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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.

Understanding Waves

The wind blew across the surface of the smooth surface of the Gulf of Mexico. After awhile little ripples
began to form. Then they combined to form tiny swells. The water molecules themselves didn’t move
far. Instead, they passed the energy from one to the next, and this energy moved through the water
causing these swells. It was like a mouse running under a carpet. The mouse moves, but the carpet itself
doesn’t.
There was a lot of distance, or “fetch” in nautical terms, to travel. The little swells combined to form
larger swells that were farther apart. If you measured from the water’s surface to the top of the swells,
you’d have the “wave height”. If you measure the time it takes between the peak of each swell to pass a
stationary point you have the “wave period”. The more fetch the longer the distance these swells will
travel. The farther they travel, the more they start to organize and combine. They form larger swells that
are farther apart. Surfers look for a long period and a good size wave height. When these conditions
reach shore, you can have those big, clean, rolling swells that make great surfing waves when they
break.
A wave breaks in approximately 1.3 times its height. So, in general a 3 foot wave breaks in 4 foot of
water. Wave height is typically measured from the base of the breaking side of the wave to the top. In
some places surfers measure from the back, but the trend seems to use the measurement of the front.
It may be less macho, but it’s more accurate. This is a great trick for boaters and lifeguards. If you see a
two-foot wave breaking in the middle of the bay or ocean, it’s probably only about 2 ½ feet deep there.
This is one of many techniques water people use to “see” the bottom by looking at the surface of the
water.
By the time this particular wave train arrives in Galveston it has traveled a couple of hundred miles.
Depending on what kind of obstacles it encounters it will behave differently. If it spends its energy on a
sandbar it becomes a “breaking” wave. Depending on how steep the slope is it will break hard or gently.
If it hits a vertical or nearly vertical barrier it can form a “surging” wave. It will bounce up but won’t
actually break. An example would be right against the rock jetties or near a breakwater. If the water
doesn’t pass through it just kind of bounces back. Good to know when making a rescue by a breakwater
or jetty.
Waves are important to understand in our line of work. They can cause or contribute to rip currents,
inshore holes and bottom contour. To understand them means to understand how to use or work
around them during a rescue. Understanding waves is a crucial part of how to save lives for ocean
lifeguards.

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!

Wrapping up Labor Day Weekend

Labor Day weekend was interesting. Despite sketchy forecasts, each day by the afternoon we ended up with really nice conditions, some sunshine, moderate crowds, and nice water. On Monday it was especially nasty in the morning, so we put 18 guards “on call” and just worked the trucks until conditions improved. By the time the guards got out there, it was a pretty decent day and we even finished the official high season with a nice sunset.

Pretty early on Monday morning I heard on the fire channel something about a “water rescue”. Then I heard “Chief 1” saying he was going in for a rescue. Chief 1 is Fire Chief Mike Wisko. Was pretty cool to hear our Galveston Fire Chief up early on a holiday saving lives! Although the beach was quiet at the time, the action was on Broadway and the north side of the island. All the rain caused some pretty significant flooding. As calls started coming in for people stranded in the high water or EMS trying to get to patients, the Fire Department sounded pretty busy. I asked Chief Wisko if they wanted some assistance and we decided to put the Beach Patrol’s high water rescue vehicle in service at Fire Station 1 for the water calls that were deep.

Meanwhile on the beachfront there was a bit of lateral current which kept the lifeguards busy, but not overwhelmed. Although we dealt with very few emergencies, it was steady. By the end of the day Monday we’d done around 2,500 preventative actions where we moved people from, or warned them about, dangerous areas. Not bad for a weekend that looked like it would be completely rained out.

We still have until October 7th to work seasonal lifeguards, but many of them have turned their attention to school even if they will still be able help out on the weekends. After that we’ll do the best we can with those of us that work year round. We had a good crew this year and I’ll be really sorry to see them go. One consolation is that it looks like we’re a go for 4 additional year round positions, which will really take the pressure off on those busy weekends in October, November, and even December when we are struggling to stay on top of things without our tower lifeguards. The increased bodies will also enable us to increase our school water safety outreach program and to provide not only year round call, but year round patrol. Finally!

So as we move into the fall season we will start to see a series of frontal systems move through. Each of these is typically followed by beautiful, clear, dry days with small crowds. And we’ll start seeing the migratory birds moving through. This is the best beach season here, especially in the context of it being sandwiched between hot, crowded summer and cold windy winter days. So get ready to get out there and enjoy the best part of the year soon!

 

Competitions

For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time.
Beach guards routinely make rescues of people caught in large surf or rip currents who are 40-100 yards off shore. Sometimes the victims are much farther out. The guards have to swim through currents, waves, and sometimes sea life to reach the people who need them. If the victim submerges before the guard gets to them there is little or no chance of locating them in the small window of time we have to revive them before they suffer brain damage or death.
For beach lifeguards every rescue is a race against time. Of all the public safety groups lifeguards rely the least on equipment and the most on physical conditioning. Because every rescue is a race, every beach lifeguard is an athlete. And not only do we have to recruit athletes but we have to ensure they stay in top physical conditioning throughout the season. To do this every day they work they go through a rigorous training session that includes physical conditioning and skills practice. We also use competition. Competition is as woven throughout the lifeguard culture as reading is though education. We have local competitions weekly. We compete with other groups in Texas. And once a year a select few lifeguards and juniors compete in the United States National Lifeguard Championships. Those that qualify meet hundreds of beach guards and JGs from around the country. They share stories and ideas, learn about techniques, equipment, and how other beaches and agencies are managed. And they bring that knowledge and enthusiasm back.
This year the championships were in Virginia Beach, which is interesting in itself because of the level of support and resources the city puts into its beachfront.
Galveston did well, especially when you consider we competed against the best of the best in the entire country. Our junior guard team crushed it with Nadine Barrera- 8th in swim rescue, Noah Barrera- 8th in 2K beach run, Axel Denner- 6th in 2K beach run and 7th in beach flags, Mac Livanec- 9th in 2K beach run and 8th in beach flags, and Will Brindley getting 7th in beach flags and 8th in the rescue race. Our lifeguard team also did well, particularly in the age group categories, which start at 30 years of age. Top 10th place finishes in age group events included our resident rock star athlete Kevin Anderson, who got 4th places in both run-swim-run and in the American ironman (run-swim-paddle-row). He also got 5th in the international ironman (run-swim-paddle-surfski), and in the surf swim. And in the surf ski race he got 5th. He also got a 14th spot against the young bucks in the open surf ski race! I had a decent year as well with age group finishes of 3rd in surf ski and in American ironman, 4th in run-swim-run and in the beach run, 5th in surf swim and in international ironman, 6th in ironguard (run-swim-paddle), and 7th in the rescue board race.
All in all we did G-town proud!