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The Madness

It’s hard to keep up. Summer hit hard. Crowds come early for the weekend and stay late. Friday and Monday look like weekend days and on Saturday and Sunday all 33 miles of beach are blanketed with people. Police, Fire, EMS, and Beach Patrol have all been scrambling to stay on top of all the calls for service. Our statistics show an incredible volume of work performed by lifeguards who are constantly moving people away from danger day after day.

Last weekend we had two drowning fatalities, one Friday morning and another Sunday midday. The total is up to 6 for the island this year. Two in the bay related to a boating accident, one by a jetty that was rip current related, one in a small pond, one was found early morning on the beach, and another appears to have collapsed in shallow, calm water.

In the middle of all this, we’ve run almost continual lifeguard academies. I think we’re on our 6th or 7th academy but have lost track at this point. But we’ve got to keep those towers full to handle all the rough water and crowds. We also ran a jet ski rescue course, dispatch certification course, and have provided training for surf camp instructors and the fire department.

We’ve also been holding our Junior Lifeguard Program for a couple of weeks now. There’s nothing I like more than going out for my morning training sessions and seeing a small group training for the national competition, the guards out there training for the daily training sessions at the start of their shift, the Junior Guards out practicing swimming and rescue board techniques, a jet ski rescue course practicing victim pick up techniques, and a Lifeguard Candidate course out practicing rescue techniques. All at the same time, like a synchronized, frenetic, clock.

Every circus needs a ringmaster and, for us, its our Captain of Operations, Tony Pryor. Captain Pryor does the scheduling, assignments, oversees the Junior Guard Program, and takes care of the thousands of little things that have to happen to make this circus work. But there are many, many other people here that continually amaze me with their dedication and energy. Angie Barton, our Office Coordinator, somehow manages to keep everyone’s time tracked, the computers and office all working, and is usually working on 4-10 pretty significant projects simultaneously, while guards pop in and out of her office asking for one thing or another. Sgt Dain Buck is out in the field making sure all the zones are covered and everyone gets their jobs done. Lt. Mike Reardon, whose been here since the ‘70s, technically works patrol part time, but still finds time to review and perfect the many, many reports we generate. And our Supervisors, Senior Guards, Junior Guard Instructors, Dispatchers, and of course Lifeguards seem to be tireless, infinitely patient, and willing to work themselves into a stupor when needed.

The level of teamwork our staff shows is not easily described, but without it the beach would be a very different place.

Busy Summer Time

Wow! Hard to believe how fast summer is moving. As I write this, I’m just back in from responding to an impressive 3 person rescue by Captain Pryor and Lifeguard Martinez at 39th street. Looks like one of two kids may have stepped off a sandbar into deeper water and his dad and sister tried to help him and they ended up all having trouble. Fortunately, Lifeguard Martinez showed up just in time for his shift and Captain Pryor was right there with his response. And this is just one of many similar incidents that have happened recently. I for one will be really happy when we get into a calmer water pattern as we get into the summer season.

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, EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and on holidays, County Emergency Response Team 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 14th, we’ll be holding an unprecedented 5th academy of the year. If you know anyone that is interested, we’ll hold tryouts at 7am at the UTMB Fieldhouse 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. And don’t forget our lifeguards just got a pay bump, so starting pay will be $14 an hour plus potential increases for being bilingual or having an EMT. Join our family!

Very soon we’ll start seeing an increase in storms that threaten the gulf. This is a good time for a 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. Good excuse for a mini vacation.

Hope to see you on the beach!

Rock Training

Gray overcast sky with dark clouds scudding overhead. The howling wind whipped the beach water into a frothy, choppy maelstrom punctuated with white caps. Waves broke over the barnacle and algae covered rocks.

A group picked their way gingerly across the higher rocks, which were only covered in white, foamy water intermittently. One person, older and moving confidently up and down the rocks, leapt from a higher rock, tucking his rescue tube firmly against his body in midflight, and landed smoothly on top of one of the larger waves. He took a couple of strokes, rolled to the side, and smoothly slid swim fins on. Swimming back to the rocks at an angle against the rip current, he motioned for the first of the lifeguard candidates to follow, as he rose and fell with the swell.

The first brave soul moved towards the rock the instructor had jumped from. Holding her rescue tube and excess strap in the hand that was opposite from the direction the waves came from she ensured the waves wouldn’t smack the tube into her and cause her to slide across the barnacle covered rocks. Keeping her center of gravity low, but her butt off the rocks, she kept her balance while letting the energy of the smaller waves pass beneath her. She moved lower quickly before a larger wave could knock her off her feet. She was visibly nervous, but you could almost see her force herself to focus and tune out the voice telling her all the ways this could go bad. A wave approached. She knew at this point she had no choice. Once you’re low enough to jump, a decent sized wave will scrape you all across the rocks if you freeze. She didn’t. She jumped a little high and landed too close to the jump point. She didn’t get the tube flat against her body, causing her hands to sink too low on impact. But her head was just right- tilted back with her face forward.  She timed the jump a little early and landed in the whitewater but overall, it was a pretty good first jump. And practicing in decent sized surf, although it looks scary, has a much greater margin of error.

The whole group jumped several times under the watchful eye of instructors who both guarded their safety and gave info on what they did wrong and right. They’d already practiced the technique over and over in the pool. We make sure candidates are comfortable with the basics before throwing them into the surf and all the additional variables it adds. The idea for this exercise, and many others we teach, is to practice to the point where you can perform skills effortlessly, without conscious thought.

When all the rescue elements are internalized to the point that they’re automatic, you’re ready. You’ll do what you practice in a crisis, even under stress. You need a clear head to problem solve whatever new complications are thrown at you by the real deal. And something unplanned always happens.

Rookies Needed!

One week from tomorrow, on May 15th at 7am we will be holding lifeguard tryouts at the UTMB Fieldhouse. Info is on our website. After the swim, drug test, and orientation, we will launch straight into almost 100 hours of training in 9 days.

We are all holding our breath hoping that recruiting efforts pay off, word has gotten to interested people, and a crowd shows up for tryouts. Now more than ever, Galveston needs a full compliment of guards to protect what has become an almost unbelievable number of tourists that visit our island and its beaches each year.

The academy involves things you would assume ocean guard trying would include. We teach CPR and First Aid that specializes on beach related injuries and emergencies. There is a ton of instruction and time spent on both how to swim and effect a rescue in the surf environment. We train for multiple victim rescues, rip current rescues, and rescues involving specialized equipment like rescue boards, boats, and jet skis. We get into specifics like how to move around on rocks covered in algae and barnacles while waves break on you without getting hurt. Search and Recovery is of course an important part of their training as well. But there are other things you wouldn’t immediately think of. Things like how to be a tourist ambassador, help a stranded dolphin or sea turtle, deal with a panicky parent who has lost his/her child, how to deal with toxic materials, and what to do if you encounter a crime scene. City ordinances, park rules, Beach Patrol policies, and an understanding of all the community programs Beach Patrol is involved in are in the mix. Obviously, there is still plenty of learning that has to happen up in the actual lifeguard towers, but we give them a solid base to work from so they know they can handle anything.

One of the main differences in the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) training that is provided compared to pool or water park lifeguard training is that the standards for beach guards are necessarily much higher, particularly the swim requirement, and the required training hours are 2 or 3 times other lifeguard programs. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an “Advanced” level agency, which involves more training and more requirements for the full time and supervisory staff. Additionally, the training philosophy is different. USLA focuses on a flexible approach where we emphasize general concepts that can be adapted and are easier to remember in a crisis. For example, we teach the basic concept of keeping floatation between you and a victim when making a rescue as opposed to getting too focused on one specific technique. In short, we teach and train for Murphy’s Law.

The bottom line is that when you see the man or woman in our lifeguard towers or rescue trucks, you can feel comfortable knowing they have been through rigorous and practical training to earn the right to be there. Best of the best.

We just need many more. So, if you know anyone who has what it takes…

Wave Watchers Graduation

This weekend should be an interesting one. We’ve got with some real high tides and very strong onshore winds predicted for tonight. Then tomorrow a nice day is scheduled for both the normal large beach crowds we’ve been seeing plus the Slow, Low, and Bangin’ (S.L.A.B.) event that is supposed to happen. Those who work the beaches in Galveston never have to be worried about being bored in the Spring!

Last week we had a great experience with our Wave Watcher Academy. As that group continues to grow each year, I’m continually impressed with what a great bunch they are. And it’s comforting to know that as demands on the city’s designated lifeguard service continue to grow, the Wave Watchers are able to fill in some of the gaps. I’m sure you’ve seen them in their blue and yellow shirts on the beachfront walking, bike riding, fishing, and surfing as they keep a trained eye out for developing problems.

The Academy included information about Beach Patrol, rip currents and other environmental hazards, local city ordinances and beach rules, and how to support the efforts of the lifeguards and other public safety groups. The Park Board provided on on-line certification as a “Tourist Ambassador”, and we certified them in CPR. We went through a bunch of different scenarios as varied as drownings, lost children, stranded dolphins and turtles, criminal activities, fires, people swimming in areas that could potentially be dangerous, etc. We talked about who to contact for what, whether it’s the Beach Patrol number, the Wave Watcher thread on an app, 911, the police non-emergency number, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, or Ghost Busters. One really cool thing was many of the Wave Watchers who have been around came to a lot of the training to offer advice, welcome the new members, and to sharpen their skills. The final day, they took a field trip and rode the island looking at water safety hot spots. They practiced throwing ring buoys to a “victim” lifeguard. We finished up with a graduation event at a local restaurant.

Many of our Wave Watchers are retirees who have a flexible enough schedule to go through the training on weekday mornings, which is the easiest time for us to provide instructors, since most of us are out on the beach working in the afternoons and evenings. Several people have suggested that we figure out something for people who are interested in joining the program, but who work during the day. Covid has been an awful thing, but its taught us a lot of ways to work and train in non-traditional ways. So, we’re looking at a Wave Watcher academy that is mostly online and which can be done at your own pace and time. We can pre-record presentations and offer online mini-courses. Then we’d just schedule some time on a weekend to practice skills and to visit the hot spots. Stay tuned if you’d be interested in this option.

See you on the beach!

OTB – Gtown Lifesaving up till 50’s

We’ve got about a month before lifeguard tryouts. Spread the word to anyone interested and tell them to start swimming and check our website for details! We’re going to need a lot of new guards to address the increased beach use that’s been trending.

With just a few weeks left before the beach kicks into high gear and each week there is news for this column, it’s a great time to look backwards.

As you may know, the first lifeguards were really dealing with shipwrecks. But through the late 1800s, the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology, making ships stronger and more resilient. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Just after the turn of the century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and development of a “leisure class”, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

In 1913, the YMCA organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for Galveston Island. The volunteers were unpaid but patrolled Galveston beaches from March to October each year. In 1919, this agency became a member of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps. They called for plans to build a two-story clubhouse structure, combining a storeroom and headquarters in one facility, built on pilings outside and above the seawall midway between Murdoch’s bathhouse and the Crystal Palace. This building would contain necessary equipment, such as stretchers, life buoys, and signs for marking sink holes on the beach. The lifeguards remained unpaid volunteers, but were given police authority to help maintain and control the beaches they guarded. Galveston’s legendary lifeguard, Leroy Colombo worked this beach.

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 paid lifeguards, stationing them at 4 main points of the island, including the then-called “Negro Beach” on 28th street, which was guarded by a small number of African American lifeguarding pioneers. (More to come on that topic). Galveston also had what may have been the first all women “Surf and Toboggan Club” un the USA, which helped tremendously by stationing a rescue boat and rowing team on the beach during busy times. Guards worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.

By the 1940s, the island added a “Lifesaving Beach Patrol System,” and the first emergency response vehicle. With this vehicle, they were able to patrol more miles of beach at a faster pace, and provide lifesaving medical aid in the field, as opposed to taking victims to the hospital with no prior care. By August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were again given police authority and were put in charge of keeping the beaches clean, along with providing aid to the increasing  number of beachgoers. The area at the west end of the seawall became a second designated beach for African Americans.

 

 

Photos courtesy of the Rosenberg Library

OTB Fog

Warm air and cold water these days. Spring weather. This combination brings in one of the best and worst phenomena along the beachfront. Sea fog. It can be totally clear, and a big bank of fog can roll in unexpectedly. And since the whole coastal plains area is full of water, this fog can extend well inland.

From a lifeguarding and marine rescue standpoint sea fog is a disaster. Along the beachfront we have to go into a “special operation mode” involving walking out on each groin to see if anyone is getting near the rocks. Boat operations are a nightmare even with the use of GPS, sonar, and radar. Fog affects almost all aspects of water rescue and search and recovery work.

I like all kinds of training on the water, but one of my favorites is the surf ski. The “lifeguard spec” ski is basically a 17-foot-long ocean kayak but is extremely narrow. Think sculling but facing forward with a fancy double bladed kayak paddle. Once you have the hang of it, they are very fast and efficient. Paddling at a decent distance pace you can make about 5-6 miles in an hour. I love to paddle straight out into the chop for about three miles then head back. On the way back you can catch little runners on offshore swells, and it’s like taking a long downhill ski run. While getting a great workout you see dolphins and all kinds of other wildlife and get far enough offshore that you feel like you get some perspective.

A younger guard who has taken up the surf ski recently asked me for advice. The first thing I told him was to get a watch with a compass and never go without it, especially in the spring. With so many Spring days having cold water and warm air the fog can roll in unexpectedly at any time. I’ve had numerous experiences when the day looked clear and I got caught offshore. It’s incredibly easy to lose your orientation if there are no reference points. After one close call years ago where I had to use the position of the bright area where the sun was as a reference point in order to find my way back, I never went on the water again without a compass.

Like much of life on the beach, and life in general, things come with a good and a bad side. With all the danger sea fog brings, there is good. Earlier this week at dusk I was catching some nice glassy waves out in front of my house, lying on my board in a toasty wetsuit and feeling connected and in the moment. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see anything more than 30 yards away. The moisture in the air amplified all sounds to the point where I could hear every seagull or sound on the beach for a mile away. The fog seemed to insulate from every negative thing out there while locking in all the good.

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!

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!

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