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Memorial Day Advice

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! Looks like sunny skies for the most part, some surf and a bit windy, but overall, really nice weather.

It’s a little bittersweet this year because this is usually the end of our “hell week” where we have a large mass casualty exercise, the “night swim” final physical challenge followed by food and a get together, and an all staff meeting. Because we’re committed to not encouraging gatherings, maintaining social distancing, etc., we’ve made the difficult call to not hold those events, cancelled our Junior Lifeguard Program for the summer, and are not hosting our annual BBQ fundraiser for the first time in over two decades. These are part of our culture and traditions, so for us it’s a big loss. But we also know its not just about modeling the behavior we hope the general public will observe when visiting both Galveston and our beaches. Its also the idea that if COVID spreads through our staff and takes a significant number of us out of commission, we won’t be able to protect people that use the beaches. So we’ve made these tough decisions with the knowledge that we need to focus on our primary purpose, and that we’ll resume these activities that are part of us and the other groups that use, protect, and enjoy the beach when the time is right.

With the bad, as always, comes the good. I mentioned all the masks people made for us last week. This week a wonderful woman named Joanne who is a “friend of the Sunflower Bakery” brought us gift cards so that each lifeguard on our staff could have a nice meal at a local business. People’s capacity for good when things get tough is just humbling.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend, remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, avoid swimming at the ends of the island, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We have a new crew of lifeguards that just completed over 100 hours of training that will be out working with the more experienced guards. And we’ll have yet another lifeguard academy start on June 15th so are on the lookout for some new guards. Spread the word!

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol. If the beach is part of your plans this weekend, please swim safe, swim near a lifeguard, and social distance. And have fun!

Cinco De Corona

The 5-year-old girl was lost, although she didn’t know it. She had been playing in front of her parents and went a little deeper. A current pulled her parallel to shore as she played, bobbing with the flow. Suddenly, the sand bar she’d been standing on dropped off suddenly. She wasn’t able to swim, so she struggled briefly before going face down in the water, tiny bubbles blowing out of her nose and mouth and floating to the surface.

When the governor of Texas opened the beaches, we had two days to prepare. The slow measured approach the city Manager, Mayor, and Emergency Operation Center had been working through to gradually open the beaches was no longer relevant. People all over the Houston area and beyond had been cooped up in their houses and apartments with no where to go, making quick runs out for supplies. Suddenly, the flood gates were open, and hundreds of thousands flocked to the island. They peppered the beach, cruised up and down the seawall in the emergency lane, crammed into beach access points on the west end, and filled the beach parks. Many tried to create space on the beach a reasonable distance from other beachgoers. In other areas they jammed up together like bees in a hive. Practically the only people wearing masks were first responders, including lifeguards who braved the potential threat of infection to keep everyone safe. All public safety groups were pushed to the limit and way beyond.

A woman in waist deep water with her kids happened to notice the girl floating face down. She snatched her out of the water and brought her to the lifeguard tower. The guard called for assistance saying the girl was having difficulty breathing and I responded. Once the girl calmed down, I was able to listen to her lungs and check her circulation. She seemed fine but we called EMS to make sure. Fortunately, she was fine and was able to leave with her family.

Leaving the scene, I wound through the crowd looking for lost children, checking on guards, enforcing rules, answering questions, watching the hundreds of swimmers in the area, and reminding people to separate. Emergencies were popping all over the radio on all the channels. A man without a mask flagged me down and stuck his face in my window. Quickly pulling on my mask until he backed away a bit, I asked if I could help him. He asked me if we “just drove around not doing anything or ever did any work”. I asked if there was something, he felt like we should be doing. He said we should be keeping people apart and pointed to a diverse group of young people under a tent. A woman, also without a mask, waited behind him and told me something similar.

By the time Sunday night finally arrived, the Beach Patrol made 3,800 preventative actions, 2 rescues, 60 enforcement actions, and a number of lost children and medical responses.

Beach Closures

It’s amazing how quickly our lives change. Last week we were out enjoying some really nice beach moments as the Corona cloud started to close in. Suddenly the Mayor and City Manager made the difficult decision last Sunday to close the beaches. If you drove down the seawall last Sunday afternoon right before we stared clearing the crowds, you’d have seen that the amount of people who came down to enjoy the beach and the beautiful weather left no choice. Tens of thousands of people were out, and it looked like one of those booming Spring afternoons. As nice as it was to see everyone out having fun, there’s no way we an tamp down the spread of Corona unless we reduce the people moving on and off and around the island. It was a good call.  

Our guards were fairly busy with the crowds and had moved quite a few swimmers from dangerous areas. We’d even made two rescues. They were already on point, but when the call came and I told them to clear the beaches, I was really impressed how they rose to the occasion. Both the tower guards and the Supervisors in the trucks went into action, as did quite a few Patrol Officers of the Galveston Police Department. Within two hours, all 32 miles of beach, including beach park parking lots were clear of people and cars. As I made my way home around sunset, I saw city Park Department crews out erecting barricades, and by the time noon Monday rolled around, every beach access point on the west end was blocked from vehicular traffic, every access point on the seawall was blocked, and the Stewart and East Beach Parks were gated and barricaded. Couldn’t be prouder of my crew and more impressed by the police, park, and public works departments for how quickly and professionally they made all that happen. 

All that was on the heels of a huge grass fire at the East End Lagoon Saturday. The wind was blasting from the north, which caused the fire to spread really quickly. Galveston Fire Department responded quickly and called for help from a number of other departments, including Galveston Marine Response partner Jamaica Beach. It was a heroic battle that lasted throughout the night. When the sun rose, it was still smoldering and there were little spot fires popping up, but it was mostly out. The fire made it to the berm behind the East Beach pavilion, over to Apffel Road. But fortunately was stopped just short of jumping the road and devouring Beach Town.  

Now the dust has cleared from a crazy weekend. Tower Guards aren’t working and our full-time supervisors, along with the Galveston Police Department, have the unenviable job of telling locals they can’t use their beach during sometimes beautiful Spring weather. But, as always, they’ve jumped into the task wholeheartedly because they know how vitally important it is that we all reduce contact so we can save a lot of lives.  

Flag Conditions

We are only a week away from lifeguard tryouts and we’re hoping for a big turnout on Saturday the 7th of march. Info is on our website. We’re also right on beach season, so were pushing out public safety information to remind people to be safe. One area that’s important is our Flag Warning System.

The Flag Warning System is used to advise beach patrons of the current water conditions and any applicable environmental warnings. The flag colors described below used to help beachgoers understand the current conditions in the always dynamic environment of open water.

On Galveston Island, informational signs and warning flags are posted each day year-round along Seawall Blvd. at flag warning stations. Also, each guarded Lifeguard tower flies the appropriate flags for the day. They also are displayed at beach park entrances.

We post flag color, warnings, and other important safety info on our Homepage and on multiple social media platforms every day. You can also sign up on our website to receive the notifications via email and/or text message daily.

Here are the different flags we use and some inside background info on them:

Green: Conditions are calm. Swim with care. Remember this doesn’t mean you’re safe. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond so you should always be extra careful even on flat days.

Yellow: Indicates that caution should be used when entering the water. This flag is flown for normal ocean conditions to remind swimmers to stay alert. Its important to stay close to shore on yellow days.

Red: Flown when conditions are rough, such as presence of strong wind, strong current or large surf. Adult swimmers should stay in water no more than waist deep and non-swimmers and children should be kept along the surf line. When there is a red flag flying you should assume the presence of very strong rip currents near any type of structure like groins or jetties.

Purple: Indicates a potential problem with jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, stingrays or other marine life that could be a hazard for swimmers. Purple flags will be used in combination with other flags. Every guard trains before every shift so we use ourselves as the Guinea Pigs. If we get several stings while swimming the flags go up. Sometimes a wave of critters comes up midday so we put the purple flags up when we reach a minimum threshold of the ratio of stings to swimmers.

Orange: Indicates there is an environmental warning for air and/or water quality. Ask the Lifeguard for more details. Orange pennant flags will be used in combination with other flags. We have a partnership with UTMB for air quality warnings and one with the Health Districts Texas Beach Watch Program for water quality warnings. Water quality warnings can be specific to certain areas so these flags, when flown, may be just in some areas. We don’t determine when either of these warnings are issued. But we help spread the word by our flag system, or website, or via social media.

Full Time Staff Competition

High stepping into the frigid water we all chose different strategies. Some circled wide, choosing to run a little farther up the beach to account for a moderate lateral current. Others went straight in. Muffled sounds of discomfort were heard over the breaking surf as they hit the first trough and started a series of “dolphin dives”, using their feet to push off the bottom repeatedly. A wet suit is only warm after the cold water gets in and your body warms it up, so the first 5 minutes can be awful.

Once we got to chest deep everyone started swimming. As the old man in the group, I need more warmup time, so entered the water last. Hoping that experience and training would help me in lieu of raw physical ability, I ignored the panicky feeling that first immersion always brings, and focused on a long regular swim stroke and good sighting of the buoys so as not to lose too much time by not swimming in straight line.

As we rounded the first buoy and set our sights in the second, things got complicated because there was just enough fog to prevent seeing it at first. So, we had to use reference points to get a general sense of direction and hoped for the best. Andy Moffett shot ahead and maintained the whole race, and we all used him as a reference point. Or guinea pig.

Coming off the first lap we were warmed up and the water conditions were no longer an issue. I came out after Andy and looked back. Micah Fowler was close, then Jeff Mullin and Joey Walker neck and neck. A little behind them was Dain Buck, then Kevin Knight, Micah Fowler, and Michael Lucero. From there another run, a lap using rescue boards, run, swim, another rescue board lap, and a double run.

The real race was between Jeff and Joey, who went back and forth the entire time. Both are big cross fit athletes, so it was an aerobic battle. Dain took a little while getting going, but he’s a real experienced water guy whose been with us for years. Once he found his rhythm, he used wave and current knowledge to blast by. He almost caught me at the end by catching a great wave all the way on the outside.

We use competition quite a bit to maintain the high level of fitness required of ocean guards and have periodic competitions to motivate the crew. This was a team event between full time staff members. All winter we’ve done once a week training of this exact course to maintain fitness, keep everyone continually adapted to cold, and make sure everyone is intimately familiar to which wetsuit and equipment to use for a variety of conditions. This was the final test between teams and who gets bragging rights. But from here we’ll move on to requalification times for all the staff in the pool, a night swim, daily workouts, and Sunday races.

Join the Family!

Even though it’s still winter we’ve got just over a month before Spring Break is here. The beach parks kick off on March 8th, but the beaches will be getting busy before that. Our full-time staff, between patrolling, answering emergency calls, and putting the finishing touches on our lifeguard towers, are already starting to do a thousand little things to be ready when the beach pops. We’re prepping for our various programs that will get going in the spring including lifeguarding, Wave Watcher, supervisor and dispatcher academies, and Survivor Support Network.

As always we are hoping for a big turnout to the four lifeguard academies we’ll have this year. It’s been difficult filling the positions we have and covering the beachfront the past three years, even though it’s an amazing job that pays really well. Our two main academies are over Spring Break and the two weeks leading up to Memorial Weekend. Please help us by spreading the word and encouraging anyone you know that is interested to start swimming to prepare, and then to try out to beach a beach guard. The main obstacle to getting a job with us is making that minimum swim time. Our website has tons of info on it and even has sample swim workouts and training tips.

Another area that we’d love to have a big turnout for is our Wave Watcher Program. Wave Watchers go through a 20-hour free course that includes victim detection and beach safety information, CPR and Tourist Ambassador Certification, and information about working with local first responder organizations. After the training our Wave Watchers keep a trained eye out on the beach as they go through their normal life activities. Some are motivated to patrol set schedules and areas or help with lost children at the beach parks. Others just let us know if they see anything developing while they’re driving, walking, fishing, biking etc. This has become an integral part of our program as they are often out in areas or during times of the day that we’re not present. Several Wave Watchers are also members of the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and are trained to come to the aid of families in crisis when their loved ones are missing in the water. The Wave Watcher Academy will take place in April and we’re taking applicants now.

The other big program we have is our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp for kids 10-15 years of age which starts in early June. This program teaches lifeguard and leadership skills while we workout and do all kinds of fun activities and field trips. It’s very economical and we have scholarships available. Most importantly for us, these JGs are the lifeguards and leaders of tomorrow.

Whoever you are and whatever you do there is a way for you or someone you know to join our family. Get on our website or give us a call to find out more information.

We need you and Galveston needs you!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Winter goes quickly in Galveston. Before you know it, the beaches will be filling up again and we’ll start the cycle all over again.

We all make resolutions for the new year. We change our diet, commit to exercising more often, promise ourselves we’ll be more patient with difficult people or work environments, and basically try to will ourselves into being better people. And changing our path is a real, although difficult, possibility. The Dali Lama said something to the effect of right intention leads to right actions, which if practiced consistently leads to right being. You can, over time change your essence for the better. You can become a better person through discipline and consciously changing your actions.

We on the Beach Patrol also have annual resolutions and goals that we choose and focus on for the year. Just like you and I and most people, we try to keep doing the good things we do consistently and pick areas we think we should improve on and make them our focus. Many of these goals are embodied in our annual “business plan”, which all the Park Board departments do, and our board of directors approves/adopts for the coming year.

For us it usually boils down to setting goals that will ultimately prevent accidents. Many of them have to do with targeting areas that we can improve either our performance or focusing on segments of the population for public education.

One area we always want to improve on is how much we’re able to impact the youth. Our belief is that when young people know the basics of beach safety, they not only avoid accidents themselves, but they can also educate their peers, younger siblings, and even their parents. The schools have for many years been very supportive of our annual School Water Safety Outreach Program. A big part of this is we go out to the schools in the Spring and give water safety presentations to as many kids in the schools as we can. We focus on Galveston County, but have in recent years extended our net further. Our goal this year is to hit over 20,000 children. If these kids know how to avoid rip currents and other beach hazards they can spread that knowledge. We can create a sort of “herd immunity”, in which kids who are “inoculated” with information on how to be safe reduce the chances of drowning of not only themselves, but other kids and family members they’re with. We do the same for groups that show up on the beach.

Of course, we have many other goals related to administration, maintenance, communication, and productivity. But ultimately it all comes back to preventing aquatic accidents. And when you talk of prevention the key is to provide the tools and information for people to be able to take care of themselves and then be there ready to help with additional layers of protection and response when all else fails.

Winter Days

I love a lot of things about Galveston. These magic winter days where the rest of the country is freezing, and our beaches are full of people are a reminder of how good we have it in our little corner of the planet. This year has been especially beautiful.

For us, this is a time of renewal. We rebuild towers, set signs, revise policies, and work on longer term projects. All the things we can’t do while we’re going full steam during the season. We are briefly given time to breathe and reflect on the things we’re thankful for. Here is my list in no particular order:

1. Living and working in Galveston- Where else can you get almost anywhere within 20 minutes, not have to make dinner or movie reservations, and have to work to not see the beach at least a couple of times a day. And G—town is still big enough to get whatever you need right on the island.

2. City and Park Board- I always feel gratitude when I work with other lifeguarding groups in Texas, the Great Lakes, and the East and West Coast. The Park Board and the City of Galveston has provided a way for the Beach Patrol, as the official lifeguard group for the city, to use hotel tax revenue for the bulk of our operational expenses. Very few lifeguard services around the country and world operate this way and its really benefited our beach visitors. In the time since I started, we moved from 17 employees and one full time person to 14 full time people and a staff size of well over 110 during the height of the season. Its never enough, but we are able to make around 200,000 preventative actions a year, keeping over 7 million people away from dangers that could hurt or even kill them. We deeply appreciate being given the tools to do this good work.

3. Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) Volunteers- Despite all our efforts and help from other groups, there are inevitably times when people slip through the safety net and die in our waters. The SSN is always available with support for the families in the form of translators, councilors, or merely someone who listens. They bring food and shelter, find hotel rooms, work with consulates to contact family, and are a link to other public safety groups.

4. Wave Watchers- What can you say about people that volunteer their time to be trained and then to patrol our beaches during times or at areas where we don’t cover. This dedicated support group has quickly become indispensable in our world.

5. Galveston Marine Response- The spirit of cooperation between fire, police, EMS, and lifeguards is something rare here on the island, but nowhere is it more evident than how we respond to water emergencies.

6. Beach Patrol Staff- Their dedication, caring and energy are a continual source of awe and renewal for me. I have no words to express my gratitude.

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!