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Galveston Island Beach Patrol History

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas and one of the more important ones in the country. Much of this was due to it being a great natural port for the shallow draft boats of the time.

Before that time, the United States Life Saving Service was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners. Today’s Beach Patrol traces its roots back to the lifesaving station at San Luis Pass which was established in 1875. Galveston has had continual lifesaving protection since that time.

Through the late 1800s, the lifesaving stations on Galveston Island continued to rescue shipwrecked mariners, but the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, with the advent of the industrial revolution and a leisure class, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

The three large storms that hit the island in the late 1800s culminated with the big one of 1900. After the 1900 Storm, Mr. George Murdoch, proprietor of the Murdoch Bathing Pavilion, announced that he was building a new pavilion on the site of the old bathhouse to accommodate the increase in tourism.

George Murdoch also provided ropes by which bathers could hold onto since most people did not know how to swim. He also kept beach patrol and lifesaving crews on duty. In 1910, bathhouse records showed more than 150,000 people came to Galveston’s beaches.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of lifeguards, stationing them at 3 main points of the island in addition to the then-called “Negro Beach.” Galveston and its beaches were booming.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. In August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards. That number remained more or less constant until the late 80’s.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were given police authority and provided aid to the increasing number of beachgoers.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Increased tourism meant drowning rates soared. In stepped Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor, and the Moody family, all of whom contributed significantly.

In 1981 The Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol, 1 penny was dedicated by state law from the hotel tax through the effort of Senator Schwartz, and beach-user-fee monies were funneled through the Park Board of Trustees to modernize and expand the Beach Patrol. The United States Lifesaving Association was formalized at a meeting facilitated by Jim McCloy at Texas A&M Galveston.

The USLA and a Moody grant assisted in the professionalization and modernization of the Galveston Beach Patrol.

Shoulder Season

Driving down the seawall last Monday, I spotted a couple of people right next to the rocks towards the
end of the 53rd street rock groin. They were right in the dangerous area. Thinking I only had seconds, I
flipped on the overheads and made a U turn. Once I was off the wall and rolling down the rocks, I hit the
airhorn and gave instructions on the PA system to come directly to shore. I assumed any second they
would step off into the hole caused by the rip current and be in serious trouble.
I spotted a bag on the groin, so assumed that they’d walked back to shore and gone around the three
signs and under the rope and flags we stretch across them as a reminder. They’d also walked by a rip
current advisory sign at the base of the steps. We maintain these at every access point along the beach,
as well as the ones at the water’s edge.
I called for backup and jumped out, grabbing my rescue tube and fins, then raced to the water…
For good reason, there’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about the time between when our seasonal
lifeguards end their 7-month work period and when it is cold enough to prohibit swimming. We’ve had
three drowning fatalities that happened just after the tower guard season ended. Once it’s cold we can
be pretty effective in preventing drowning fatalities from mobile patrols. During the season we have
guards covering about 9 miles of beach, making proactive preventative actions throughout the day. But
on a busy weekend with guards we make several thousand preventative actions because the guards are
right there on the spot. In the trucks, if we really work, it may be a few hundred. The right weather,
crowd, and water conditions can be a real issue without guards.
This window has become more and more of an issue as: 1. The Houston area population increases,
resulting in a corresponding increase in visitors here in Galveston, 2. The weather seems to stay warm
later into the year, and 3. We add on to our beaches and market ourselves in the fall and spring as a
tourist destination This year, due to the limitations on recreation imposed by Covid, we saw a marked
bump on top of this trend of increased beach use more of the year.
Many coastal communities have faced this issue as tourism expanded. Many worked out a hybrid
system that involved a lifeguard service that was not “seasonal” in nature. We’re exploring options. I’m
sure funding will be an issue if we find something appropriate for Galveston, and that won’t involve the
city’s general fund or property tax dollars. But ultimately and eventually we have to find a way to ensure
our visitors’ safety.
As for the two people we left hanging in the water, they avoided the hole. They got back safely with just
a scare and a story to take home. And hopefully they’ll read the signs and notice the flags next time.

Labor Day Weekend

Early afternoon last Sunday we got a 911 call of a boat running loose in English Bayou. Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Senior Lifeguard Daniel Gutierrez responded.
On 61st they could see an unoccupied boat dragging a ski rope that was causing it to run in circles, as it gradually made its way east towards the houses, boat docks, and people swimming. There were about 4 other boats sitting and watching from a respectful distance.
They launched on the west side and ran under the bridge. Gutierrez drove while Kirwin rode on the back. They knew they had to act quickly. They tried twice approaching with Kirwin standing on one side of the ski but had to back off. Finally, on the third attempt, Gutierrez matched the angles perfectly. Kirwin leapt from the ski over the side of the boat and landed at the console. He quickly grabbed the throttle and powered down the boat.
A boat approached carrying the owner. He said that the driver hadn’t been wearing the key attachment and it sounded like at least one person had been catapulted out of the boat. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
This was one of many incidents we worked over the Labor Day Weekend. Fortunately, we were prepared for the amount of people that descended on the island. We even were somehow able to get all the signage knocked down by the recent hurricane back up by the end of the day Friday. Our staff all showed up, even those that already were off at school. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
The parks were full, the seawall had no parking and bumper to bumper traffic, and the west end was totally clogged up. For much of Sunday our patrol vehicle couldn’t get through the beach access points to the beach and couldn’t make it through much of the 3005 highway because the road was almost impassable.
By the time the weekend ended we’d moved well over ten thousand people from dangerous areas, made 12 rescues, reunited 15 lost children with their parents, and responded to multiple “missing swimmer” calls during both days and nights, two of which ended up being fatalities.
I’m continually humbled by the willingness of so many people and groups to come together in a crisis to protect and save others. Watching the police, fire, and EMS run call after call all weekend was inspiring. Working with volunteers from the County Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the Beach Patrol Wave Watcher group to protect swimmers, all of whom are away from their homes and families to help out, blows me away. Watching my staff, Coastal Zone Management, GPD managed Park Security Detail, our Accounting and Admin departments, and the Park Staff go to such lengths to make sure we’re all ready for and work hard during the weekend is amazing. And the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who responded so compassionately to support the families of the drowning victims and my staff leaves me in complete awe.

Labor Day Weekend Tips

Coming off a storm is interesting to say the least. We lost many, many signs along the beachfront and have been working to get them all back up as fast as we can. Our accounting department, staff, and local vendors have been incredibly helpful. And our guards who volunteer for the hard work of jetting huge posts into the sand below a couple feet of water deserve more credit than we could possibly give them. There are not a lot of good things about a storm, but seeing how people pull together in a crisis always restores my faith in humanity.

The storm left its mark here in other ways besides tearing out our signs and rescue boxes. It took out sand dunes along the west end and tore up dune walkovers. It swept all the loose sand that’s been plaguing us away and removed every piece of trash and debris from the beach. And it rearranged the sand itself both above and below the water.

Storms have a tendency to flatten out the sand bar and trough system. Until it shifts back into its normal state, we will have weird surf and deep troughs and holes near shore. There are some channels left from strong rip currents that are causing problems as well. With the big Labor Day weekend upon us, be extra careful and follow all the safety recommendations.

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 lifejackets. At the beach, you should also avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties, whether or not our bilingual signage is back in place. You also want to avoid the water in the Ship Channel and San Luis Pass, where very strong tidal currents have taken numerous lives.

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, which means we have a much higher level of service than most beach patrols around the country.

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. Grab your mask and meet us on the beach!

Emergency Plan

We really dodged a bullet this week. Unfortunately that’s not the case to many, many of our neighboring communities.
Even though we didn’t take a direct hit, this is a clear message that occasionally our number comes up. The tough thing is that if you didn’t evacuate and nothing happened, it reinforces the idea that its not worth leaving when a storm threatens. And if you did evacuate and come home to no damage at all, there’s a tendency to think it wasn’t worth the inconvenience, effort, and expense. But all you have to do is look to the east and you see what can happen with these storms.
Right now, there are more psychological factors at work than storms. We’re all stretched and frayed from Covid, socio/political/economic factors, and nearing the end of a busy, crazy summer. When planning for this storm, there was, understandably, quite a bit of resistance to acknowledgment that this could be a serious thing and we needed to take quick, decisive actions to make sure we were ready as we could be. It’s not that anyone didn’t want to do the needed work, it was more that many of us felt we just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on yet another stressful situation. But fortunately, we have a pretty well thought out hurricane response plan that has specific actions for each department. So, for example, Stewart Beach has specific things that need to happen when a forecasted category 3 hurricane is 72, 48, or 24 hours out.
Plans like this are really similar to why people have a coach for sports. If you’re a swimmer and you’re halfway through your workout, you start hurting. There’s a temptation to let up or cut it short. That’s when the coach starts yelling and tells you to pick it up, or gives you some validation and encouragement. A good emergency response plan is like a coach.
A good emergency response plan is a template. It allows for the ability to react to each different crisis while still holding you to the general course of what needs to get done. And like a good coach, it reminds you of all the little things you have to do to achieve your goal, so you don’t forget important things. Our coach/emergency plan made sure all lifeguard towers, trash cans, and portlets were off the beach by the time the heavy winds hit. All the other groups that manage our town, businesses, parks, roads, and emergency response groups did the same thing. All of this was choreographed so that everything would be ready by the time the storm hit, so we could all focus on protecting life and property without other distractions.
We should all create our own emergency plan to coach us through these things. It’s easy in the heat of a disaster to get tunnel vision and forget little important necessaries. That plan and a “go bag” and you’re ready for coastal living!

Holiday Weekend Wrap Up

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July Weekend, despite the weird thing of not being to celebrate it on the beach. Big news here is we’ll be having yet another lifeguard academy. Tryouts are Monday, July 13th, and info is on our website.

We spent most of our weekend doing the unenviable task of telling people they couldn’t have a good time. But it was also so eerily quiet that it was, in some ways, a welcome break from how hectic this summer has been so far. By Sunday evening, we’d moved around 2,500 people off the beach and responded to a handful of potential emergencies. This is completely different from what we’d normally have been doing. Normally we’d have reunited scores of lost children with their parents, moved thousands from dangerous areas, made a few rescues, and responded to a whole bunch of medical and water related emergencies.

The beaches are back open, so as a reminder 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, stay calm 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 protection 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 not diving in headfirst. Of course, non-swimmers and small children should wear a properly fitted lifejacket when in or around any type of open water or swimming area.

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 in the water and take precautions for Covid on land. Know your limits. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond, so you should be extra careful.

4th of July Safety Tips

Happy 4th of July Weekend!

For lots this is all about grilling and chillin on the beach, and I’m sure even with the spike in Corona cases, we’ll still see plenty of people on the beach and elsewhere on the island.

It’s hard to believe how fast summer flies by, especially when you’re busy. This summer has been pretty intense so far with tons of people and very rough water on top of all the other weirdness. Fortunately, it looks like the rough water we’ve been having will ease up a little before the big weekend.

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, stay calm 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 not diving in headfirst. Of course, non-swimmers and small children should wear a properly fitted lifejacket when in or around any type of open water or swimming area.

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 in the water and take precautions for Covid on land. Know your limits. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond, so you should be extra careful.

But all that said, the 4th is intended to be a time to remember that despite how crazy things have been, this is still a wonderful place to live. Spend some quality time with friends and family while still social distancing.

Have fun you deserve it!

Galveston is Booming

Summer, summer, summer… The water is now up in the 80s and crowds are above anyone’s expectations. Driving down the seawall on the afternoons makes you face the fact that Galveston is booming despite a pandemic. The beach is in full effect. The lifeguards are doing a great job and the new rookies are integrating into the Beach Patrol culture well, even to the point of becoming accustomed to the heavy workload that each guard carries.

That workload primarily consists of moving people out of areas where they could drown and is of the utmost importance. The most dangerous areas in Galveston are the rip currents along the groins, and at the ends of the island where there are intermittent powerful tidal currents. We are perhaps the lifeguard agency that focuses the most on prevention in the entire country. Part of this is because we are in the fortunate position to be able to identify areas where rip currents are likely, because along the upper Texas coast these are almost always next to some type of structure. Other beaches with a steeper grade have other types of rip currents that can pop up anywhere at a moment’s notice.

The key is to be able to identify areas that could be potentially dangerous and keep people out of them. This concept applies anywhere, not just on the beachfront. Once you get to the point to where a lifeguard or another person needs to attempt a rescue, you are already in a very tough spot. Water is not our natural habitat. So, every time someone makes a save, there is a tremendous amount of risk for both the rescuer and the victim. Without the specific training and tools that lifeguards possess, there is a very high chance that not only the victim, but the would-be rescuer will drown as well. Every year you hear about tragedies where someone went to save another person and a double or triple drowning fatality was the result.

So, what to do when you see someone actively drowning when there is no trained and equipped lifeguard around? First of all, DON’T ENTER THE WATER! Call 911 or summon trained help and then extend something or throw something that floats to them. That way, you’ll be safe, and the chance of additional victims is diminished. On the end of each of our rock jetties here in Galveston, we have a “rescue box” that contains a ring buoy attached to a rope in a “throw bag”. All you have to do is open the box and hold onto the rope while you throw the ring buoy to the person having trouble and then pull them up onto the rocks. We estimate 20 or 30 people are saved each year by bystanders without additional risk to the rescuers.

If you ever find yourself caught in a rip current, try to relax and float. No current pulls you under, just out. Call for help and either float or swim parallel to shore.

See you on the beach!

Busy Weekend

The storm swell arrived Saturday afternoon with some beautiful little ground-swell waves. A few surfers made it out to enjoy the conditions before it got dark. But by then the unusually large beach crowds we’ve been seeing merged with a very peaceful looking protest, and a large social media driven event. It was everything we could do to stay focused on what was a very busy day on the beach because of the traffic issues up on the seawall and elsewhere. Our always creative Supervisors moved their patrols down to the sand, which was slow going, but much faster than trying to make their way through the gridlocked traffic. Luckily, we didn’t have any major events aside from a couple of rescues, so slow response times weren’t an issue.

Sunday morning the bigger swell arrived, along with a high tide exacerbated by both a full moon and storm swell. The combination of 5-foot waves and a 12 second period meant that fat waves pushed the already high tide even higher. The East Beach Park and Boddecker drive were both underwater by 7am. Stewart Beach was half full as well. The Park Manager at East Beach made a good call and closed the park. Stewart Beach was able to allow people in by some creative parking strategies that kept everyone on higher ground until the park drained with the outgoing tide. Another lucky thing happened in that the tides reached our towers, and in some areas covered them, but overall we made a good call in not pulling all the towers off the beach and trying to guard the thousands of people on the beach without the advantage of an elevated platform.

By the end of the weekend we gave 423 Water Safety Talks, made 5219 preventative actions, reunited 6 lost children with parents, and made 6 water rescues. It was an extremely busy weekend. In fact it was equivalent to most Memorial Weekends, which is typically our busiest holiday of the year.

On top of everything else, we’ve seen a recent influx of Sea Nettle, or Japanese Jellyfish. This jellyfish is one of our most common. They’re usually present in lesser numbers but lately, when the wind and currents are right, there have been quite a few. Over the weekend we treated 479 jellyfish stings.

For most of the types of jellyfish we have here in Galveston the most up to date treatment is to rinse the area with copious amounts of saline solution and carefully pick off any tentacles, while protecting your hand. If you don’t have the fancy bottled version, sea water works just as well. The reason its recommended is because when a tentacle touches your skin, only about 10% of the stinging cells (nematocysts) fire. Washing them off with a solution that resembles their natural environment does not cause more of the cells to fire, so the sting isn’t exacerbated. Then just treat for pain with ice or a topical anesthetic. Or swim near a lifeguard and we’ll do it for you!

 

Photo by: Billy Hill

Busy Holiday Weekend

Two swimmers entered the water late in the evening at the San Luis Pass. A strong outgoing tidal flow had already carved a steep drop off. The falling tide was exacerbated by having to funnel through the gap between Galveston Island and Brazoria County. A friend of the two people called 911 and a call went out to all the Galveston Marine Response Partners. Weaving through crazy traffic emergency workers made their way to the end of the island and across the flooding and sand. A Beach Patrol unit arrived and spotted a man struggling to stay afloat about 100 yards from shore. A lifeguard powered out to him on a rescue board and made contact before the man went under.

While he paddled the man to safety the other lifeguard noticed a head close to a mile out in the ocean. Galveston Fire and Police gathered witness information and Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue pulled up with their “Sea Legs” boat. This is an incredible piece of equipment. A boat with wheels that can retract once it gets in the water. It’s great for shallow water and also for beach launching. Unlike our Beach Patrol jet skis that we rely on so heavily, it has lights and can run at night.

As Jamaica Beach prepped the boat, the rescue groups figured out that there were two people missing. The lifeguard kept an eye on the head he’d spotted as it bobbed even farther from shore, while another guard jumped in with the Jamaica Beach boat. It was almost dark.

The boat got to the victim after what felt like a lifetime and radioed that they’d rescued one person. A short time after they spotted and saved another. This was the last call of an incredibly busy weekend for all of us.

Overall, rough water, strong rip currents, large crowds, and flooding made for a really busy weekend, which culminated in medical response to the shooting and the joint rescue with Jamaica Beach Fire/Rescue of three at the San Luis Pass. The GPD run Park Board Security Program did a great job at the parks, and the Galveston Police Department managed huge crowds all over the island like the pros they are. We had several afterhours calls that we worked with our Galveston Marine Response partner agencies. There was one near drowning (drowning that was survived) transported to JSER, but no drowning fatalities.

By the time the dust cleared we’d, over the 4 day weekend, made 20,163 Preventive Actions (removing beach patrons and swimmers from dangerous areas/situations), enforced around 200 city ordinances and park rules, reunited 13 children with their parents working with GPD/Park Board Security, and made 7 rescues. We also made 60 medical responses including the gunshot.

No drowning fatalities is a huge thing on a weekend like this. We couldn’t have done that without all the help and support from the Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, County Emergency Response Team, Beach Park Staff, Coastal Management Crews, media, NWS, and our partner agencies in Public Safety.