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Rip Currents

Over the past few years a pretty vibrant dialogue going on worldwide related to rip currents and how to best keep people safe around them has been taking place. As you all (hopefully) know, a rip current is a channel of water moving away from shore resulting from waves, current and bottom topography. In Galveston they mostly occur near structures like piers or jetties. In Galveston, the USA, and in Australia approximately 80% of all surf rescues occur as a result of rip currents, so they’re the big dog when it comes to beach safety education.

In my work here and in my volunteer roles as President of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and the Secretary General of the Americas Region of the International Lifesaving Federation I’ve been involved in quite a bit of this dialogue. I also had the privilege over the past decade or so of representing the USLA in a task force that worked with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically Sea Grant and the National Weather Service, to come up with and improve upon a public education campaign about rip currents.

A Texas A&M researcher named Chris Houser did a pretty interesting study in Galveston and elsewhere. What was so groundbreaking about this particular study is that it wasn’t just focused on how rip currents work (where they exist and under which conditions, how fast they go, etc). He focused instead on something lifeguards care deeply about- what are peoples’ perceptions of what areas are safe and/or dangerous and how do we get the word out most effectively. He came up with some very interesting conclusions.

In a nutshell, only 13% of beachgoers that were surveyed could correctly identify a rip current. 87% of people preferred to swim in areas that had no waves breaking because they thought they were calm and safe. These areas are calm because no waves are breaking as a result of the rip current pulling the sand out. Also, only a third of those interviewed felt they could swim over 100 yards.

He mentioned that Galveston provides a lifeguard service that basically keeps people away from rip currents, but with most people visiting the beach not knowing which areas are safe and not being able to swim well, we definitely have our work cut out for us! Last year alone we moved around 200,000 people away from dangerous areas, the majority of which were rip currents near the groins and tidal currents at the San Luis Pass and the Galveston Ship Channel.

All this boils down to some very simple advice for you and your family when you visit the beaches in Galveston. Swim near a lifeguard so you have a trained set of eyes to catch it if you get too close to dangerous areas. Also, observe signs, flags, and warnings put out by the Beach Patrol and the National Weather Service.

Wishing you all safe holidays from everyone at the Beach Patrol!

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!

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.

Sunday Race Day

The sun was just peeking over a horizon and the rough, windblown surf showed pink highlights as we lined up. Legs vibrated and hands showed white knuckles on our racing boards as the call came out, “Paddlers take your mark…. GO!”

The current swept from west to east, but I hedged my bets by lining up on the east side, hoping some of less experienced racers would overcompensate by playing it safe. As we punched through the inside break, to my right was Joe Cerdas and Kevin Anderson. We were first through the inside break and had a bit of a jump on the rest of the pack. But I knew there were some fast people in that group.

I edged up and was in first for a bit. Visions of reclaiming the rescue board race title danced through my 53-year-old head. But then we hit the outside break. Joe and I got nailed by 5 or 6 giant piles of whitewater. In the chaos I saw Kevin clear the break, barely skating around the big set waves, and streak around the first buoy. Finally, Joe and I clawed our way through and rounded the buoy. I expected the pack to have pulled ahead, but most of them had troubles of their own. Taylor Stickline was the exception, and he paddled straight through the outside impact zone unscathed.

I tried to take deep strokes and control my breathing as we headed to the second buoy. Taylor hung tough but angled too far out. I focused and ignored burning muscles, pulling a little ahead of Joe. I still had a chance at 2nd, but I knew Joe is exceptional at catching waves and reading currents, so I was far from in the clear. I rounded the buoy and tried to stroke into an outside wave. I caught it but slid sideways, so only got a short ride. As I recovered and straightened out, Joe flew by on the next wave. Looking behind me, a solid 5-foot monster reared up. It broke hard and I was tossed forward. Somehow, I held on to the handles of my racing board, which was completely sideways, while getting bounced around by the whitewater. I saw a blue board floating on the inside to my left. I assumed Joe had lost his board and that I’d caught him. I snagged a small, foamy inside wave and rode it to shore against a small rip current. But, as I stood up in shallow water, Joe ran by from my right, passing me and sailing through the finish gate. The board I saw belonged to one of the competitors that didn’t make it around the course.

We have two races early each Sunday. Surf racing can be anyone’s bet, which is a huge part of the fun. Speed, training, experience, trickery, and luck are all in play. But there is no way to better hone rescue skills than to push and learn from each other in the conditions you might have to save someone in.

Upcoming Events!

Game time!

Tomorrow morning (Saturday, May 11th) at 7am Lifeguard Candidates will line up to attempt to become Galveston Island Beach Patrol lifeguards. Those that complete the swim will be interviewed, submit to a drug screening, and join our Spring graduates in a run-swim-run challenge. If they get through all these obstacles, they’ll start the 100 hours of training needed to “ride the pine” and work as a tower lifeguard. It’s not too late to tryout. Info is at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com/lifeguard . While all this is going on, returning guards who didn’t come back in the spring will be swimming, doing paper work, and taking the drug screening test. Many of them will then head out to work for their first day this season. We’re expecting 40-50 candidates to qualify for our lifeguard academy. These new guards will be a welcome addition. Not only have the crowds been unusually large for the past few weekends, but the busiest part of the year is almost on us and we need every trained and able-bodied lifeguard we can get out there to help keep the millions who visit the beaches safe.

Weather permitting there will be a lot going on this weekend with a paddle out ceremony for legendary G-town surfer Chris Hill, La Izquiera Surf Contest and Music Festival at the 91st street Fishing Pier, Bring Your Mom to the Beach Day Volleyball Tournament hosted by the Gulf Coast Volleyball Association at East Beach, Historic Homes Tour, and the Yagas wild Game Cook off. Next week is the annual Beach Review, and we’re only two weeks out from what is usually the busiest beach weekend of the year, Memorial Day Weekend.

The amount of preparation and training that has to happen each year to get all the seasonal staff, partner groups, and auxiliary staff members trained and re-trained is staggering. In addition to the Lifeguard Academy and Supervisor Training Academy within the next three weeks we’re also looking at a Dispatch Training Academy, Public Safety Responders Basic Water Rescue Course, Surf Camp Instructors Water Rescue Course, Park Board Police Firearms Requalification, and a Self Defense/De-Escalation class for our Wave Watchers. Additionally, on May 21st several first responder groups will join us for the annual “Mass Aquatic Critical Emergency Operation” (M.A.C.E.O.) at Stewart Beach. Joining us will be the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, who will use the event as a training scenario. Additionally, the new “Tourism Pays” event will be done in conjunction with MACEO. Once the Beach Patrol and the entire beach safety net gets through all this training, we’ll be sharp for Memorial Weekend and the summer. And as anyone who visits the beach knows, we’ll need it!

One thing to watch for is our annual BBQ fundraiser which will be at the Press Box this year on Friday, June 14th. This has, for over 20 years, been the beach party of the summer, so block off your calendar. We need silent auction items, so if you’re in the giving mood contact Tricia at tlimon@galvestonparkboard.org .

Go Texas Beaches!

Some exciting things to do with ocean safety are happening in Texas right now.

Galveston has had some type of lifeguard protection for recreational swimmers since just a few years after 1900. This isn’t the case for most of the Texas coast. For many years the beaches of South Padre Island didn’t have any type of lifeguard protection at all. Now there are two lifeguard services on South Padre Island, one for the city of South Padre Island and one for Cameron County. We helped them both get off the ground a few years ago, and they eventually joined and became certifying agencies for the United States Lifesaving Organization (USLA). The USLA is America’s nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers . The USLA works 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.

The Corpus Christi area is another story. Both the city of Corpus and that of Port Aransas have had some type of lifeguard organization for a number of years. Although they never had the structure, resources, and quality of the Galveston Beach Patrol, back in the early 90’s they were fairly well organized and we even had competitions and other types of interaction with them for a brief period. They’ve gone through several changes- some political and some related to resources, but overall seem to have declined over the past few years. That seems to be at an end. For a long time they have been using a Red Cross pool certification for their lifeguards. The formal training they’ve received does not prepare them for working the beach. It is also way below what the national standard is. Not only is this a liability for the cities, but is a disservice for the lifeguards and the people they protect. Making a rescue in the ocean is really dangerous even if you’re properly trained, equipped, and meet a high level of swimming and fitness requirement.

The Corpus group recently hired a new lifeguard chief who was one of the people we trained down in South Padre. He and his boss have applied for their agency to join USLA and plan on implementing training that meets the national standard that USLA sets this spring. They invited us down to teach a “train the trainers” course at the end of this month and were open to including the Port Aransas group in the course. The Port Aransas group is also applying to USLA and is planning the same. They may even have joint training courses for the two groups in the late spring.

The big picture is that now, as long as Texans choose a beach with lifeguards, they will get protection that meets the USLA national standard. USLA statistics show that your chance of drowning at a beach with USLA certified guards is 1 in 18 million. That’s a good deal for Texas.

Veracruz Training Wrap-up

At 7:15 our little band stood in the lobby of the Hotel Louis rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and filing into the van of the “Proteccion Civil” (Mexican equivalent of Emergency Operations). By 7:45 we were in the auditorium provided to us as a classroom for the 60 students of the lifeguard academy.

It was the last full day in Veracruz. The culmination of 60 hours of training over a 6 day period. We were tired to the bone after all the teaching and mandatory extracurricular activities that were required of us by Mexican customs and the formalities required of a delegation from Veracruz’s sister city.

From the written test we went directly to the beach and the large group was quickly divided into a subset of 4. Smaller groups of around 15 participated in 4 separate scenarios on the beach. Two were simulated medical emergencies that were designed to happen on the shoreline and the other two were water emergencies, which were complicated by the 8 foot surf. By 11:30, thanks to the help from some additional volunteers, we’d run the scenarios and done a debriefing to talk about the good and bad responses to the simulated emergencies. After the daily mandatory group photo shots and autograph sessions protocol dictated, we ate a hasty meal that our host brought us. Then we and reunited with a couple of members of our group who were assigned the arduous task of grading the 60 exams and putting the scores in the course matrix alongside the swim, run, attendance, teamwork, and first aid/CPR course columns. To receive certification from the International Lifesaving Federation- Americas Region they had to pass all of the columns. 26 ended up passing and the others received an acknowledgement of participation in the course, and in some cases a certification in first aid and CPR.

The completion ceremony filled the municipal hall of Veracruz and there were high ranking officials present from the mayor to an admiral in the Navy to the heads of both tourism and civil protection for the state. The mayor is the son of the mayor that was there when Galveston and Veracruz formed their sister city relationship, and that relationship is clearly very important to the entire city. We were treated like royalty by everyone we came into contact with.

We actually got two glorious hours off to change, rest and prepare for the big celebration. At the celebration we distributed second had buoys, whistles, fins, lifeguard competition shirts, Galveston stickers and other things we brought to donate. Nothing goes to waste down there.

Hopefully the training will come in handy to the 14 groups from all over the state in the upcoming couple of weeks. Carnival starts today and they expect around 2 million people to visit the city alone in the next week. Semana Santa (Easter) follows shortly after and it just as big. They’ll definitely have their hands full.

Our crew returned Sunday exhausted but with renewed commitment. Our own challenges start shortly.

National Championship

The early morning light glimmered across the water, bathing the line of figures in a coppery glow. Each of them carried a narrow, sleek racing board under their arm. They were coiled and vibrating until the whistle blew and they exploded in a blur as they raced out into the water. First they high stepped until they were in deeper water then they hopped on the boards either prone or on their knees. Waves knocked a few back, but the front pack shot through the surf line in a tight clump and headed out to a line of flags and buoys.

The leader sliced through the water with the others drafting in his wake. They jockeyed for position as they neared the first turn, knowing  even a small error would be critical at this point. Only a few would advance to the next round.

One of the competitors who was towards the rear of the front pack nabbed a nice wave on the outside, joined shortly after by a clump of others. Having been able to rest on the wave, he jumped up in knee deep water and sprinted in through a funnel finish.

Welcome to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) national lifeguard championships. This year Daytona Beach, Florida hosted around 900 competitors and their support crews. The best of the best ocean lifeguards and junior lifeguards in the country competed in a multitude of Lifesaving Sport events which simulate the skills needed to rescue people in trouble.

More than any other of the emergency services, ocean lifeguards rely very heavily on their skill and fitness in the water to effect rescues. All the inter and intra agency competitions lead to regional competitions and eventually the best duke it out at the “Nationals”. Competition is the key motivator for thousands of beach lifeguards to maintain the incredibly high levels of physical fitness required to do the job.

The Galveston Beach Patrol has a long history of doing well at these competitions and are known throughout the country for this and for the innovative professionalism shown though decades of service. This year they did not disappoint.

Top junior guard finishes were:

Carlos Guerra (older group) 2K Beach Run-12th place, Run-Swim-Run- 15th place, Iron Guard (Run-Swim-Board Paddle)- 11th place

Mac Livanec (younger group)- 2K run- 2nd, beach flags- 8th, rescue board- 7th, Iron Guard- 12th

Baxter Wright (12-13)- 2K run-11th, board race- 2nd,

Carlos Guerra/Baxter Wright Swim Rescue Race 9th place

 

Finals for Lifeguard Competitors were:

Loree Pryor– American Iron Woman (run-swim-paddle)- 2nd, Beach Flags- 3rd, Run- Swim-Run- 4th, Rescue Board Race- 4th

Kevin Anderson– International Ironman- 4th, 2K Beach Run- 6th, Run-Swim-Run- 7th, Surf Ski- 8th, American Iron Man- 10,

Peter Davis– 2K Run- 2nd, American Iron Man (run, swim paddle row)- 4th, rescue board- 4th, surf ski- 4th, International Iron Man- 4th, Surf Ski 5th,

Nikki Harclerode/Caitlin Fairhurst– Surf Boat- 7th

Alana Anderson– 2k- 4th, American Iron Woman- 6th, Board Race 9th, Run-Swim-Run- 5th

South Padre Island Competition

The drive to South Padre is long. After 5 hours or so we pulled into a truck stop to get some gas. It was over 100 degrees and the wind was blasting at nearly 30mph. Cowboys gawked as we got out of our lifeguard truck piled high with boards, buoys, flags and other competition equipment.

The next morning we arrived at Isla Blanca County Park just after 6am to a beautiful day. We were greeted by a bunch of enthusiastic young lifeguards who were really helpful as we set up a water course with 10 flags that corresponded to the 10 flags on PVC posts along the shoreline.

The Gulf Coast Regional Championships started off with a run, followed by a run-swim-run, rescue board race, 4X100 meter beach relay, swim rescue, rescue board rescue, and a game of beach flags. Three teams were represented: Galveston Beach Patrol, South Padre Island Beach Patrol, and Cameron County Beach Patrol. There was a 15 minute break between each race and the marshaling for the next one. As the day wore on, more and more people crowded around to see what was going on. This was the first time an event like this has been held on SPI and everyone wanted to know all about it. Isla Blanca was the perfect venue with several thousand people already at the park on this busy Sunday.

Because we couldn’t spare many guards we only went down there with three people. Along with me were Kevin Anderson and Amie Hufton who are both good athletes and experienced competitors. Despite this, Kevin and I were surprised to see two of the younger guards blast off during the swim and beat us to the finish line by a few seconds. We got our game face on but still had some little dude beat us in the paddle. Meanwhile Amie won the women’s run, got 2nd in the swim, and won the paddle. Kevin and I finally got it together and won both the swim rescue and the rescue board rescue by a big margin. By 1pm we wrapped everything up with Team Galveston winning 5 firsts, 3 seconds, 4 thirds, and 2 fourths.

From there we caught a quick lunch and then joined the city lifeguards in a 3 kilometer paddle that ended in a fundraising party. I’d spend quite a bit of time down there a few years back helping both groups set up lifeguard services and it was good to catch up with friends and acquaintances  from that time that are involved with city and county government, lifesaving, and surfing. But we were all definitely glad to crawl into our beds in the hotel and I think we were all sound asleep by 10pm!

5 years ago there were no lifeguards in South Padre island. Now the county has 45 guards and the city has 25 and they have joined the United States Lifesaving Association. Many lives have been saved and will be saved.