The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.
During the spring many agencies including Galveston, step up public education programs in order to do what we can to drown proof students before school lets out and millions flock to the beach. We have increased our numbers of agency reported public safety lecture contacts to the point where it’s almost a half million per year nationally, and locally were hitting over 20,000. Looking at drowning from a public health perspective, there is a concept called “herd immunity”. If the majority of people in a group are inoculated against polio, then the minority who are not have a drastically reduced chance of contracting the disease. By the same token, if a group of people have been educated in how to avoid hazards when they go to the beach, it is unlikely that other members of the group who have not received the “inoculation” of this information will run into trouble. The thing about this is that there’s not any way to tell how many people our efforts save because they just go to the beach, have a great day, and return home without a problem. But we nonetheless know intuitively that all our collective efforts across the country in this area are making a difference. For example here in Galveston County it’s relatively rare that one of our own die from drowning.
Agency renewal ensures that we are all at least meeting minimum accepted standards when we train new guards and re-certify experienced guards. Since all USLA agencies meet the same standards when we train and certify guards, we are making sure the family that goes to the beach in Jersey, South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, California, or almost anywhere in the United States where they can swim near a lifeguard is protected by professionals who meet standards that ensures the safety of both beach goers and lifeguards. The Galveston Beach Patrol exceeds the national minimum standards by quite a bit.
Many of us tend to get busy in the spring with outreach, recruiting, training, prepping for junior guard programs, and dealing with special events and high beach use during times that our staffing may be less than full capacity. Many of our guards are working in conditions that can add even more risk, such as high surf or cold water. During these times we need to watch each other’s backs even more than when we have a full safety net around us. Our Beach Patrol full time staff works very hard to provide the training and educational tools that our many seasonal guards need when they join or return. That, a healthy respect for the water, agencies doing the best they can to train and equip guards properly, and all of us watching each other’s backs is a big part of protecting the protectors.
The Beach Patrol has had a rough season so far. Much of this has been covered in the news and I’ll cover some of this in a future column. But last weekend we saw what is probably the busiest weekend we’ve had in a few years. Many have attributed this to the news stories that happened during and after Memorial Weekend. Others say it’s because we had such a cold spring and everyone was chomping at the bit to get out to the beach. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the combination of crowds and rough weather stretched us to our absolute limits.
At one point of the day we had 4 major calls going on simultaneously including two “possible drowning” calls, a boating emergency, and a CPR in progress call. Threaded through all the big calls was a continual backdrop of lost children (35 or so each day), minor medical calls, swimmers being moved from danger, calls for assistance because people wouldn’t follow lifeguards’ direction, trash can fires, disputes, complaints about music/parking/other people, dogs off their leashes, and a million other things. I was so incredibly proud of how hard our staff worked to take care of their respective parts of the 32 miles of coast line.
The water was no longer blue and clear, although it was still a nice sandy green. But lots of people were asking why we didn’t make the water more blue. I still think some people don’t realize the beach isn’t a water park! But it did get me to thinking about water color and clarity.
There are lots of theories about this but what I’ve seen over the years is that the water follows two basic rules. The first is very obvious. If there are waves the sand gets churned up in the water. So it’s a little less clear than it would be without the wave energy in the water.
The other, and more significant rule, is that if the wind blows from the southwest or west, the current comes from down the coast (from west to east). When that happens, the water gets more brown in color and less clear. There is a very simple reason for that. Just below us the Brazos River empties into the Gulf. The Brazos River is very silty and brown. When it empties into the gulf and the current pushes it up to Galveston.
If the water comes from above us, with a wind from an easterly direction, the water defaults to its normal color of green or even blue. If there is not much surf activity for a couple of days the silt settles out of it and it can get very clear. This happens about half the time, but is typical of the second half of the summer.
So, over Memorial Weekend, with big crowds, media coverage, and beautiful clear water our local secret got out and people know it can get clear and beautiful. I hope they forget before we can’t afford to live here anymore!
We’re putting together the final pieces for the busy season. We’re finishing up a lifeguard academy, finalizing our recurrent training for seasonal lifeguards, planning an awards and promotion ceremony for our staff, and scrambling to put all the pieces in place before summer kicks in for real.
There are two events that you may want to come see next week. Tuesday evening at 5pm at Stewart Beach we’ll have a “Mass Aquatic Casualty Emergency Operation” (M.A.C.E.O.) event. Our lifeguard candidates will be rescuers, experienced guards will comprise a number of “victims”, and several of our partner emergency response agencies will make rescues, provide crowd control, triage and treat patients, and more. It’s a great way to smooth out the kinks before we all do it for real over the busy beach season.
Wed evening at 5:30pm the returning guards join the rookies for a beast of a challenge. 65 lifeguards will run, dive into the surf and swim, then paddle rescue boards, and swim again. At some point they’ll run through a series of obstacle stations. It might be a mud crawl or a rope climb. They may do calisthenics, answer questions about lifesaving, jump off rock groins, perform mock rescues or more. It’s different every year.
There will be a point somewhere where each rookie will seriously doubt his/her ability to finish. There will be a point where they question their decision to join the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. They will wonder if being part of the team is worth the pain.
The last of the guards will trickle in up to 3 hours after starting to be welcomed by a crowd of fellow lifeguards, parents, friends, community supporters, and bystanders. After a welcome ceremony the whole group relaxes and tells stories at a pizza party.
This grueling event is the final physical challenge for the lifeguard candidates. But it’s bigger than that. For over 25 years this has been a way to show the candidates that they’re capable of so much more than they thought possible, and that there’s no challenge they can’t handle. The most grueling rescue pales in comparison to this event. It’s also a way for returning guards to measure their physical condition and to compare themselves to the new group. It’s a way to meld the staff into a seamless unit.
There’s an intangible element to getting so many diverse, often independent personalities to work together seamlessly. The training, protocols, and the chain of command get us only so far. But each individual link having a deep understanding that he/she is part of the chain is key. No one goes beyond what they thought were their physical, mental, or psychological limits for money or because they’re told to do so. It’s a selfless act for the greater good of a group. True lifeguards have to go through some pain and suffering to know in their hearts that they need the team and they have no limits to what they can do if they have to.
Here is an excerpt from a rescue report that was filed from last Sunday:
“Tower 43 (Lifeguard Suarez) called in moving swimmers out too far. Unit 297 (Supervisor Venegas and Supervisor Garcia) made scene. The lifeguard gave the “OK” signal and started to escort the swimmer on the rescue tube back to shore. Midway back to shore, the swimmer became tired, and the lifeguard had to secure the swimmer in his buoy in order to get him back to the beach. Supervisor Garcia Paddled out to the lifeguard and swimmer to make sure they were ok. All swimmers and guards made it back to shore with no complaints or injury. Unit back in service.”
This rescue was a fairly routine occurrence for our crew. But a lot of pieces to our overall “beach safety net” have to be in place before this can happen. We are so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that that is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we have so many programs that tie to the community in which we are embedded, such as the Jesse Tree/ Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, being designated as a “Safe Place” for kids, our School Outreach Program, At-Risk Kids Camps, and more. There are several opportunities coming up to become involved with our program at different levels.
About 40 percent of our overall staff and the majority of our supervisors come out of our Junior Lifeguard Program. Participants aged 10-15 study topics as diverse as beach lifeguard principles, first aid, CPR, and marine biology/ecology. Our objectives are to show the participants the values of mental and physical discipline; and, to teach them to respect themselves, others, authority, and the natural environment. Our hope is that many of the participants will become the lifeguards of the future. This year the Junior Life Guard Program starts June 4th and continues for six weeks. There are still spaces available.
The Galveston Island Beach Patrol “Wave Watcher” Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents. We are currently accepting applicants for the 2nd academy of the year, which is scheduled from May 29th to June 1st if there are enough interested people.
Tomorrow, May 12th, 2018 we have lifeguard tryouts at the Galveston Community Pool at Lasker Park at 7am (2016 43rd street Galveston TX, 77550). The Academy will start immediately after and run for two weeks. The course consists of 100 hours of training including American Red Cross Emergency Medical Response and CPR for the Professional Rescuer, United States Lifesaving Association Open Water Lifeguard Training, tourist relations training, and physical training. Candidates must be 16 or older, able to swim 500 meters in 10 minutes or less, and pass a urine drug screen. Info is on our website. WE NEED GUARDS!
The group of 10 or so middle school students came to the 24th street beach early. They were well away from the designated “no swim” area, about midway between the rocks and the Pleasure Pier.
5 of the kids went in the water for a swim. What they didn’t notice is that there was a current pushing them towards the rocks.
Captain Tony Pryor and Senior Lifeguard Kevin Knight (AKA “L’il Kev”) were working as our early patrol vehicle. They were doing a first pass of the beachfront. Tony spotted the group drifting quickly towards the drop-off and rip current by the rocks. He told Kevin to get ready, then flipped on the overhead lights and hooked a U turn, intending to pull up in the no parking area so they would have quick access to the stairs leading down to the beach. Unfortunately, there was a red pickup truck parked right in the middle of the emergency lane. Tony quickly found a small space between two parked cars and wedged the rescue truck up onto the sidewalk. Kevin jumped out of the truck, grabbing his rescue tube and fins. Tony hit the air horn and used the loudspeaker to tell the kids to come to shore immediately. They didn’t respond.
Kevin ran over to the steps and down to the beach, entering the water at the base of the rocks. By this time there were three kids caught in the rip current that were near the end of the rocks, and two more on the brink. He high-stepped through the water, then dolphin dove, when it was near waist deep, and finally put the fins on and used the rip current to swim towards the three kids farthest out.
Tony called for backup, then followed right behind, but ran out on the rock groin. He yelled for the two kids that were on the edge of the drop off to go straight to shore. He watched long enough to see that they were making progress and a teacher was headed that way. Then he scanned the groin and water. Kevin had made contact with two of the kids and seemed to be OK as he took them around the end of the groin. A young girl was struggling about ¾ of the way out near the rocks. Tony called for a fisherman to grab the ring buoy out and rope of the rescue box. The man responded quickly, removing the buoy and expertly throwing it to the girl. The girl grabbed it, but was getting washed along the rocks in the heavy surf. She was able to hang on, which bought she and Tony valuable time.
Tony ran to her, slid down the rocks and into the water. He untangled her and used his rescue tube to swim her away from the rocks and to safety. Kevin brought the others to shore. Tony and the girl were cut up, but the kids were fine as Tony and Kevin left to continue patrolling.
With this cold weather it’s hard to believe that we’re on the verge of starting beach season. We’ve started our daily patrols and it’s only a month till our first lifeguard tryouts and academy, which will happen over Spring Break. Our full time crew has been working hard to get everything ready for the season. They just finished refurbishing all 32 of the lifeguard towers, we’re going live with a new and improved website, updated and revised the Hurricane and Tidal Threat Response Plan for the Park Board, and more. The next big project is to get all the missing and damaged signage up before people start swimming again in a few weeks. We’ve also started our Water Safety Outreach Program in the schools and are preparing to ramp up a number of community programs including Junior Lifeguards, The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, At Risk Kids Camp, Lifeguard Scholarship Program, etc.
The Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network (SSN) is in its 15th year and has helped around 50 families through the early stages of the coping and grieving process. They have done such a wonderful job though the years of working with hotels, restaurants, consulates, and volunteer clergy, translators, mental health workers, to provide and invaluable service when tragedy strikes. This week was a big step in taking this program to the next level.
I joined Lieutenant Kara Harrison from the Beach Patrol, David Mitchell from the Jesse Tree, and Iris Guererra who is a volunteer for Jesse Tree, Survivor Support Network, and the Beach Patrol Wave Watchers Program. The four of us attended a 3 day certification course for individual and group crisis intervention, which is provided by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. The course covers the basics on how to diffuse and debrief people who have been through traumatic events. It is designed to provide care for individuals and groups. It works for a range of people including everything from normal citizens to public safety professionals. There is, of course, quite a bit of current theory, but also a lot of practice sessions and role playing. That way when you get in the field you can more smoothly apply the principles of the class to normal life.
Another benefit of the course is that this is the same training foundation that our county critical response team has and will be a way to link with this great bunch of people. Having the Jesse Tree involved, along with other groups from the county, means we’re all talking the same language and can support each other when needed. A big part of the idea of critical stress intervention for public safety groups is that you try to have people outside of your normal rank structure conduct the sessions.
Of course Beach Patrol, with its 140 or so lifeguards has its own special needs since we deal with so many serious incidents annually. Building capacity for support of these brave men and women is invaluable in avoiding burnout and in keeping the workforce mentally healthy.
Lifeguard tryouts are this Saturday!
I’m relieved we’re finally to this point. Spring is always tough for us to staff the beaches since so many of our seasonal employees are either college or high school students. Fortunately, we’ve had a number of our high school guards who have been willing to come out and work the weekends so it’s mostly been the weekdays that have been spotty.
There are several reasons that staffing is a continual challenge. The main one is that beach guarding is hard! Not only is it physically a challenge to pass our swimming, running, and teamwork requirements, but the guards have to go through about 100 hours of tough training before they can “ride the pine” and take their place in a tower. But additionally, beach guards have to work under very challenging conditions in a harsh physical environment. They don’t only work when it’s a sunny, calm, cool day with low crowds. They’re out there when the wind is blasting 30 mph and when the heat index is well over 100. They’re out there when the current is ripping and they have to spend literally half the day in the water keeping swimmers away from rocks and rip currents. They have to deal with obnoxious people, lost kids, injured people and animals, people in crisis who are at their worst, and people who are lost or afraid or panicky.
Many may want to find an easier summer job. But those who are physically, mentally, and emotionally capable and accept the challenge receive plenty of rewards. They get to work in a beautiful environment with an incredibly diverse set of people. They are part of an elite team that is motivated, positive, and inclusive. This team becomes family for most of them. And, perhaps most importantly, they get to go home each day with the knowledge that if they were not there many people would have been hurt or worse. They get to go home knowing that they did their part in making the world a better, safer place and their actions had a direct, positive effect. They may be with people at their worse, but they are also with people at their best for the most part. They are there to celebrate being with family and friends at the beach. And they are there to help when things go bad. This work builds a level of character and confidence that is hard to get elsewhere.
We need guards who are willing to accept the challenge. Tryouts are tomorrow, May 13th at the UTMB Field House at 7am. We’ll start with a 500 meter swim in less than 10 minutes and go from there. We’ll start our lifeguard academy immediately after tryouts. Information is on our website.
If you know anyone at all who may be interested and able to work as a Beach Patrol lifeguard please encourage them to show up tomorrow morning.
It will change their life and save the lives of others.
Last Tuesday evening a call came out that there was a shark bite at 42nd and sand with heavy bleeding, and unconscious person, and CPR in progress. Beach Patrol, EMS, Fire Department, and the Police Department were all dispatched to the scene.
When everyone got there they expected something pretty dramatic. The first call on the radio was the lifeguard truck, who called in that there was no CPR in progress and only minor bleeding. They added that the cut was from a fin. A surfboard fin.
It’s not abnormal for calls for service to come in as one thing and in actuality be something else. Usually the reality is much less severe than the call, but it can be the other way around. Other times our hardworking dispatchers field multiple calls about the same thing, and each has a completely different take on what they saw. First Responders all react assuming the worst case scenario but arrive ready to re-evaluate once they see with their own eyes.
In this particular case the “shark bite with CPR in progress” was a 4inch cut to the thigh of a 15 year old girl that was caused by the fin of her surfboard. We treat many surfboard fin cuts each year and rarely see a shark bite. But surfboard fin cuts can be severe. A fin that is connected to a big surfboard getting pushed around by a wave has a lot of force. It can slice to the bone easily, and at times can cut more than just fat and muscle. The good thing is its usually a fairly clean cut that can be sewn up easily. File the sharp edges of your fins down when you buy them to minimize the risk. Also, for beginners who are not yet aware of how to get away from their board when they fall, they make flexible fins that are way safer. We use them along with foam boards for our Junior Lifeguard Program.
Speaking of Junior Lifeguards we are accepting applications now. This year we have new partnerships in place in the form of “complimentary camps”. Martial Arts America, The Kitchen Chick, and Clay Cup Studios all offer camps that are compatible with the times of each age group of our Junior Guard Camp. So, for example if you have a 10 year old, they’d go to Junior Guards from 8-12 and then could go to one of the other camps in the afternoon. They’d be doing these fun, educational activities most of the day. Information on these complimentary camps is available on our website.
Next Wednesday around 5pm we’d like to invite you to 29th and Seawall for our annual “Night Swim” event. All of our lifeguard candidates will attempt their final physical challenge and will be joined by our veteran lifeguards. They’ll swim, paddle, climb, crawl, and suffer in unimaginable ways for your viewing pleasure. Come cheer us on and help us welcome our new recruits to the team!
At the time most of you are reading this about 30 Beach Patrol Senior Lifeguards and Supervisors are running along the shoreline of Stewart Beach. It’s an annual timed re-qualification trial required to secure or maintain positions. Following that are mock rescues and medical scenarios, a report writing seminar, and updates/testing on policy and procedure.
While the tower lifeguards go through well over 130 hours of training during their first season, more demanding higher level positions require an even more elevated skill level. In fact, in addition to what’s listed above and depending on rank, these men and women potentially also complete annual training for EMT, SCUBA, law enforcement, dispatching, tourism ambassadorship, National Incident Management System (NIMS), and critical incident stress management counseling. All that is in addition to the daily training sessions we each do before our daily shifts to keep rescue and medical skills razor sharp.
One of our most daunting challenges each year is that the majority of our 130 or so employees are seasonal workers, many of whom are students. Rescue skills atrophy quickly when not used, so it puts a great deal of pressure on our staff to get all the returning guards trained and retrained to adequate levels before the busiest weekend of the summer- the Memorial Holiday. The next two weeks are a crucible we all have to get though so we can handle the estimated 6 million people we protect annually. The list of events is intimidating.
Our second lifeguard academy starts tomorrow after lifeguard tryouts. If you or someone you know is interested, we will start with a swim trial tomorrow morning, followed by an interview, drug test, and run-swim-run. The 100 hour lifeguard academy starts immediately afterwards and lasts two weeks. Application information regarding Lifeguard and Junior Guard programs is on our website.
Next week we will hold Junior Lifeguard Instructor Training for the elite staff that works with the 10-15 year olds that attend our 6 week long day camp that mirrors our Lifeguard Academy; even to the extent that we train them in CPR, First Aid, and Water Rescue. Of course we make it fun with field trips, marine ecology seminars, sports, games, surfing/boogie boarding, and friendly Lifeguard Sport competition. They even get to spend some time in the lifeguard towers “working” alongside real lifeguards.
On Tuesday, May 17 we’ll be participating in the Hurricane Awareness Tour at Scholes International Field. Public tour period is from 2:30-5:00pm.
Thursday the 19th we’ll join our partners in the Galveston Marine Response to sharpen our rescue and coordination skills in a large mass casualty exercise in Offats Bayou.
The following week we’ll also be involved in our Supervisor Training Academy, Dispatch Training Academy, all staff “Night Swim”, all staff orientation/meeting session, Beach Safety/Rip Current Awareness Week proclamation at City Hall. We’re also going to send a small team down to the Corpus Christi area to help them with some very needed training.
All this set to the backdrop of normal May beach madness!
We’re all really mad at that groundhog that it doesn’t feel like spring, but this weekend is the start of the biggest spring break weekend. The Beach Patrol’s pace accelerates rapidly because the first wave of our seasonal lifeguards come back and do their annual requalification swim and other requirements and head out to the lifeguard towers.
Tomorrow morning is also a tryout day followed by the start of a 9 day lifeguard academy immediately afterward. If you know someone that’s interested it’s not too late for them to meet us at 7am at the UTMB Field House. Information is available on our website.
Our fulltime staff has done a fantastic job of getting everything ready for the beach season. The Park Board Beach Maintenance Department put the towers out on the beach for us and our crew has taken care of the last details of proper signage, flag poles, etc so they’d be ready for the guards. They’ve also gone out and done another round of maintenance on the 300 signs that we maintain along all 33 miles of beachfront- no easy task in the weather we’ve been having. There’s a great deal of prep work that goes into preparing everything for the lifeguard academy, which is a pretty involved deal involving Red Cross and United States Lifesaving Association certifications, along with all the scheduling of facilities and instructors and revising course materials. But it’s all done (and much more) and we’re ready.
We’re starting the season off on a sad note this year. Pat McCloy, a long time Beach Patrol supporter, died early this week. She and her late husband Dr. Jim McCloy of Texas A&M Galveston were always there for us and for many other groups on the island. We’re helping her close friend and former Director of Beach Patrol, Vic Maceo, to organize a paddle out ceremony at around 2pm today at Stewart Beach, which is open to anyone who is interested. Several years ago we participated in a similar one at the same spot for Jim. Friends of Pat and Jim, lifeguards, beach people and others will follow the Polynesian tradition and paddle boards to a point offshore and make a circle. We will then put her ashes in the water along with flowers. There will be prayers, stories, or silence as we say goodbye/aloha to Pat and watch her ashes dissolve in the same waters that hold her lifelong partner’s. They were real ocean lovers and inseparable in life. It seems fitting that they will finally rejoin in the water. Thank you from all of us Pat and travel well in the next phase of your journey.
As lifeguards and rescuers we know we can’t dwell long on the past or even the future. We need to be present and focused when the tourists arrive and need us to help them get home safely. Pat of all people would understand this and cheer us onward into a new beach season.