22 years ago Vic Maceo and I joined a group from Galveston who went down to our sister city of Veracruz, Mexico in a delegation from Galveston. We went during Carnival, which in Veracruz is a really big deal. Veracruz is a huge tourist destination and during holidays it seems like all of Mexico City is there for the party. While there we noticed a lifeguard tower and went up to talk to the guard. That conversation sparked something that has been of great value for both Veracruz and Galveston.
At that time they had just started a lifeguard program in response to a rash of beachfront drownings. In its second year it hadn’t yet seen much success. Underfunding and understaffing issues were compounded by the fact that there is no lifeguarding program anywhere near Veracruz. There was no one to teach them how to be lifeguards or how to manage a lifeguarding program. Under the new management of a dynamic leader named Julian Flores Cabrera, who served as the Civil Protection Coordinator, they had made positive steps. Julian hired fishermen’s kids who had a good grasp of the water issues and could swim as opposed to the traditional method of putting the kids of local politicians in there. They also used information from a show that was popular at the time, “Guardianes de la Bahia”. That’s right- they used “Baywatch” to help train themselves to be lifeguards! Although they’d made a start, they still saw 27 to 30 drownings a year on their busy beaches.
We worked with Julian and within a couple of years we were co-teaching the classes and they were running regular lifeguard academies in our absence. We’ve now trained hundreds of guards including some military personnel that help out during the busy times. Once we even ran a surf rescue course for the Mexican equivalent of the Navy Seals. Most importantly the average drownings per year dropped from near 20 to about 4, which worked wonders for their ability to attract tourists and market the destination to a wider range of people.
Once they were self sustaining we stopped going down, although we stay in close contact with our sister agency. Apparently in recent years the program has deteriorated as a result of local politics and changing priorities. In Mexico it’s not uncommon after elections for a person from a new political party to takes office and fire everyone, making them reapply for their jobs. Last year there were almost 30 drownings which has caused a public outcry and the local politicians, public safety, and tourism officials are suddenly very concerned about the state of their lifeguarding program and the subsequent ability to market themselves as a beach destination. Once again the iron is hot.
So, as a result of a call from my old friend Julian, tomorrow morning I leave with a group of vacationing volunteer lifeguards using funding from Veracruz to run a week long lifeguard academy and meet with officials and community groups.