respectful to this poor guy. Galveston Police Department Sergeant Nick McDermott even stayed after everyone left when the man refused transport and helped try to make sure the guy ended up somewhere safe, Nick was off duty and headed home but probably spent 45 extra minutes out there.

Last week I stopped to help a woman who was stranded on 3005 and Pabst Road. She had two young children in the car and was having a hard time dealing with them and figuring out what to do. As I attempted to jump start the vehicle, GPD Sgt. Sean Migues pulled up and asked if he could help. Long story short, he not only helped but volunteered to drive the woman and her children to her house when we were unable to get the car started. He was respectful and helpful to her and basically took charge of the kids. Way beyond the call of anything that would be expected. This is not unusual for him but is merely the latest in a long line of things I’ve noticed him doing in the field. Sean is a former Beach Patrol Supervisor/Officer and was a marine who at one time was assigned on the President’s personal protection detail.

In Public Safety, the big rescues and emergencies are important and garner public attention. But it’s the little day to day kindnesses that truly serve the public and make or break our organizations. We see the spectacle when some of us don’t do the right thing in the media, but often forget to notice the good that happens every day with the vast majority of first responders. Galveston is very lucky to have good leadership and good people in all our public safety groups.

Jellyfish

Last week one morning I was training. I was alternating racing rescue board legs, running, and swim legs. This time of year, working out is just maintaining skills and staying in decent shape for winter lifeguarding, so I was coasting along on my second swim thinking about something else, when I felt something I haven’t dealt with for a while. I felt little strings across my chest, down my belly, and down my legs. I wasn’t expecting it since we’ve had very few all summer. It was probably a Japanese Jellyfish, or “Sea Nettle”. The bad part is you feel the tentacles and there’s a gap before the pain starts. And you don’t know how bad it will get. This one was moderate but managed to find its way inside my suit, so maybe worse than moderate in select areas!

Jellyfish and man-o-war are more common in late summer although we typically have both year-round. If they are numerous, we fly a purple flag in addition to the red, yellow, or green condition flags on the back of the towers, at strategic locations on the seawall, and at the entrances to the beach parks. There are also flags at Jamaica Beach, in front of some hotels, and at a couple of sites on the Bolivar Peninsula. We post the daily flag colors on our website and you can sign up to get e-mail and text notifications to help you plan your beach day.

The current treatment for jellyfish in our part of the planet that the World Health Organization and the International Lifesaving Federation recommend is saline. If you don’t have saline the next best thing is actual seawater. If there are tentacles still on the skin, you should first douse the area with the saline, then remove them using a glove or cloth so as not to get stung yourself. Then rinse the area completely to make sure all the little stinging cells (nematocysts) that have not yet fired are gone. This will keep the sting from getting worse. A sting from a man-o-war or jellyfish can be extremely painful, especially if the sting is in a tender area. Fortunately the sting is just on the surface of the skin so a true allergic reaction is very rare. That’s not to say people that get stung won’t get abdominal cramps or feel panicky. This is a pretty normal reaction to any pain when the person doesn’t know how bad it’s going to get.

Another thing to remember about the jellyfish is that they, and their cousins the man-o-war, can still sting you after they’ve been washed up on the beach for some time. Kids love to pick up the “balloons” on the beach and some like to pop the man-o-war with sticks. It’s not pretty when the juice spurts up and gets in an eye.

The good thing is that overall, we’ve had a pattern of very few stinging critters for a couple of years, so you probably won’t have my bad luck!

Open Water Swimming

As the rookie lifeguard ran out into the water, she felt good at first. She lifted her legs up high just as the instructor told her. When she got to thigh deep water, she started “dolphin diving” by pushing off the bottom and doing shallow surface dives, propelling herself into deeper water quickly. She even managed to dive over a couple of waves without having them knock her back. Then she took one final dive and pushed off the bottom. And things started falling apart. A wave hit her and knocked her back. She tried to make forward progress through the whitewater “soup” that trailed the breaking wave. She quickly tired, lost her sense of direction, and had to resort to breaststroke to make forward progress.

This is typical for entry level open water swimmers, even those who are really good in the pool. Open water swimming is its own skill set that only roughly parallels what we learn in the pool. And open water swimming in surf is yet another level. But open water swimming that’s quickly taking off, and triathlon has gotten crazy popular in recent years. If you are one of those who are starting or are interested in starting to swim in the open water here are a few pointers.

First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of saltwater will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave, so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally, a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little, you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.

For surf you need to add numerous extra skills like diving under waves, using the complicated ocean currents to your advantage, and looking around you when you hit the top of swells. It’s definitely a challenge for our new guards but is an essential component of being an effective ocean lifesaver.

Busy Labor Day Weekened

Labor Day weekend was interesting. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with sunny skies, blue/green water that was pretty flat all but Monday, and almost no seaweed, jellyfish, or sea lice. The concentration of people on Sunday was impressive with moderately good crowds on the other days. Sunday afternoon it took me an hour and a half to patrol from Stewart Beach to 91st and back, and the line to get into Stewart Beach was backed up onto the seawall.

Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were at their peak, we had several water related calls all happen simultaneously. We had several lost kids at Stewart Beach that we were looking for and the normal calls for guards and rescue trucks moving people away from hazardous areas. Then on top of all that we had a call for a boat wreck off of the end of the South Jetty with 5 people unaccounted for in the water. We also had a call of a possible drowning over by Murdoch’s pier where supposedly someone had seen the person go in and may or may not have actually witnessed them going under. And we had a jet ski on the west end that was floating around in the water without a driver. Any of these calls could have been pretty major, and we scrambled our resources around trying to get enough assets to respond to these potentially serious calls while still handling the normal stuff and while continuing to patrol and be proactive in preventing bad things from happening. It was about an hour of chaos and I think our poor dispatchers probably will have nightmares about trying to stay on top of all of it. But the Beach Patrol staff, and all the other responding groups, handled this crisis period really well. And fortunately, at the end of the hour, everyone was accounted for, on shore, and uninjured. We were able to go back to the normal level of holiday weekend chaos until a little after dark.

All told a the end of the weekend the combination of Beach Patrol, Wave Watchers, and the County’s Citizens Emergency Response Team kept 12,562 people from getting in a dangerous position, treated 40 medical calls, reunited 15 lost children with their loved ones, and got all 250-300,000 beach goers back home safely. Not a bad way to end the summer!

Coming up we have an interesting study. Beach Patrol Lifeguard Supervisor and A&M Instructional Associate Professor Amie Hufton is spearheading a research project related to our drowning and rescue statistics. We’re real excited about this because we think it can give us a better idea of who drowns and how we can target those populations. Just as a little teaser we ran 5 years of drowning statistics and came up with some interesting information. Over that period, we’re looking at roughly 70% of those drownings (fatalities and survivals) being Latino, 22% Anglo, and 11% African American. Stay tuned for what Amie and her team come up with.

Lost Friends

As we move through this life there are some people who really make a difference. People we feel privileged to walk in tandem with, at least for a time. The hard thing for me is the feeling of loss when that time ends. There are two people that I really respect and appreciate that I will not have the privilege to work along side of anymore.

Chief Mike Wisko, who has been with the Galveston Fire Department has announced his retirement this week. In the early ‘80’s Mike worked with the Beach Patrol. I think he was about 15 at the time, and as lifeguards do, he caught a little teasing because he was the son of the fire chief, Willy Wisko. So, Mike got the name “Wee Willy Wisko”. But he took it in stride and was a huge help as he did first aids on Stewart Beach.

Mike worked his way up the ranks in the Fire Department and was and is a true “Firefighter’s Firefighter”. He has been an incredible visionary and team builder. Always ready to combine resources, provide support, and figure out ways to better serve the city and citizens. After hurricane Ike then mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to figure out how to better respond to natural disasters. Mike was a very key component to the formation of the Galveston Marine Response. As busy as he was with his other duties, he always made it a point to attend our meetings himself to make sure this important collaboration got off on the right track and stayed on course. On top of all he has done here, he also is a very key player in our state’s response team, and somehow still manages to serve as the president of the state fire association. I will always appreciate the time working with him and deeply appreciate all he did to make sure the Fire Department and Beach Patrol worked seamlessly together and provided mutual support. But at least Mike is still around and accessible.

The big loss for me this week was hearing that Melvin Williams passed away. Melvin did three full terms with the Park Board and was such a huge support to the Beach Patrol during his time. He was always there to listen, bounce ideas off of, and was such a strong advocate while remaining so tactful. He never burned bridges or let things get emotional while providing guidance through some pretty trying times. He was a quiet warrior who always treated everyone with so much respect. I literally begged him to do one more stint with the Park Board the last time he came on board. Literally. But when he saw value and true need he seems to have always managed to find the time and energy, whether or not he got any recognition for it. The light shines a little dimmer without Melvin being here, and we will miss him. But I feel so fortunate to have had the privilege to call him both mentor and friend.

Park Board Maintenance Department

Whether it’s a cold, rainy day in February or a steamy early morning in July early in the morning figures walk along the beach in front of a pickup’s lights. By 5am the west end crew of the Park Board Coastal Zone Management Department are already out handpicking trash left beachgoers or washed in with the tide. They find some large logs and cut them up and throw them into brush trucks to be removed. Two other crews work other parts of the beach simultaneously, and there will be another crew up on the seawall during the afternoon.

The Park Board Maintenance Department cleans the beaches of 15,000 tons of seaweed and debris each year. Other responsibilities include maintaining access ramps, assisting with special events, maintaining a garage and work area, servicing the beach parks, and helping the Lifeguards with the towers. All of this has to be in compliance with State, Federal, and Local regulations, so it’s a real balancing act.

One thing they deal with that touches a lot of lives is seaweed. Some people want it, some don’t, but everyone has a strong opinion! You’d be surprised how many people flag down the Beach Cleaning crews asking them to push seaweed in front of their property. Unfortunately, the Park Board isn’t allowed to single out individual property owners.

Seaweed can’t be removed from the beach because it has too much sand in it. Generally, the strategy is to run it through special machines that break it down and mix it with the sand. This works pretty well under normal conditions. But special challenges arise when seaweed comes in heavy, as it will do every few years. Every attempt is made to handle this in a way that doesn’t adversely affect residents or tourists.

I love seaweed for a number of reasons. One of these is that it’s a natural material that helps maintain our beaches and prevents or slows down erosion. But my favorite reason goes back to when my daughter was small. We’d take a bucket out to the beach in front of our house and shake seaweed into it to see all the cool animals in there. The coolest ones would make their way into our saltwater aquarium and we’d learn all about them. These seaweed mats form whole biospheres that support all kinds of creatures.

We’ve had a good run of relatively seaweed free years, but we know our luck won’t hold out indefinitely. In fact, it sounds like there may be thick mats of sargassum seaweed out in the Atlantic looking for a landing spot. If this happens here, we’ll be turning towards the already busy Coastal Zone Management Team to come to the rescue.

So much is done under the cover of darkness to make the beach run well, but Ninja like, the Beach Maintenance Crew slips away before we can thank them. They work hard and take a lot of pride in our beaches. Truly some of Galveston’s unsung heroes!

San Luis Pass Rescue

Daniel Gutierrez and Cameron Larson eased the jet ski up to Bird Island, which sits in the bay very near the San Luis Pass cut. A couple of people were stranded on the island because their jet ski had been caught by a falling tide and was stuck on the island. They found out about the people just as they were about to leave after a long day on the “Pass Patrol”, so fortunately were out there after regularly scheduled patrol times. Suddenly they received a call on the radio about swimmers in distress on the ocean side of the pass.

As they raced under the bridge and towards the beach front, they scanned for signs of people offshore. On their headset they heard that the west end patrol unit was headed out there as well “code 3” (using lights and sirens to get there as quickly as possible). As they came around the bend onto the beach front, they spotted two swimmers who were swimming out from shore. As they came into range, they realized that these swimmers were headed even farther offshore in an attempt to rescue two swimmers that were starting to go under. They also noticed a beach patrol truck pulling up and a rescuer running into the water with fins and a rescue tube. From there things happened quickly.

Daniel drove the jet ski close to the first victim, doing a quick practiced turn maneuver which launched Cameron towards the man, using the wake wave to push him the rest of the distance. He saw out of the corner of his eye that Cameron successfully made contact with the man, who they guessed was between 250 and 300 pounds. But he wasn’t able to do much to help Cameron since he had an issue of his own to deal with. A distance away, the man’s son was starting to go under water. He sped towards the kid and grabbed him in the nick of time, swinging him up onto the rescue sled. Once he made sure the child was OK for the moment he checked to see if Cameron was OK, which Cameron verified by the universal lifeguard hand signal of forming an “O” by putting your hand on your head. He returned the signal, and brought the child to Karina Villamil, who was swimming out to assist. Next he raced to check the first two swimmers, but Mary Stewart had been able to use the PA system in the rescue truck to get them to swim back to shore. Once they were all safe on shore Daniel and Cameron realized the father and son that they rescued were two of the several hundred people they’d already removed from the water in the prohibited swimming area.

By the time the dust cleared late Sunday night, over the 4th of July holiday the Beach Patrol moved 22,430 people from danger, responded to 60 medical calls, rescued 8 people, and responded to one drowning fatality.