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Season Recap

Fortunately, we are now in the position to run lifeguard patrols throughout the year. As the temperature cools, we’ll drive the entire beach front and, in addition to our lifesaving responsibilities, be able to devote attention to things like driving in prohibited areas, glass and alcohol enforcement, leash law enforcement, driving in sand dunes, and lots of other beach related issues. Hopefully this will take a little off the burden placed on the Galveston Police Department. Having a rescue truck out there already on patrol will also greatly increase our response time to water and medical emergencies in and around Galveston water.

Other than that we use the “slower” months to concentrate on rebuilding lifeguard towers and repairing/replacing needed signage of the 600 or so signs we maintain all over the island. We also use that slower time for the higher levels of training required of our full-time staff. For example, our new staff members are going to a certification course for “Swift Water Technician” this week and will be taking the Certified Tourism Ambassador course later this month. Additionally, we revise and improve training and administrative materials and try to burn off a bit of that vacation time that is hard to use during the busiest 9 months of the year.

Looking back over the past season, it was a tough one. Very large crowds and an extraordinary amount of rough water days kept us on our toes and sent some of our stats thought the roof. We seemed to be running at breakneck speed all season long and didn’t even get that late summer flat water that gives us some relief.

The big number that shows how busy we were is 175,080 preventative actions. In recent years we’ve traditionally hit somewhere just over 100,000. This year is the highest number we’ve ever recorded. This category measures how many times we advised people about or moved them from dangerous areas. It encompasses everything from the lifeguard swimming out and staying next to someone until they get to shore, to moving groups of people away from rocks on the loudspeaker in the trucks. It doesn’t include times we physically touch someone to bring them to shore, which is considered a rescue. We made 93 rescues this year which includes both rescues of swimmers and people who are boating. If we’re doing a good job of prevention that number will stay low, like it is this year.

Another big success was that we hit around 25,000 water safety talk contacts. This can be our school outreach program, or groups that show up on the beach that we intercept and give a safety talk.

We also made 582 medical responses and 627 enforcements. We often serve to filter out calls for EMS, Police, and Fire by handling minor things on site, so they don’t have to respond.

Finally, we reunited 179 lost children with parents, gave a few thousand tourists information about Galveston, provided 62 people help with vehicles, and a whole lot more.

Wet Suit Season

Very soon we’ll see some real temperature shifts and we’ll be looking at much colder water conditions. Some people will continue their beach activities as usual, and with increasing beach use in the off season our staff must be prepared. Starting next week our year-round staff is required to do at least one long training session in the beach per week. That way they stay familiar with how much wet suit to wear when going into the water for an extended time. Their bodies need to be adapted to cold water immersion and they need to know what to wear for which temperature ranges, since Texas water temperatures fluctuate quite a bit during the winter months.

A winter water rescue is usually a big deal. Water conducts heat away from the body way faster than air does. Rescuers are not immune to succumbing to the same conditions as the victims if they’re not prepared properly. And our lifeguards don’t have the backup that they do in the summer, often working alone at night in extreme conditions. A much higher level of both fitness and preparation are required.

Locally, water rescues are made either by other mariners or by a combination of agencies that participate in the Galveston Marine Response Group. These groups are generally well prepared, but occasionally even professionals who work in all kinds of conditions can overlook something critical. I remember a personal water craft rescue crew heading out for what seemed to be a simple rescue about 300 yards from shore on a warm day without taking the time to put on wet suits. The rescue got more complicated and took much longer. Even though the day was mild, the water temperature was very cold. There was a happy ending, but it was a serious lesson learned for a couple of our staff members.

Rescuers are not the only ones who need to be prepared before getting in or on the water in the winter. The number one mistake people make is not preparing properly for the temperature. Hypothermia, which is lowering of the core body temperature, sets in quickly. Mild symptoms include disorientation, shivering, and numbness and tingling in the extremities. The problem is that usually people get into trouble before they realize they are hypothermic and then can’t think themselves out of the situation. Some examples of how this typically plays out are the surfer that doesn’t wear the appropriate wet suit for the water temperature, kayakers who don’t wear any type of wet suit because they don’t “plan on getting wet”, or swimmers who aren’t familiar with how fast they can be affected. Something as simple as returning to shore and warming up in a vehicle doesn’t occur to the victim until the symptoms have progressed to the point where more serious symptoms set in and self-rescue is no longer an option.

So, as we go through the change in seasons remember to be prepared and that conditions chance rapidly this time of year. Be prepared but get out there and have fun!

Community

The past week was a tough one. Not just for the families and friends of the people who died in the ocean, but for the first responders who worked the events. It’s hard enough for us as residents to hear about tourists and locals who drown in our beach waters, but when it involved children it adds a whole new dimension.

Children drowning on the beach is not a very common occurrence, either here locally or along our nation’s beaches. We in the drowning prevention community think more of backyard pools, ditches, or rivers when we hear about drowning deaths of people under 14 or so. Internationally the vast majority of drowning deaths occur among toddlers or kids 4-5 years of age. A momentary lapse in supervision for the younger or groups of young kids playing in packs around water is the common theme.

On the beachfront our main group that drowns are boys and young men, typically 15-30. So, when we have people outside of that group it hits hard, particularly if it involves children.

Our staff went through a lot this past week. And I must hand it to them, they performed admirably under very tough circumstances. After the event itself they spent long days searching along the shoreline, or on a personal water craft. Particularly tough was the water craft as they spent hours in cold, windy, rough conditions repeatedly combing the south jetty and the groins along the seawall. And they weren’t the only ones as the Galveston Police Department, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, US Coast Guard, Galveston Fire Department, Equisearch volunteers spend hours in boats, helicopters, 4wheelers and 4WD vehicles checking every inch of the beach front, jetties, and areas around the San Luis Pass. And we still haven’t located the missing 16-year-old.

Whether or not they acknowledge it, this takes a huge emotional toll on our community, including emergency response crews. But knowing you’re not the only group looking- the only group that cares and feels bad, means a lot. There is definitely a great team here in this county from the Emergency Operation Centers, dispatchers, first responders, and groups that provide emotional support.

The Jesse Tree and our Survivor Support Team are a constant help. They were stretched to the limit with these events. And the County Critical Incident Management Team is phenomenal. I was contacted in the middle of the flurry asking if we’d like them to come and work with our staff, which I took them up on. Last year I went with Beach Patrol and Jesse Tree staff to a certification course for group and individual critical incident stress counseling that they put on, which was excellent. Sunday morning they sent a team to our office to work with our staff. It seemed to really help and was a great way for our newer staff members to realize they are part of something much larger than Beach Patrol, and that they are supported by a whole community.

Year-round Beach Destination

This has been a tough week. Five drownings (4 beach one bay), two of them children, and only three have been recovered. My staff and our partners in Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network have done an admiral job in very trying circumstances.  

One thing that helped was that the Beach Patrol year-round staff has been increased recently by four. That doesn’t sound like much, but those few extra bodies allowed us to assign a truck to comb the west end or a jet ski to check the rocks along the south jetty or the groins along the seawall without compromising normal operations.  

These incidents really highlight the fact that tourism is increasing during the “off peak” season from September till May. The water is warmer more of the year so they’re going to the beach and swimming. There was a time when we only really had significant amounts of swimmers on the weekends until the middle of October. Those days are long gone, and we often have large crowds on the beach and in the water into December and starting in February.  

We have, like it or not, become a year-round beach destination. This is great for the economy, provided we are able to take care of these additional visitors for these new “shoulder season” times that have become so busy. Additional staff for the lifeguards will be needed to cover more of the year and to cover more and more beaches, like the addition to Babe’s beach coming soon. We also have to consider that the day tripper’s use of the west end beaches has increased dramatically and we don’t receive much for the services we need to provide out there for security, lifesaving, beach cleaning, etc. 

New beaches are good, and experts say for each dollar we put on the beach we get seven in return. Great for tourism and for us as residents since that additional hotel tax fuels our tourist services and the additional sales tax keeps our taxes low. So more people can afford to live here and the city can provide the types of amenities needed to attract and keep them. 

For us on Beach Patrol, the key issues are staffing and infrastructure. Staffing needs are obvious to many people when they see the size of the crowds and the demands that puts on all the emergency services. But infrastructure is a major concern. We will eventually need some type of substation on the west end, hopefully at a park that captures revenue. I was there when they built the Stewart Beach Pavilion in ’84. It housed us as we grew from a staff of 17 to 145 so we could cover new beaches and increased tourism. It was supposed to last 25 years. It’s way past time to replace it for something that generates more revenue, is a landmark that makes Galveston proud of its flagship beach, and can adequately house a state-of-the-art lifeguard service.  

Hurricane Michael

Fortunately we dodged the Hurricane Michael bullet, but that was definitely a lesson to not let our guard down.

Nevertheless we saw some pretty decent coastal flooding on Tuesday into Wednesday. My office looks out over the Stewart Beach parking lot and it was surreal to watch it when the storm surge moved in. We were still a couple of hours from high tide and over the course of 15 or 20 minutes the entire parking lot went from dry to under a foot of water. It was like watching a flash flood as rivers started forming and eventually it ended up looking like a small lake.

Fortunately the Park Board Coastal Zone Management team had already started moving our lifeguard towers for the end of the season or we could have had some damage. They also scrambled to get the hundreds of trash cans they provide off the beach and out of the flooding.

Wednesday morning I got up early and paddled out at first light with another lifeguard. It was like a dream as we got to the outside break and saw wave after wave rolling in. They were long and clean and thick since the storm pushed them across hundreds of miles of gulf before they arrived. As the sun just popped up over the horizon I dropped into a head high freight train ride. The sun burned an orange swath in the wall of the wave as the offshore wind blew neon spray back. It felt like walking through the screen into one of the surf movies that my friends and I used to watch when we were in high school.

The waves stayed throughout the day, driven by the pulse sent out from Hurricane Michael. Hundreds of surfers lined the seawall, many of whom looked like they hadn’t been in the water for a long time. This is one of the difficult things for our guards. Everyone wants to ride the storm waves! So we get really good surfers who are out there all the time, novice surfers who are just starting to paddle out past the inside break, and “Al Bundy” surfers who have not, shall we say, kept themselves in peak condition. The guards have to have a practiced eye to pick out those who shouldn’t be out there and leave the others to enjoy their passion. If we or someone else doesn’t intervene, someone gets dragged across the rock groins by a rip current or a breaking wave. Others who are not tuned into the rules may try to surf close to the fishing piers, where city ordinance says they have to maintain a 300 foot distance. So the lifeguards end up being not just rescuers, prevention specialists, and enforcers; but also councilors and conflict mediators.

And at the end of the day, when the orange swell is colored by sunset instead of sunrise, the safety crew jumped in to enjoy a piece of what everyone else got while they were working.

Bitter Sweet

We’re perched on the brink. When the seasons change it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

This weekend will be the last one for the seasonal employees and tower lifeguards to work. The hardworking Park Board Coastal Zone Management Team will be picking up the towers next week.

It’s a kind of “bitter sweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work it’s a relief for the guards to get out of the “thunder dome”, but they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense, but so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.

Our fulltime staff is pushing on though. They’ll be patrolling the beaches in mobile vehicles and will continue to do so throughout the entire year, thanks to the four extra positions we’ve been given. They’ll also continue to respond to 911 calls 24 hrs a day throughout the winter.  In addition we also start off season maintenance duties next week, including replacing signage and rebuilding damaged towers. Other duties include website redesign, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. And this year because we have these new positions we’ll be able to hit many more school groups during more of the year. Our target is 20,000 kids, but I feel pretty certain we can get above that. We’ll also be spending a lot of time training the new staff as tourism ambassadors, swift water rescue technicians, dispatchers, personal water craft rescuers, and more. Some of them are in the process of getting EMTs so they’ll have more than we throw at them. The slower months always go fast, and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding.

But we’re not done yet. October and November are still pretty warm and with lots of people, particularly on the weekends. Remember if you and your family are out there on the beach that, while we’re doing the best we can out of rescue trucks, there are no stationed lifeguards. So be extra careful. If you need anything, we’re part of the 911 system and can be there quickly day or night.

We now enter the absolute best time of the year. Warm weather, gorgeous water, and low crowds make it the perfect time to be on the beach. There are still plenty of beautiful days to come, so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most.

See you on the beach or in the water!

Fiberglass Towers

The next Beach Patrol year’s budget was just approved by the Park Board and there are a couple of very significant changes coming up.

When lightning comes in the area we walk a delicate balance between protecting the public and protecting the people who protect the public. Our policy, which meets national best practice, is to pull the lifeguards out of the towers when lightning is within 10 miles as we simultaneously warn the beachgoers. Protecting yourself from lightning when you’re on the beach means you get out of the water and off the beach. Don’t be a Ben Franklin! Seeking cover from lightning involves getting to an enclosed structure with plumbing. The second best thing is a closed vehicle. The worst thing you can do is stand under an umbrella or a tarp waiting for the danger to pass. Lots of beaches can clear the area quickly but this is Galveston and there are often hundreds or even thousands of people to clear. We do the best we can with whistles until the guard takes cover, and then we use the loudspeakers on the trucks. Sure the guards do the best they can to guard from nearby protection or vehicles, but this often means that people who choose not to heed the warnings are swimming without supervision until the lightning moves out of the area and the guards can get back in the tower.

Next year we are going to be able to put a couple of modern, esthetically appealing fiberglass towers on the beach. They will have windows and can be sealed up for inclement weather, which means we can work the guards in cold, wind, rain and worse. Shielding from the elements also greatly reduces fatigue. But the most important thing is they can be fitted with lightning rods so guards can safely protect people during times of lightning. We’ll try them out at 61st street and Stewart Beach because these are areas of high use. They are costly, but if they work out we’ll be looking at sponsorship opportunities or grant funding to see if we can figure out how to put more of them out there.

The other really great thing is we have been given the go ahead to hire four additional year round lifeguards! This will do wonders for establishing a career path and leadership pipeline. They will be our trainers as well as having specialized training such as flood rescue, diving, tourism relations, personal water craft rescue, and more. Some may go on to become peace officers. The big advantages though are that we can better address all the beach use we have during she “shoulder seasons” after and before the seasonal lifeguards are able to work. We can greatly increase how many kids we are able to provide water safety training to and hope to hit 20K. Additionally, after all these years we will be able to not only provide emergency response year round, but also patrol.

Big thanks to the Park Board and administration for helping us help beachgoers!

Memorial Day Weekend!

All the preparation is done. The equipment is ready, the planning is over, and the time for preparation transitions to the time for action. This week had a great drill to help sharpen our communication strategies and rescue techniques among our group and between our emergency response partners. We finalized plans and schedules and met with our various partners to make sure we’re all on the same page. And our “Night Swim”, when our entire staff goes through a grueling two hour test of skill and stamina, went off without a hitch.
This weekend will see between 250 and 500 thousand visitors to the island. The saving grace is that we are now almost at full strength. We’ll be ready for whatever madness the hundreds of thousands of visitors this weekend bring, as will our partners in the Police, Fire, EMS, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, and Parking teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response, but ultimately our visitors are primarily responsible for their safety and well being.
So, this weekend if you’re going to the beach or anywhere near the water, remember it’s easy to let down your guard when you’re recreating. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:
Swim near a lifeguard- almost every tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection although you are still responsible for your own safety.
Stay away from the rocks- where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current.
Avoid swimming or wading at the ends of the island- The San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have very strong tidal flow. The water there is not only very dangerous, but they are illegal areas for swimming.
Don’t swim alone- your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.
Don’t dive in head first- to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.
Observe warning signs and flags- ours are all bilingual and use icons.
Non-swimmers and children should use lifejackets when in our around the water
Alcohol and water don’t mix- most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, try to remember that, even though you feel invincible, you’re not.
Take precautions from the heat and sun- such as loose fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
Remember the beach isn’t a pool or pond. There are currents, marine life, and the bottom is uneven with troughs and drop-offs. You should be much more careful and be sure to not exceed your ability.
Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go, have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories. Take a well earned break from your routine with friends and family. Just do it safely!

Sailboat Rescue

It was an absolutely beautiful evening with clear skies and a stiff wind. The elderly couple and their neighbor sailed around the south jetty and prepared to watch a beautiful sunset. Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong when their boat began having problems and they started drifting uncontrollably towards the rocks.
At 02:13am our “On Call” supervisor, Nikki Harclerode, received a call from the Coast Guard. Apparently there was a 32 foot sail boat with three passengers that was in distress and not able to sail their boat away from the south jetty. The Coast Guard was nearby in a boat, but was not able to get close enough to effect a rescue. The three passengers were not in distress at the moment but were quickly drifting towards the South Jetty and were being tossed around by the waves. Two of the tree passengers were in their 80’s.
Joe Cerdas rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, grabbed his equipment, and quickly jumped in the rescue truck, as did Micah Fowler. They both knew that a call like this would quickly overwhelm any one person. Nikki Harclerode was the on-call supervisor and breathed a sigh of relief as she heard them on the radio. These are experienced lifeguards and they quickly devised a plan. Joe and Nikki grabbed the boat from our headquarters at Stewart Beach and Micah headed out to the scene to try to locate the boat in distress. Joe and Nikki launched the boat at the Yacht Basin and made it around the tip of the South Jetty at around 03:10. Meanwhile Micah located the boat getting pounded by waves, a little less than 100 yards offshore on the west (beach) side of the jetty, and only about 15 yards off of the rocks. The sail boat was in about 4-5 feet of water and was being tossed around by the waves.
Micah figured out that he could drive the whole way out on the east side of the jetty because sand has accumulated over there. He lit up the boat and surrounding area and called directions to Nikki and Joe as they rounded the tip of the south jetty and made the 2 mile run back to the boat.
When they arrived Joe and Nikki easily found the boat following Micah’s lights. The waves were beating on the boat, and it was very difficult to figure out how to get the people off safely. After making a couple of loops around the sailboat they decided to approach from the leeward side and use the pontoon of our boat to wedge against the sailboat. Joe is a very skilled operator and he was able to gently maintain contact while Nikki carefully brought the elder couple across and assessed their condition. By 3:40 the three people were carefully transferred to the Beach Patrol boat. The passengers were exhausted and beat up, but OK overall.
Joe and Nikki drove them back to the Yacht Basin where a friend picked them up.

Wave Watchers

A group of people stood near the end of the rock groin at 37th street. They took turns removing the ring buoy and attached throw bag from the rescue box and throwing it to an imaginary victim in the water. The trick is to make sure the loop on the outside of the bag is secure by holding it in your hand or stepping on it with your foot while you toss the ring. The ring should be tossed over the head of the victim and gently pulled back to where the person’s head is. You can walk up side to side when you pull to make sure the ring contacts the person. If you miss, you don’t take the time to stuff the rope back in the bag, but coil it on one hand while stepping on the “bag end” of the rope. Your coils should go from the body out, so when you throw they don’t cross over the other ropes and tangle. When you re-stuff the bag with the rope, make sure it’s not coiled. You just feed the rope directly in the bag. It’s all about not letting the rope tangle. As in much of rescue work, the simplest thing gets complicated if not done the same way each time. It’s all about eliminating variables, so when things inevitably go wrong, you have less on your plate. Even professional rescuers don’t always think clearly under duress, so the more you can prepare equipment and practice before hand, the less you have to figure out on the fly.
This was just one activity that our recently graduated class of “Wave Watchers” undertook. Much of the course was in the classroom. They were certified in CPR and became official “Tourist Ambassadors”. We talked about beach topography and near shore bathymetry, rip and long shore currents, lost children protocols, beach rules and ordinances, drowning events, dangerous marine life and treatments, and Galveston areas that are hazardous to swimmers. On the final day they toured the beach, were issued uniform shirts and hats, received an official ID card, and we finished up with a celebratory lunch together.
This was the second class of Wave Watchers to graduate. We were joined at times by most of the Park Board Tourist Ambassadors that work the parking area of the seawall. Former Wave Watcher’s gave lectures and joined the class as a refresher. A wonderful group of 14 graduated.
The Wave Watchers have two running conversations on an app. One is for “Beach Operations” and includes reporting situations that need intervention by Beach Patrol staff or other groups. Their stats are entered into our data base so we can keep track of preventative or enforcement actions. That thread also includes daily beach information, warning flag colors, etc. The other thread is for general communication.
The Wave Watcher program has been a great force multiplier for the Beach Patrol and has become an integral part of our family. Let us know on our website if you would like to join the next class!