Academy

The group picked their way gingerly across the higher rocks, which were only covered in white, foamy water intermittently. One person, older and moving confidently up and down the rocks, leapt from a higher rock, tucking his rescue tube firmly against his body in midflight, and landed smoothly on top of one of the larger waves. He took a couple of strokes, rolled to the side, and smoothly slid swim fins on. Swimming back to the rocks at an angle against the rip current, he motioned for the first of the lifeguard candidates to follow, as he rose and fell with the swell.

The first brave soul moved towards the rock the instructor had jumped from. Holding her rescue tube and excess strap in the hand that was opposite from the direction the waves came from she ensured the waves wouldn’t smack the tube into her and cause her to slide across the barnacle covered rocks. Keeping her center of gravity low, but her butt off the rocks, she kept her balance while letting the energy of the smaller waves pass beneath her. She moved lower quickly before a larger wave could knock her off her feet. You could see her force herself to focus and tune out the voice telling her all the ways this could go bad. A wave approached. She knew at this point she had no choice. Once you’re low enough to jump, a decent sized wave will scrape you across the rocks if you freeze. She didn’t. She jumped a little high and landed too close to the jump point. She didn’t get the tube flat against her body, causing her hands to sink too low on impact. But her head was just right- tilted back with her face forward.  She timed the jump a little early and landed in the whitewater. But overall, it was a pretty good first jump. And practicing in decent sized surf, although it looks scary, has a much greater margin of error.

Each year, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol trains Lifeguard Candidates, or “Rookies”, in a rigorous 100 hour Lifeguard Training Academy. The Academy includes United States Lifesaving Association Open Water accreditation, Red Cross Emergency Responder certification, tourist ambassador training, leadership, resilience, and intercultural competency. Lifesaving skills open water swimming techniques are first learned in a pool environment and perfected in the open water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Lifeguard candidates will be paid a training wage for the time they spend on the training course. Upon successful completion of the Lifeguard Academy, candidates will be promoted to Lifeguard 1 status and will be eligible to work for Galveston Island Beach Patrol at up to $20 per hour. More importantly they’ll return home each day knowing they prevented accidents and/or saved a life.

Tomorrow (Saturday) at 9am we’ll be holding lifeguard tryouts at the UTMB Fieldhouse. If you or someone you know is interested in joining the team and family, please check our website for details and show up at 9. We need you!

Risk

Years back I climbed up the pyramids in Tical, Guatemala. It was really steep, and the steps were not designed for big American feet. I reached the top and looked out from a view above the rainforest canopy in awe. Then I looked down and realized there were no handrails. I was shocked. In the US this just wouldn’t happen. There would be railings and arrangements for disabled people and cable cars, so no one collapsed on the way up.

We’re Americans. We live in a country with quite a few resources. A country that has city, state, and federal governments that do all kinds of things that allow us the illusion of complete safety. We rarely see holes in the sidewalks or stairs without railings. Signs are everywhere reminding us how to stay safe. “Caution Drop Off”. “Plastic bags can suffocate you”. “Apple filling is hot”.

All of these precautions are aimed at one thing. Minimizing risk. Not eliminating risk but minimizing risk. The concept is “layers of protection”. It starts with each of us watching out for our own safety, then the safety of loved ones or companions. Then there are the institutional measures of railings, signs, metal detectors, airbags, childproof caps, security checks, health codes, etc. Institutions have sign in areas to filter visitors, schools lock all doors but the entrance, lifeguard towers have “lifeguard only” signs, etc.

It works almost too well. We forget that all of these layers of protection, while reducing risk, do not guarantee that we’ll be totally safe. We forget that there is no guarantee because we’re constantly inundated. We look for blame when accidents happen (“Was he wearing his seatbelt?”). And then we go to the beach.

Of all places the ocean is still the Wild Wild West. We do a great job of mitigating the risk considering that the ocean is something by its very nature that can’t be controlled. We train our lifeguards beyond all standards and expectations. We maintain over 600 safety signs up and down the beach. We have layers upon layers of supervisors, vehicles, and watchers for the watchers. And at beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards (like ours) your chances of drowning in a guarded area are 1 in 18 million. But ultimately, we are only an additional layer of protection. We can’t guarantee safety, only mitigate risk.

Part of the beauty of visiting the beach is that once you step beyond the shoreline you are outside of all the human-made environment. That feeling of freedom you have when you dive into the surf is partly because of that. It’s important to remember, however, that you are mostly outside of all those safety nets. 30 yards from shore might as well be a 3-day trek into the wilderness.

So, do what you can when you’re out in all that freedom. Swim near a lifeguard, stay away from structures, and assign a water watcher for starters. Then get out there!

Surfing Ordinance

Summer is close! The water is getting close to 80 degrees and the early crowds we saw this spring have not slacked off. And we just graduated an amazing new group of Wave Watcher volunteers! Apart from an intermittent smattering of man-o-war and some wind, the conditions have been nice. Looking at the calendar, it […]

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol (GIBP) is certified as an “advanced” level agency of the United States Lifesaving Association and is the designated lifeguard service for the city of Galveston. It is a Texas Department of Health certified first response agency employing lifeguards, senior guards, supervisors, peace officers, and dispatchers. The mission of GIBP is to protect the over 7 million people who visit the Galveston beaches each year, respond to aquatic emergencies 24/7/365, educate the public about beach safety, and be a good community partner. GIBP interfaces with other city public safety agencies like Galveston Police, Fire and Emergency Services on a daily basis.

Beach Patrol deploys 24 lifeguard towers staffed by lifeguards who meet and exceed the qualifications established by the United States Lifesaving Association. Galveston’s beaches are challenging to guard. Heavy crowds, rip current generating jetties, and constantly changing conditions keep guards very busy all year.

GIPB is funded solely by hotel occupancy tax (generated by overnight stays in hotels and vacation rentals). Beach Patrol is the designated lifeguard service for the City of Galveston’s 32 miles of beach but uses no taxes from the citizens’ ad valorem tax dollars.

Beach Patrol has called the Stewart Beach Pavilion home for the past 30 years. It has operated from Stewart Beach since the ‘40s. During the summer season, it houses more than 140 lifeguards, 120 junior guards, and 50 volunteers.

Beach Patrol’s junior guard program consists of 120 youth ages 10-15 with an interest in the beach environment. The objectives of the program are centered around values of mental and physical discipline and the respect of themselves, others, authority, and the natural environment. Many of the participants go on to be GIBP lifeguards. In fact, around 40% of the guards from the USA come through the program. The “break even” program is very economical and designed to be accessible to all Galveston’s kids.

Two other community programs under the Beach Patrol net are the Wave Watchers (WW) and the Survivor Support Network (SSN). Wave Watchers provide a way for citizens to join the Beach Patrol team. In partnership with Jesse Tree, GIBP maintains a cadre of volunteers who specialize in mental health, religious support, translation, and logistical support for families of victims of drowning fatality. The program also supports the critical incident stress needs of the Beach Patrol and of other public safety entities in the area.

GIPB partners with organizations like Galveston Marine Response (GMR) and the Galveston County Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT). GMR is multi-agency response group comprised of Galveston Fire Department, Galveston Police Marine Division, Galveston Island Beach Patrol, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Galveston EMS, and the Galveston Sheriff Office Marine Division. The CERT Program educates citizens about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic disaster response skills. GIBP also has a formalized partnership with the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office and coordinates daily on hazards including rip currents, lightning, storms, and tidal events.

Stop by and visit your Beach Patrol!

Lightning

On a summer day in the early ‘80’s, a lone lifeguard stood on Stewart Beach. The air was thick as a dark, green frontal system moved in from the north.  In the distance lifeguard trucks drove up and down the beach using their loudspeakers to let people know lightning was moving into the area. Bolts of lightning struck nearby.  The lifeguard whistled at the few remaining people in the area and yelled for them to get out of the water. Suddenly, time stood still, and the air crackled with electricity. He realized he was lying on his back. A filling in his mouth hurt, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, and he felt as if insects were running across his temples. He had survived his first lightning strike. Later, he would be struck again while playing tennis with an aluminum racket.

A similar incident occurred a few years back to a lifeguard in Florida but resulted in a fatality. Every year, many people on or near bodies of water are struck by lightning. In the US, the highest numbers are in states bordering the Great Lakes, southern states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and the four corner states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona.

Lightning most frequently occurs within 10 miles of a thunderstorm, so it is generally recommended that people take shelter when lightning comes within this distance. One way to tell how close lightning is involves counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the corresponding thunder roar. This is known as the “flash to bang rule”. Every five seconds is a mile. If the time between the flash and the bang is less than 50 seconds, you want to clear out.

For a number of years, I’ve been part of a group working on a joint public education program for the United States Lifesaving Organization (USLA) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Weather Service (NWS). Through this I realized that there’s lots I didn’t know about lightning. For example, I wasn’t aware that it wasn’t enough to seek shelter in a building. It has to be fully enclosed, grounded, and have electrical and plumbing. Boats aren’t really safe at all, but if you have to ride it out in one, it should be in a cabin without touching electronics or the walls. Cars are pretty safe, but not as good as proper buildings, and again, don’t touch metal frameworks.

If you are caught in a lightning storm on the beach and can’t get to an enclosed building or car, don’t just run to a partially enclosed picnic table or similar structure. Instead, stay away from the tallest objects (lifeguard stands, light poles, flag poles), metal objects (fences or bleachers), standing pools of water, and open areas.

You can monitor thunderstorms and severe weather forecasts online at www.spc.noaa.gov . For more information about lightning safety, a good site is www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov .

Wave Watcher Academy – Register Now!

2023

 

WAVE WATCHER ACADEMY

 

IN-PERSON

 

APRIL 17TH – APRIL 20TH

 

9:00 a.m. – Noon

 

STEWART BEACH PAVILION

 

201 SEAWALL BLVD, GALVESTON TX

If you are interested in attending, please email Angie @ [email protected]

 

 

Spring Break Wrap Up

Spring Break started with a bang and ended with a whimper. That first weekend was scary from our perspective! Massive crowds, lots of current and waves, warm air and water, and sparse lifeguard coverage kept us moving fast, as we raced from hot spot to hot spot to keep people away from the rip currents near the jetties.

Early Saturday morning I called the police and fire departments for some help and they ran patrols both days on the seawall to help us spot trouble developing. Its good to have friends. Because of their efforts, some really hard work by the Beach Patrol staff, and a bit of luck we got through the first weekend. Then it got cold and most of the tourists that were all over the beach went to the other island attractions and stayed there for the rest of the week through last weekend.

Even with the cold weather, our stats over Spring Break were impressive, especially when considering most of the numbers happened over a three day period. I usually give a general overview when giving stats, but its interesting to see the specifics:

We moved 9,605 people from danger- mostly away from the rocks. We enforced park rules or city ordinances 84 times (11 of these were vehicles driving illegally on the beach), and Park Security did this 187 times (they only worked the first weekend). We responded to 18 medical calls, 7 of them were serious enough to be transported to the hospital. We responded to one possible drowning and made 4 rescues. We logged giving tourist information 137 times (this stat is notoriously lower than the reality of how many tourists we have direct contact with). We reunited a couple of lost kids with their parents and gave 1,344 water safety talks.

Those numbers are a good reflection of how much work we do. But when compared to the summertime numbers we accumulate when all 34 lifeguard towers are staffed and our trucks cover the entire beachfront, they’re pretty small. Just to give a general idea, in an average year we routinely move between 300,000 and 500,000 people from dangerous areas, make 3-4,000 enforcements, do around 30,000 water safety talk contacts, etc. The numbers are really staggering and show how much preventative work our lifeguards do. If you think about it, we do most of the preventative actions over a 9-month period, 7 of which we have guards in towers and the other two we’re working out of trucks only. That math comes out to just under 1,500 swimmers moved per day, or 12,500 preventative actions per lifeguard tower per season.

Those numbers are pretty overwhelming when you think what would happen if we weren’t there during the critical times and places to move people away from potentially lethal rip currents. It explains why our recent tryouts and academy that only produced three graduates terrified our staff.

It explains why we are such fanatics about all things that make up the complicated beach safety defense web.

Drones Revisited

A few years ago, some footage of what was reported to be the first real water rescue made by a drone at Lennox Head, New South Wales, Australia went viral. To me it looked staged. There were two swimmers just outside the surf line kind of floating around. The footage was from the drone itself as it dropped this package from maybe 100 feet up. Upon impact this big sausage looking thing inflated. Two swimmers swam over to it and floated on it back to shore. At one point it looked like a wave knocked one of them off it, but the guy swam easily back to it and rode it in. The announcer talked about how it was the first rescue by drones.

But drones have been used by lifeguard agencies for quite awhile now for surveillance. There are a couple of beaches that I know of that fly the on a set schedule as shark spotters and others that use them for surveillance of isolated or remote areas without guards. The operators have to be trained as pilots since they’re a governmental agency. Newport Beach, which is pretty cashed up, flies them three times a week for a 20 minute flight. If they see a shark bigger than a certain size they increase the schedule until it moves out of the area.

Mountain rescue drones have also been shown to be pretty effective in spotting lost hikers and dropping survival packages to them. The ocean has been more of a challenge. However, one recent local successful example is the Galveston County Community Emergency Response Team used them for a body search at the San Luis Pass and were able to see a few feet beneath the surface and were able to comb a lot of marshland that we had a hard time getting to by water or by land.

Most of the commonly available and affordable drones currently have a flight time of 20 minutes and can’t run in over 20 mile an hour winds. But some of the fancier ones being used by public safety groups are a bit better in-flight time, can fly in slightly higher winds, and can carry a variety of types of cameras including thermal imaging, infra-red, etc. They’re proving to be useful in some conditions for search and recovery operations.

I think the day is near where, if you have the resources, drones may be able to augment beach lifesaving programs in very real and cost-effective ways. Particularly in remote locations or for search and recovery operations. I’m hoping, once the Beach Patrol gets into a permanent building “forever home” that we will be able to use drones to fly periodic passes of the shoreline. There is some really cool software out there that is on the verge of being able to consistently identify both rip currents and swimmers in distress. And we can program them to alert us if people are in or near the area by the rock jetties where dangerous rip currents are ever-present.

SCENARIOS

Last Wednesday was rainy and overcast before the front came in. There was some sea fog, but not to the point that it severely limited visibility. Lt. Kirwin and Sgt. Buck slipped down to the water and set a mannequin in the water. Buck donned a wetsuit, booties, and gloves and swam out.

Supervisors Lucero and Knight staged at the entrance to Stewart Beach in a rescue truck. They knew they were going to respond to a scenario but didn’t know what it would be. Then, when everything and everyone was in position, they received the call. The drill was a few people missing in the water, resulting from an accident. They had to race down to the Headquarters, retrieve a jet ski, launch it, and search for the missing swimmers. One of them, played by Buck, was ok with some minor issues. Another was a partially submerged victim that had to be removed from the water, assessed, and ultimately CPR needed to be performed.

This was just one of several scenarios we’ve been running, getting the crew to be razor sharp for the opening of the beach season. Working in pairs or small groups, some staff members participate in scenarios, while others complete work on towers, signs, complete leadership, resiliency, or intercultural competency training in the office, or work patrolling the beaches.

Once the seasonal lifeguards return in March, they too will participate in similar activities, but not to the extent of the full-time staff members. Our full-time staff make up the vast majority of the Supervisors, are all Emergency Medical Technicians and have quite a bit of additional training that our seasonal Lifeguards aren’t required to have, such as Swiftwater Technician certification, National Incident Management System training, Tourism Ambassador certification, and some are Peace Officers. They are also the teachers and instructors for the seasonal staff and teach everything from Red Cross Emergency Response to Personal Rescue Watercraft Operator instruction.

There are benefits to having our year-round crew trained up in time to teach the guards and being ready to respond to a myriad of emergencies. It’s also good to have them be very used to the day-to-day conditions, so when they jump in the cold water to make a rescue they know what to expect and are comfortable in cold water, limited visibility, and big surf. We want to be comfortable and prepared for all kind of conditions so they can focus on problem solving in difficult rescue situations. But it’s also important that they problem solve together.

Modern professional lifesaving has changed significantly in the past few decades. The basic techniques of saving someone are very similar to when lifesaving took off in the early 1900’s as a result of a boom in recreational swimming that resulted from a growth in a leisure class. The big difference is an emphasis on teamwork. What used to be “One beach one lifeguard”, in the immortal words of Leroy Colombo, has now morphed into “We’re only as strong as our weakest link”.

Happy Black History Month!

Galveston has so many layers of history. I mentioned awhile back that we’ve pulled together a committee that has been working on some really cool stuff related to African American beach use in Galveston and the history of the African American beach lifeguards that protected it, chaired by David Mitchell. David works for the Jesse Tree Non-profit and is also employed by the Beach Patrol to provide Ecumenical Support, Community Outreach, and serves as our Volunteer Coordinator.

The Beach Patrol, NIA Cultural Center, Old Central Cultural Center, Visit Galveston, The Historical Foundation, The Park Board of Trustees, Galveston Lifeguarding Inc., and others have been working on a multi staged project. More people and groups are joining the effort as we move forward. Phase 1 was submission of an application for an “Undertold Story” marker on the seawall, with the help of the County, City, and a myriad of groups that have thrown in support. I’m so pleased to announce that our application for the marker honoring the African American Beach and the black lifeguards that worked it was approved this week! The amazing thing is that for this particular designation the state covers the cost.

Phase two will be a data base that profiles African American Lifeguards and black beach history. We’re looking for families and friends who can record stories of these heroes. So far, we have information on a number of lifeguards that worked that beach including James “Jim” Helton, Waverly Guidry, Leroy Green, Jr. Lynn Stephens, John Ned Rose, Willie Diggs, Oliver O’Conner. We’re hoping to get oral histories from family members on them and on others, so if you or anyone you know would be interesting in recording you or your family’s experience with an African American guard, please contact Alex Thomas at [email protected] or 409-797-5155. We see the data base as a sort of living project. We hope to use grant money to bring on a researcher who will add historical documents to the oral histories and possibly structure an evolving and growing body of work.

Phase three will be a large, sculptural monument to these lifeguards. The idea is that there will be a way to point your phone at either the marker or the monument and access the data base, and this will be part of a larger cultural tour of the island. We’re thinking about a representation of an African American lifeguard that is an amalgamation of the lifeguards that worked that and another African American beach that existed at the western end of the seawall. We envision that soon we’ll send out a request for qualifications for artists. A committee will revies the artists and pick the three that are closest to the type of work we’re looking for. Then those three will be given a stipend to develop a small mockup of the sculpture. The group will pick one of these, and that artist will be commissioned to create the final version.