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Organizational Management Philosophy

I hope you are either avoiding the Mardi Gras festivities or diving into the fray, depending on your preference. For me, Mardi Gras marks the beginning of the tourist season and is the point where we switch from preparations to going into a more operational mode. Of course, this season has been so warm and there have been so many people on the beach that it doesn’t really feel like we had an “off season”.

I think all our full-time staff is looking forward to the seasonal lifeguards coming back and for the organization to transition to beach mode instead of planning mode. Me too, but I’ve been so impressed with how our year-round staff has handled themselves all winter. Especially how the 4 new people that were promoted to Supervisor have been integrated into the system. We had a very minor dispute between a few of them recently and it seemed like a good time to clear the air before we go into the season and our staff size grows with all the seasonal guards.

When we met, we also had the opportunity to discuss our organizational philosophy of communication and decision making. Sometimes it’s good to review this kind of thing to make sure everyone is bought in to the process. Being from a specific generation and from a public safety background, I have traditionally followed a top down management style, where the boss makes the calls always and directives are pushed down from the top. But this doesn’t always work so well with the younger work force who likes to be part of the process. I’ve learned a lot in the past few years from the Texas Police Chief leadership courses, Park Board directed leadership training, my staff, and listening to how other organizations have altered their management style. To a certain extent I’ve changed a bit in how I see effective leadership working.

Being an emergency response group, we always default to a strict chain of command system where it’s very clear who tells who what to do during crisis. This is essential in responding to emergencies because of its consistency and practicality. But when it comes to other types of tasks it seems to work better for us to take a different approach. If we’re figuring out what types of training would work best, working on a maintenance task, or deciding how best to keep guards’ morale up, we move to a non-hierarchical style. The working group may pick their leader/facilitator and the choice may not be made based on seniority or rank. The two systems are not mutually exclusive and through dialogue and practice we’re getting better at moving between the two models.

One example is that we let a working group decide what training they feel they need and let them choose who teaches the modules. After much discussion and debate they’re rotating through topics as diverse as oxygen delivery methods to kite board rescue.  They chose relevant topics and are engaged and bought in to the process.

Full Time Staff Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the Family!

Even though it’s still winter we’ve got just over a month before Spring Break is here. The beach parks kick off on March 8th, but the beaches will be getting busy before that. Our full-time staff, between patrolling, answering emergency calls, and putting the finishing touches on our lifeguard towers, are already starting to do a thousand little things to be ready when the beach pops. We’re prepping for our various programs that will get going in the spring including lifeguarding, Wave Watcher, supervisor and dispatcher academies, and Survivor Support Network.

As always we are hoping for a big turnout to the four lifeguard academies we’ll have this year. It’s been difficult filling the positions we have and covering the beachfront the past three years, even though it’s an amazing job that pays really well. Our two main academies are over Spring Break and the two weeks leading up to Memorial Weekend. Please help us by spreading the word and encouraging anyone you know that is interested to start swimming to prepare, and then to try out to beach a beach guard. The main obstacle to getting a job with us is making that minimum swim time. Our website has tons of info on it and even has sample swim workouts and training tips.

Another area that we’d love to have a big turnout for is our Wave Watcher Program. Wave Watchers go through a 20-hour free course that includes victim detection and beach safety information, CPR and Tourist Ambassador Certification, and information about working with local first responder organizations. After the training our Wave Watchers keep a trained eye out on the beach as they go through their normal life activities. Some are motivated to patrol set schedules and areas or help with lost children at the beach parks. Others just let us know if they see anything developing while they’re driving, walking, fishing, biking etc. This has become an integral part of our program as they are often out in areas or during times of the day that we’re not present. Several Wave Watchers are also members of the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and are trained to come to the aid of families in crisis when their loved ones are missing in the water. The Wave Watcher Academy will take place in April and we’re taking applicants now.

The other big program we have is our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp for kids 10-15 years of age which starts in early June. This program teaches lifeguard and leadership skills while we workout and do all kinds of fun activities and field trips. It’s very economical and we have scholarships available. Most importantly for us, these JGs are the lifeguards and leaders of tomorrow.

Whoever you are and whatever you do there is a way for you or someone you know to join our family. Get on our website or give us a call to find out more information.

We need you and Galveston needs you!

Fisherman Rescue

Sometimes rescues are not as dramatic as they are interesting.

A couple of days before Christmas we received a direct call from a local resident who was worried about his son right as the sun was setting. He called our main number which automatically rolls over to our “on call” phone when no one is in the office. His son, who was in his late teens, had been out duck hunting on the north side of the San Luis Pass since early in the day. He waded out to an island that was about a quarter mile from shore, but the tide had filled in and the gut he’d walked across was now overhead with a strong current running through it.

Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Supervisor Josh Bailey headed out to The Pass. They were finally able to locate the vehicle the victim had driven in after it was all the way dark. They were able to communicate with him by phone and he used a combination of a flashlight and firing his shotgun to help them find him.

After careful consideration they decided to have Josh go for the guy and Austin to stay on shore in case they needed to call for more help. Josh donned his wetsuit and a headlight, grabbed a waterproof radio, and headed out using a combination of wading and paddling a rescue board.

When Josh got to the island, he found the fisherman in good spirits. He was painted up in camouflage paint and wore a camo outfit with waders. He had a backpack loaded with supplies, a shotgun, and a string of duck decoys. He said he was thinking about just eating some food he had brought and sleeping until the next low tide, but was afraid that the tide would cover the island when it filled all the way in. He was worried that he couldn’t make it across the gut, where the tidal flow had carved out an area that was well overhead. As Josh paddled him in with all the little decoys following them like a mama duck, he was joking around but was happy to be rescued by a “rescue swimmer”.

We’ve rescued many people, and even a cow, out there when the conditions and the sandbars change rapidly. Something that seems so simple, like wading out to a shallow sandbar, can turn deadly quickly.

I don’t know the guy that was rescued. But I know some things about him just by reading the rescue report. For such a young guy he’s very smart and/or experienced. He knew his waders could fill and drown him, as has happened to countless people fishing over the years. He was also really smart to be so prepared with a flashlight, food, and a charged cell phone.

Taking some simple precautions, thinking out a course of action carefully when the situation changed, and not being too proud to call for help when needed was the difference between a potential tragedy and an interesting story.

Winter Days

I love a lot of things about Galveston. These magic winter days where the rest of the country is freezing, and our beaches are full of people are a reminder of how good we have it in our little corner of the planet. This year has been especially beautiful.

For us, this is a time of renewal. We rebuild towers, set signs, revise policies, and work on longer term projects. All the things we can’t do while we’re going full steam during the season. We are briefly given time to breathe and reflect on the things we’re thankful for. Here is my list in no particular order:

1. Living and working in Galveston- Where else can you get almost anywhere within 20 minutes, not have to make dinner or movie reservations, and have to work to not see the beach at least a couple of times a day. And G—town is still big enough to get whatever you need right on the island.

2. City and Park Board- I always feel gratitude when I work with other lifeguarding groups in Texas, the Great Lakes, and the East and West Coast. The Park Board and the City of Galveston has provided a way for the Beach Patrol, as the official lifeguard group for the city, to use hotel tax revenue for the bulk of our operational expenses. Very few lifeguard services around the country and world operate this way and its really benefited our beach visitors. In the time since I started, we moved from 17 employees and one full time person to 14 full time people and a staff size of well over 110 during the height of the season. Its never enough, but we are able to make around 200,000 preventative actions a year, keeping over 7 million people away from dangers that could hurt or even kill them. We deeply appreciate being given the tools to do this good work.

3. Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) Volunteers- Despite all our efforts and help from other groups, there are inevitably times when people slip through the safety net and die in our waters. The SSN is always available with support for the families in the form of translators, councilors, or merely someone who listens. They bring food and shelter, find hotel rooms, work with consulates to contact family, and are a link to other public safety groups.

4. Wave Watchers- What can you say about people that volunteer their time to be trained and then to patrol our beaches during times or at areas where we don’t cover. This dedicated support group has quickly become indispensable in our world.

5. Galveston Marine Response- The spirit of cooperation between fire, police, EMS, and lifeguards is something rare here on the island, but nowhere is it more evident than how we respond to water emergencies.

6. Beach Patrol Staff- Their dedication, caring and energy are a continual source of awe and renewal for me. I have no words to express my gratitude.

Veracruz

Early morning sunlight slanted off of the water as two parallel columns of potential guards jogged through knee deep water at Playa del Muerto in Boca Del Rio, Mexico. Mixed with the bird calls, sounds of waves and a slight breeze, was the raspy panting sounds of the group’s efforts.

Strain showed on the faces of many of the lifeguard candidates as they struggled to follow the whistle commands. One blast for start/stop. Two to start sprints from the back of the columns to the front. Multiple short blasts to switch columns. Early morning beachgoers, joggers, and vendors setting up for the day looked on as the went to deeper water, then back to the shallows, and up on the beach around obstacles. Galveston Beach Patrol Lifeguards Stephen Limones and Bill Bower joined a couple of experienced lifeguards to keep the columns in line and following the whistle commands I gave.

For almost 20 years Galveston has had a relationship with the “conurbada” (joined city) of Veracruz and Boca del Rio, Mexico. Years ago the head of Beach Patrol at that time, Vic Maceo, and I joined a delegation to our sister city. While there we noticed they had lifeguards covering their beaches, which were similar to ours in many ways. We walked down to talk to a lifeguard tower and met Juan Canananga, who ended up being a good friend of mine for many years. He introduced us to other guards who explained that they’d only started their lifeguard program the year before and were figuring out how to lifeguard based on two sources. The first was the many people in the area who were fishermen and surfers who understood the ocean’s intricacies. The second was an American television show called “Guardianes de la Bahia”, which we all know as “Baywatch”. They started the program because of the large numbers of drownings the year before. I don’t remember the number, but I do remember them telling us that they averaged about 35 drowning deaths a year. We found out that they had two new jet skis but didn’t have any formal training in swimming or lifesaving techniques. From there, lifeguards did what they do all over the world. We helped each other.

Our exchange program has lasted for close to two decades. We have gone down there and they’ve come up here. We taught lifesaving techniques and returned with knowledge that has helped us immensely related to Mexican and Latino culture, ways to collaboratively work with other public safety groups, and how to manage large tourist crowds. They see immense amounts of visitors and put a lot of resources into beach and tourist management. They’ve now dropped their average drowning rate 35 to 5 annually as a result of all of this.

This year was special because we co-taught with the newly formed National Mexican Lifesaving Federation, which we’ve been working collaboratively towards for over a decade. They will take the lead from here. But that’s a whole different story!

Winter Dangers

We’re in our typical crazy winter Galveston pattern of weather now, so there are some important things to be aware of when on the water.

With recent water temps in the 60’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

When the air is warm but the water is cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. This week there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition as well as the Coast Guard are kept busy when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass areas. Some can be really close to shore, but have no idea where they are.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person in a reasonable time frame. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once when I was training on my surf ski a few miles from shore and a fog bank rolled in.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water! But with the proper precautions and equipment this is one of the best times of the year to get out there to enjoy your favorite activity on the water. Its uncrowded and beautiful. And this there’s no better way to connect with nature and disconnect from the daily grind.

South Jetty Rescue of Four Boaters

The icy wind blasted across the rocks as the two wetsuit clad figures picked their way gingerly across the algae and barnacle covered surface in the darkness. No moon showed to help. Waves and spray threatened to wash them away. Dain Buck had a headlight and Kevin Anderson had a waterproof flashlight tucked under the strap of his hood. They had rescue tubes clipped around their waist, wore lifejackets, and carried rescue fins and flairs. They made slow forward progress but had to stop periodically when waves washed across the jetty. Suddenly a cut in the rocks about 20 yards across appeared. Water rushed through. They stopped and huddled together to shout over the gale though frozen lips, strategizing. Time was critical.

4 men were caught in a strong frontal system and their boat swamped. The boat sank as it was pushed towards the South Jetty, and the men were able to scramble up and huddle behind a large rock. They called 911 and spoke with a dispatcher, who immediately alerted the Galveston Marine Response and US Coast Guard.

When Dain and Kevin heard the call, they did what Beach Patrol protocol dictates and tried to launch a 22 foot rescue boat from the Coast Guard base. Neither they nor the Coast Guard were able to launch smaller boats because of the condition of the sea. Coast Guard did send a larger boat out, which eventually was able to spot the men at the end of the jetty.

Coast Guard was requested to send a helicopter to lift the 4 men off the jetty. Dain and Kevin made the call to walk out the jetty, find the men and assess their condition, then radio the GPS coordinates to the Helicopter. They were not sure how long the men would last in the 36-degree windchill, made worse by being wet, exhausted, and exposed. But the helicopter was rerouted to another call. A second helicopter was then dispatched and shortly after cancelled for equipment problems.

Dain and Kevin used a Swiftwater technique using their rope to cross the cut one at a time. They eventually found that swimming next to the rocks was faster than walking, although they kept bumping into underwater rocks because they couldn’t get too far from the jetty without being blown out to sea. They found them, but without air support they knew they would not be able to bring the victims to shore.

Fortunately, Beach Patrol has a number of full-time guards who watch out for each other. Despite wind gusts of up to 45mph, Jeff Mullin and Kevin Knight made the bold decision to run a jet ski, which won’t swamp or be blown over like a boat, out right by the rocks in the protected area. Eventually, with the teamwork of Fire, EMS, and Police, and after a heroic effort taking more than 3 ½ hours, everyone got back to shore safely.

These heroes took some risks to get everyone to shore, but it paid off. The sea did not claim any lives that night.

Beach Patrol Safety Precautions

Last week I talked about how we deploy each day and some of the nuances of how we operate. There are some underlying principals that we follow that are related, in that they dictate how we operate with regards to safety of our employees and/or the beach going public. These give a look behind the curtain of how we make many of our staffing and operational decisions. I’d like to share a few of these with you.

We try to have at least a 1 to 1 victim to rescuer ratio. So, if there are 5 victims, we try to have a minimum of 5 rescuers respond and one additional one to stay on shore as a communication link and incident commander. There are times this is impossible and one of our guards must attempt to save two or more people. This is possible, but very dangerous for both the rescuer and the victims. We’ve had a couple of incidents in recent history where the guard was overcome, but fortunately help was close by. Making a water rescue is a risky thing and that’s a big part of why we try so hard to prevent situations from developing that could end up in a rescue.

Stretching our guards too thin is another risk. We attempt to ensure guards don’t work too many hours in a day or in a week. Exhaustion not only leads to inattention, but to a reduction in the physical ability we must maintain in order to work long days and undertake strenuous tasks, like a rescue. There are many things we practice that help, such as scheduling 4 guards for each three towers so one can work an early shift and then give breaks to the other guards later in the day.

Whenever possible we work in teams. Two people to a truck or guards working adjacent to each other allows us to watch each other’s back and protect the public when some of us are tied up with an emergency. This applies to the zone system of coverage we have with both vehicles and tower guards. If a truck is out for more than 5 minutes on something, the other vehicles shift coverage, so they always have every part of the guarded beach covered in case something else happens. The result of quick backup for guards or response to emergencies definitely saves a number of lives each year.

Finally, lifeguard health and safety is critical. It’s a big part of why the guards have a daily fitness and skills training session each day. There is a real cost to letting our staff get exhausted, dehydrated, or overworked. With lifeguarding it’s all about focus, and people can’t consistently pay attention when they’re burned out. The result of ignoring this has a clear result in number of injuries, staff retention, missed workdays etc. If a guard doesn’t come to work or isn’t sharp in this job, it’s a real different thing than feeling tired or listless at a normal job.

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.