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Beach Safety Week

We’re in the middle of a lifeguard academy and lots more. We ended up with about 20 candidates out of the almost 40 that attempted the tryouts. But these 20 have some pretty serious challenges ahead of them in their 100-hour course that they have to complete before being able to work the beaches.

Next week is national “Beach Safety Week” and is arguably the most exciting week for us of the year. And we want you to participate!

Tuesday the 21st will be the annual Mass Aquatic Casualty Emergency Operation (M.A.C.E.O.) event. This is a huge drill held at 5pm at Stewart Beach. It’s designed to be a final practical test for our lifeguard academy, but has turned into something much larger through the years. The Lifeguard Candidates play the part of rescuers and medical responders as they rescue and triage “victims”, who are played by the more experienced guards. As they do this, they interface with emergency responders from a myriad of other agencies. So, they may rescue someone in conjunction with the Police Department Marine Division, bring them to shore where other candidates work with EMS and Fire to triage and treat injuries. Or they may assist peace officers in gathering information or blocking off an area. Wave Watcher volunteers will play the role of distraught family members as other volunteers from the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network practice crisis intervention techniques. So far it looks like agencies participating include the US Coast Guard, Galveston Police and Fire Departments, Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue, Sheriff Office Marine Division, Galveston EMS, Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston PD Dispatch operations, and of course the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. After we finish, we’ll all work together to look for lessons learned and ways we can improve performance. This is a real good way to shake off the cobwebs and improve communication and operational procedures as we all head into the height of the tourist season.

In conjunction with this, the Park Board is hosting a first-time event called “Tourism Pays”. On Stewart Beach we’ll have equipment and personnel from the Park Board and Emergency Response groups from the area. Kind of a show and tell. Around 6:30 will be the presentation of a new award given in honor of Galveston lifesaving legend and Guinness Book of World Records record holder, Leroy Colombo. Following all of this will be hot dogs, hamburgers, and fellowship for participants and the community.

The following day, on Wednesday, May 22nd, is the final physical challenge for our academy. Candidates and returning guards will undergo a grueling course that includes running, swimming, special exercises (torture), skills, and lifesaving knowledge tests for an approximately two-hour challenge called the “night swim” We’ll start about 5:30 and end around 7:30 or 8. We’d love to see you at both events!

Following all this will be Memorial Weekend, so start making your plan and be sure you think about having fun, spending time with friends and family, and being safe!

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 .

Cinco De Mayo

In case you haven’t noticed this beach season started with a bang and has been rolling in like a freight train. Last weekend was packed, and this weekend we’re looking at Cinco De Mayo, which has become a big beach holiday. The following weekend will be another big one with Gay Splash Day on Sunday which can be a big event. That is also the weekend we start our May Lifeguard Academy, so if you know anyone that would like to be a beach guard this summer tell them tryouts are Saturday morning at 7 and info is on our website. We’d like to have 50 new guards so are hoping for a big turnout.

Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862. It’s a bigger holiday here in the US than in Mexico though and has come to be associated with the celebration of the Mexican-American culture. Here on the Texas coast it’s a huge beach family day.

Bill Bower is one of a small, hardcore group of guards who started working at first opportunity in March. Bill joined us first as a Wave Watcher volunteer, then decided that after a lifetime of swimming he’d have no problem qualifying as a lifeguard. In his mid-60’s, Bill sets a great example for our staff in all kinds of areas including commitment, discipline, tourist relations, and enjoyment of a great job with a great bunch of people. He’s been posted up in the 61st street area all spring working one of our busiest areas with ease. He can often be seen watching his water while chatting with all kinds of people enjoying his beach. That’s why its not unusual that he approached an elderly woman walking on the beach and, with his trademark big smile, said, “I notice you walking out here all the time. You should join Wave Watchers.” He said she looked at him with a blank expression. She then replied, “Sir, I walk and do Zumba every day.” He said he took a minute to absorb before the light bulb went on. He asked her how she kept from getting angry and slapping him. He went on to explain that he didn’t say “Weight Watchers” and told her that “Wave Watchers” is a volunteer group that assists the Beach Patrol with a number of things, but it a great fit for people that walk, fish, or even drive around the beach regularly. As the Chief Lifeguard for the Beach Patrol I have to say I really appreciate Bill’s good-natured approach. Instead of dealing with a PR nightmare we’re potentially looking at a new member to our Wave Watcher cadre!

So, buckle up! Its beach season again and looks to be a busy, busy year. Not telling what adventures and challenges lay in store for all of us who work or recreate on the beach. But Bill’s example of patience, humor, and respect will point us in the right direction.

Team Work!

Easter Weekend brought it all together. Beautiful sunny weather with highs in the low 70s, water close to 70 degrees, and north winds that pushed the water out making lots and lots of beach. After so many rainy and cold spring weekend days people were chomping at the bit. And they came in droves.

Traveling from west to east there were people at all the beach access points, and it looked like lots of the beach houses were full, with people out in front of them. The seawall stayed busy with lots of people on the sand, hanging out on the wall, and out in the water. Then Stewart Beach had an almost full parking lot with masses of people out having fun on the beach and in the water. East Beach slightly less, but still a respectable crowd. The cool thing was that we were full but not overwhelmed. Traffic was slow on the seawall, but never quite got to be where it was bumper to bumper the whole way down. The parks were full as well, but not to the point where things got out of hand.

Saturday the water was flat the entire day and even looked like sheet glass for parts of the morning. Sunday was another story with strong winds and lateral currents that carried people towards the rock jetties where the dangerous rip currents are. But despite these challenging conditions the lifeguards, park staff, and security did an incredible job of staying on top of things.

Some of our rookie lifeguards had a few stumbles getting into the swing of things but they did a great job at what matters- keeping the public far from the rocks. The Park Board Security Detail, which is run by the Galveston Police Department and uses off duty officers from multiple agencies, stayed on top of things and prevented problems before they developed. They also did a great job of working with the lifeguard staff to reunite a number of lost kids with their families. The Tourism Ambassadors and enforcement officers kept the seawall safe and happy, the park staff worked a solid 12-14 hours to make everything run smoothly, and the Coastal Zone Management crew was up and on the beach at 3am Sunday morning so that when the rest of the world got to the beach it was already completely litter free. And our new and returning Wave Watcher Volunteer Corps patrolled beaches from the east end all the way to the San Luis Pass.

When the dust cleared on Sunday evening and the last tourist left the island safely, we’d chalked up over 2,400 swimmers moved from danger, 12 medical responses, 9 lost children reunited, 2 rescues, and 19 enforcement actions. The Wave Watchers along handled 18 preventative actions, 35 water safety talks, and 8 enforcement actions for litter or code violations. There were also a couple of water emergencies handled by the Galveston Marine Response on the west end during the night involving rescues.

What a safety net and what a team!

Sea of Swimmers

The sea of swimmers looks like mullet swimming all over each other. The start of the triathlon is hard to guard as waves of over 100 swimmers start every 5 minutes. Beach Patrol lifeguards, Police, Sheriff Deputies, along with other groups in kayaks, Jetskis, and boats watch over the masses, trying to pick out the ones that are tired, get cramps, panic, or have sudden medical issues during the swim. Some 70 or 80 require minor assistance and a handful are brought quickly to shore to be checked out by EMS. The Galveston Police dive team is suited up and ready, just in case.

This Sunday, April 7th is the Memorial Hermann Ironman 70.3 Texas. The event is based at the perfect venue for a triathlon, Moody Gardens. Triathletes typically come with a full entourage of family and friends. They usually have some degree of disposable income and like to visit local attractions before and after the race. Most importantly, they like the logistics to be simple. I remember many times coming into a new town for a race and, on top of the normal pre race jitters, having to navigate large cities to find the swim area, bike and run course, and different transition areas. At Moody Gardens its one stop shopping. On Galveston Island, it’s easy to find your way around, find parking, and enjoy all that our amazing venue has to offer.

We’re looking at around 3,000 athletes, along with all their entourage. Sports tourism is a growing industry and triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports around.

This is a “Half Ironman”, so involves a 1.2-mile swim, 56mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run. Not for those who aren’t really trained up!

The Beach Patrol and the Police Department Marine Division’s dive team work closely to provide water security. We work a sort of zone defense strategy. Lifeguards on rescue boards are placed strategically throughout the course with Lifeguard Supervisors on Jet Skis covering zones. The Police boat protects the race from boat traffic and is ready to dive for someone if the need arises. Using a system of whistles and hand signals rescues are made and tired swimmers are removed from the water. Every racer is tracked by an identifying number and a chip. EMS, Police, and volunteer crews coordinate emergencies, aid, and logistical support through a central dispatch. A whole lot of work goes on behind the scenes to support racers and minimize risk.

There are some inconveniences on the road parts of the race, particularly the bike. Fortunately, our Galveston Police Officers who plan and work the event are pro’s, as are the city crews who handle all the details of making the roads safe for everyone. So, it really minimizes the impact on traffic and the community.

But ultimately this is a great event for the island. When these thousands of sports tourists head home, they will spread the word. Galveston is a fantastic place to visit and has something for everyone.

Hypothermia

In last week’s column I mentioned the danger of hypothermia as a result of swimming in the cold beach water. While most of us know the basics of what hypothermia is there is specific information that could be helpful, especially when swimming during the colder months.

The Mayo Clinic describes Hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature”. This “dangerously low” body temperature starts at 95 degrees and is more severe the lower it gets.

Your system doesn’t work well when the body is at lowered temperatures. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart and respiratory system failure. Eventually it can cause death. Sounds scary right? Does this mean that every time your kid starts to shiver, he/she is going to have serious problems? Of course not. This may just be just an early warning sign for mild hypothermia.

The first thing your body does when its temperature drops is to shiver. What it’s trying to do is generate heat by causing movement. When swimming, this is the sign that it’s time to warm up. It may be a matter of just sitting in the sand for awhile then jumping back in the water on a warm day. Or when conditions are more serious this is the signal that you need to get out of the water and warm up, now!

Hypothermia is divided into three categories- mild, moderate, and severe.

The symptoms for mild hypothermia include shivering, hunger, nausea, fast breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate. As your temperature continues to drop and moderate to severe hypothermia kick in. Shivering eventually stops and you’ll start to show clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion (even to the point of trying to remove warm clothing) and eventually loss of consciousness, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing. Babies may have bright red, cold skin, low energy and a weak cry.

Warming a person with a more advanced case of hypothermia can be tricky, since you don’t want the cold blood in the extremities to rush to the center of the body. In these cases, you want to call 911 for professional help and to move the person as gently as possible in doors. Remove wet clothing and cover them in lots of blankets. Then wait for help to arrive.

Differentiating between mild and more severe cases can at times be difficult so, as always, when in doubt call 911. But for those cases that we all experience where we’re just shivering a little and our body temperature is near normal warm sun and maybe a hot chocolate is just the thing. Then get back out there and keep having fun!

The good news is that the water is warming up into the 60s, and soon will be comfortable for swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

Spring Break

Mardi Gras is the official kick off of the tourist season, but Spring break is definitely the sign that the beach season is underway.

We have lifeguard tryouts tomorrow. There is information on our website. We will have the first annual Lifeguard Academy running during Spring Break. We also have many of our returning seasonal employees coming back to requalify and start working, so there will be tower guards out from here on. We’ve scheduled a full complement of rescue trucks on patrol covering much of the island as well as continuing the on-call service we provide year-round. All the other emergency service groups are similarly prepared.

But even with all those extra layers of protection, you and your family’s safety rests primarily in your hands. So please get everyone you know to swim near a lifeguard and stay far from the rock groins. Tell them not to swim at the ends of the island, don’t drink and swim or drive, enter the water with their kids, pay attention to signs and flags, don’t swim alone, and don’t dive in headfirst. And remind them to stay hydrated and protect themselves from the sun.

The three areas you should be especially aware of when it comes to safety over Spring Break are rip currents, the danger of hypothermia, and the ends of the island:

Rip Currents are narrow currents that pull away from shore. Typically, here they occur near the rock groins and piers and don’t go much past those structures. They pull out but not under. They pull sand with them so the areas near these structures can be deep. It can be dangerous for most people to swim in that area so we have signs warning people away and post our lifeguard towers in those areas to the guards can help remind swimmers to stay far from the area. If for some reason you are caught in one, you should relax and float and don’t try to fight or swim against the current. If you can swim well, try swimming out of the current by swimming parallel to the shore one way or the other. If you see someone in the rip, don’t go in after them. Instead throw a line or float, like the ones in the rescue boxes on each groin.

Another big danger right now is that the water is VERY cold. You don’t want to stay in long before coming to shore and warming up. If you feel sluggish and weak, or start shivering, leave the water immediately and get warm.

The third thing you really want to watch for is on both ends of the island. The tidal flow bottlenecks at both the ship channel and the San Luis Pass. It’d dangerous to swim or wade in either place.

All that said, this is definitely the time to get out and enjoy some nice beach time. If you take a few reasonable precautions it will be worth the effort.

And say hi to the lifeguards while out there!

Do You Have What It Takes?

At 7am in the morning a group of swimmers stand near the pool getting a briefing. In groups of 10 they enter their assigned lanes and swim 10 laps, which is 500 meters. About half of them make it under the required time. These are interviewed and take a drug test. Those that make it through all three phases qualify for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol Lifeguard Academy.

When I started as a lifeguard back in 1983, there was no formal training and no special first aid course other than what I got when I took the Red Cross pool lifesaving course. I was just given a radio and sent to work. We’ve come a long way since then and now have a comprehensive training course that is over 90 hours long. And we pay those who qualify to attend!

Next Saturday, March 9th, is the first of two tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. We will have an academy over Spring Break and another in May. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. They are certified in CPR, First Aid, and beach lifeguarding. They also go through training in tourist relations, city codes pertaining to Galveston’s beaches, Gulf Coast ecology and marine life, and near shore topography and hydrology. Coupled with all the classroom work is hands on training in how to swim and make rescues in surf, search and recovery, and the basics of lifesaving sport. It’s a busy week and we’ll do it all over again the second week in May.

In addition to training for new lifeguards we are starting our annual training session for dispatchers, supervisors, and personal water craft rescue operations. By the time Memorial Weekend hits, we’ll be up to speed. Despite the huge amount of effort all this requires of our permanent staff members, who are all medical and lifesaving instructors, there’s a big payoff for both our staff and the public. The inconsistent training that once took a whole summer is taught in a uniform manner. Each employee is taught the same material and instilled with similar core values. Any one of our guards can handle whatever is thrown at them when they complete the training.

So, for those that would like to try being a beach guard, I hope you’ll give it a shot. I’m so happy I tried out all those years ago. For me it was a life changer. Not many people get to go home at the end of the day with the knowledge that they prevented people from getting hurt or worse. Not many people have the privilege of reuniting lost family members or treating people who are hurt. Not many people can say that they saved a life as part of their job.

When Things go South With a Offshore Wind

Even though we train our lifeguards very thoroughly, there’s no substitute for experience. Even guards who have been with us for a number of years can, at times, make dangerous mistakes without the safety net of more experienced guards around them. We had an incident earlier this week that was a wake-up call to how the dangerous combination of winter conditions and lack of experience can potentially be catastrophic.

A young woman walked into the water near the Pleasure Pier carrying a surfboard that she’d rented from a local surf shop. It was very cold, and the wind was blasting off shore. She paddled out and was quickly carried a distance from shore, where it got choppy enough to where she couldn’t paddle back in. Someone called 911 fortunately, so we were in the area quickly, as were other first responders. With these types of conditions, it can be really hard to spot someone because even though it looks calm close to shore, the chop can hide them once there farther from the shoreline. It took us a long time to locate her with binoculars, but we finally spotted her way, way out near 10th street. While one vehicle watched from shore another couple of guards launched a jet ski and headed in her direction. Even so it was a process. The waves blocked the view, so our rescuers had to follow radioed instructions until there were close enough to see her. By the time they found her, she was a couple of miles off shore and it was about half an hour before dark.

If this young woman hadn’t been found before dark, this could have been a whole different thing. Even wearing a wetsuit its doubtful that she could have survived the night once hypothermia set in. But fortunately, our crew got her back to shore where EMS checked her out. She was fine.

But it didn’t end there. Our ski crew felt bad because they were able to get her board almost to shore but as they were taking care of her and other equipment the board blew back offshore. So, they went down the beach in a rescue truck looking for the board, which they found floating only about 50 yards from shore. Even though it was almost dark they decided that one would paddle out on a rescue board and grab her board till the other got out there swimming. Then they each would paddle in. It didn’t go as planned.

A similar thing happened. The loose board was moving too fast to catch, and at one point our guards got separated in the twilight. Fortunately, one of our experienced supervisors, Nikki Harclerode, realized we hadn’t heard from them for awhile and started a search. We found the vehicle and had two jet skis on the way to find them before dark set in. For the record, they made it out without help, but I’m glad our staff was ready if things went south.

It was an interesting debriefing, but I doubt we’ll make this mistake again.

Winter Workout

You stand on the beach, wind whipping around you and easily penetrating your wetsuit. The air
temperature is in the mid 50’s, but the real feel temp is in the 40’s. It feels wrong to be standing
exposed, really wrong to be about to get in the water, which is in the mid 50’s.
The small group starts to jog down the beach. Because of the rubber hood sounds are different. Internal
sounds, like your breathing and heartbeat are uncomfortably loud, as is the wind. But everything else is
muted. As you run, your heels seem to make a metallic spring sound when they hit the sand. Your feet
are starting to get numb, so you are careful to avoid shells and bits of debris. You wouldn’t feel it if you
were cut.
Entering the water brings an involuntary sense of panic. Where your skin is exposed, there is sharp pain.
You force yourself not to turn back, but instead to take high steps until you get to chest deep water.
Piercing streams of water creep up your legs. Then comes the worst part.
You dive in and several things happen simultaneously. The water pours down your suit from the neck. As
it hits your chest you feel like you can’t breathe. But its hard to even think about that because the
source of the most discomfort is your face. You have an ice cream headache where your forehead used
to be. The skin on your face feels like ice is being rubbed on it. And when the water enters your mouth,
it hurts our gums and teeth. As you start to swim you take a breath, and ice-cold water pours into your
right ear and feels like it goes all the way into your brain. This is the point that you have to trust in mind
over matter. You tell yourself it will get way better in 100 strokes.
You reflect on the fact that wet suits only work when there’s a thin layer of water between your skin and
the suit. But when the water enters its basically the same as jumping in the water with nothing. So,
there’s a gap from entry until the suit gets water in it and the water is heated to body temperature.
There’s also an adaptation period for skin to adjust to the cold, but for water in the upper 50’s and
higher this will happen. Knowing all this and reflecting on it helps a bit. 5 minutes makes a huge
difference. Also, experience helps you know what wetsuit thickness and pieces to wear for certain air
and water temperatures, as well as activity levels. And you begin to trust that things will get better, even
comfortable, for as long as your body is able to continue generating heat.
After the hundredth stroke you realize that you feel ok and you can focus on the workout.
Doing this a minimum of once a week keeps our winter crew ready to make rescues in all types of
conditions.