Warming Up

Finally! Spring feels like it’s just around the corner. After the long, long winter there’s finally that feeling in the air. The cold is still there but doesn’t seem to penetrate all the way to your bones and even if it’s cold in the morning you’re able to get by with a thin layer or just a t-shirt by the afternoon.

The water, however, doesn’t seem to know that it’s time for winter to relinquish its grasp. On Tuesday, we did a beach workout and were still wearing full suits and hoods, although boots and gloves weren’t necessary. The water temp was 58. Warmer air temperature means that people on stand up paddleboards have been surfing with either just a wetsuit top or even “bare backing” it while people surfing prone are still in full winter gear.

The spring breakers were undaunted by the cold water though. Each time the sun popped out or the wind died they suddenly appeared all over the beach. The first volleyball tournament of the season went off well at Stewart Beach. The lifeguards, shivering in their towers, had to move a number of them away from the rip currents near the jetties. There were, however, some days where it was just too cold to put the guards in the towers in the mornings. Fortunately we kept a number of them on standby knowing that the afternoon would warm up and as soon as the sun popped out and hundreds would suddenly show up. It seems like there were lots of people here on the island hanging out in restaurants, hotel rooms, The Strand, or one of our many tourist attractions waiting for that ray of sunshine so they could hit the beach.

This weekend is the last of Spring Break. It will be safe to drive down the seawall for a short time until summer is really upon us. No one will meander across the lanes in front of you with speeds varying between 5mph and 45. No one will pull a U-turn, almost hit you, and then post up by a potential parking space, unashamedly blocking traffic, while 5 people take 20 minutes to load two chairs and a cooler into the back of their vehicle. But enjoy it while it lasts, because soon it will be time to retreat to the “secret” way you have to move around the interior of the island!

This weekend the Houston schools and a handful of colleges are at the end of their Spring Break and the weather forecast looks pretty good, so we may see those big crowds we’ve been expecting. As it stands this far, the Beach Patrol has only made one rescue. It was a good one though. We, with the help of our police, fire, and EMS partners, saved a father and daughter from drifting off shore on a really cold north wind day. They likely wouldn’t have survived if someone hadn’t had the good sense to call 911.

And so it begins….



San Luis Pass Patrol

Spring break got off to a slow, cold start this year. But we all know how fickle the weather can be in March and it pays to be prepared. Sure enough, each time the wind slowed down or the sun even hinted that it might come out people started appearing all over the beach.

Fortunately, we had lifeguard re-qualifications last Saturday. After swimming 1,000 meters (40 lengths of the pool) in 18 minutes are less, the returning guards proved they stayed in good enough shape over the winter to still have what it takes to make rescues in the surf. After swimming, filling out paperwork, and drug testing they were back out on the beach for another season. The good thing is that once they meet the minimum requirements and go back to guarding, our daily workouts and training will keep them in great condition throughout the season.

Putting the entire Beach Patrol system back in place for the summer is a complicated process with a lot of moving parts, but we’re getting there. The towers are re-furbished, all 220 signs are up along the entire beachfront, the buoy rescue boxes on the jetties and elsewhere are in good order and stocked, new vehicles are getting outfitted, and winter training is complete. We still have training of new lifeguards and our annual supervisor academy to go but we have to wait until May when the entire seasonal staff is here for that. One big piece of the puzzle was put in place last Tuesday at the Park Board meeting. We decided what the plan will be this summer for the San Luis Pass.

You recall that there were several drownings at the beginning of the summer at the San Luis Pass last year. As a result, we re-directed some funds and increased the number of warning signs about the dangerous currents in and around the pass. We have maintained those signs as they’ve fallen or been vandalized and are committed to continuing that. Signage is good, but there’s nothing like hands on intervention.

Funds have been tight for the past few years and we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to do more at the pass. The board decided to put several projects in a prioritized contingency line item to hold off on until we see how the hotel tax, which comprises the lion’s share of our budget, tracked before committing those resources.

Good news! The hotel tax is above predicted levels and the board felt comfortable releasing additional funding for a weekend patrol at the San Luis Pass. Starting Memorial weekend we’ll schedule a roving vehicle to keep people from swimming in the Pass.

I have to hand it to the board. They have consistently tried to make a difference while keeping expenditures to a minimum. Our money is tight, but ultimately it came down to focusing on what’s best for tourism, Galveston, and our beach visitors.

They found a way to make it happen and accidents will be prevented because of this.




The group of young men and women radiated nervousness as they lined up on the sand. “On your mark, get set, GO!” shouted the instructor as they raced down the beach around the tower and into the water.

I was about half way out to the buoy when a group of good swimmers caught me and basically swam right over me. By the time I got going again a wave smacked me right in the face as I was taking a breath. When I got to the buoy I had to hang on for a few seconds to catch my breath before pushing on.

The year was 1983 and I finished 11th out of 30 in the Beach Patrol tryouts. They took the top 8. Finally, around the 4th of July I got a call that I could come and work. 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.

Tomorrow is the first of three tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. The basic swim test is the same as it was 32 years ago when I bombed it. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. We pay them to attend the school where 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 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 for the second lifeguard academy.

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 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 and if 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 squeaked in 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 saved someone.

Breaking the Rules

Four heavy duty water barricades were interlocked and stretched across Boddecker Drive just before the entrance to East Beach. Captain Tony Pryor sat in his Beach Patrol truck working security. His job was to keep cars from entering East Beach.

In years past we’ve had problems in the beach parks after the Strand area was swept clean of the late night party crowd. There have been tons of litter and glass bottles, occasional fights, and damage to the beach pavilion. Better to just keep everyone out.

As Tony sat just inside the entrance a Lexis came blasting down the road until it stopped at the barricade. Revving its engine, it picked up speed as it quickly turned and shot up the sand dune landing inside of the park. Tony hit the overhead lights and the car came to a stop, rolling down the window. “What?!!” shouted the driver. “The park is closed,” Said Tony, “You’re not allowed to be in here”.

The driver looked at him for a long minute. Then he said, “How am I supposed to get out”?

A day earlier, Officer Kris Pompa led a work crew to get all the signs that had fallen over along the entire beach front back in place before Spring Break hit. Beach Patrol maintains some 230 signs along the entire 32 miles of Galveston Beach as well as along the ship channel and San Luis Pass. As you would imagine it requires a great deal of effort and resources to keep them all up. Friday afternoon he came back from working all day tired but seemed happy. “All the signs are up Chief”, he said as he drove off.

Monday Kris was assigned to a patrol shift. During the month of February this means that he and another person patrol the entire beach front. They mostly work the seawall, Stewart and Apffel Beach Parks, but at least once they patrol the entire beach along the west end from the San Luis Pass all the way to the western tip of the Seawall. As they made it back to Stewart Beach I saw Kris in the parking lot. He shook his head and laughed when he told me that two of the new signs and posts that his crew had painstakingly erected and used a water jet to sink 6 feet into the sand had been ripped out and burned for firewood. These signs warn people about how dangerous the waters are in the Pass and are critical in our attempt to keep people from drowning there.

It’s hard at times to maintain the energy, patience, and positive attitude to do the job that Tony and Kris do. Dealing with the public can be frustrating because you often have more interaction with the people that don’t show others respect. Most of our staff, especially Tony and Kris, are good at finding humor in the tough parts and focus on the millions that enjoy the beach in a positive way each year.

Institutional Memory

Galveston city and county have a history of resilience. Despite our mercurial weather and politics we somehow manage to pull together when we need to. Many of those of us living here now have ancestors that rebuilt the city after the 1900 storm and erected the physical embodiment of that resilience and willingness to take on seemingly insurmountable tasks together when needed.

Only a few years back we once again proved that those qualities are still just as strong when we worked together to rebuild our communities after Hurricane Ike. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have so quickly without governmental help, but much of that recovery happened by neighbors helping neighbors.

The wounds left by Hurricane Ike are diminishing, although we have a long way still to go before the physical and psychological damage is healed. Enough time, however, has passed that we’re already losing some of the institutional memory that our decision makers from that time had. How do we, as a community, keep the myriad of lessons learned despite the changes in city leadership and as people in key roles from that experience cycle out?

In a very forward thinking move, many of our city and county leaders attended an emergency management course at the FEMA training center in Emmetsburg, Maryland last week. It says a lot about the current leadership that they realized the importance of taking all of these busy, important people away from their duties for an entire week with the purpose of preparing them for how to deal with all stages of a catastrophic event, from emergency response all the way through debris management, restoring infrastructure and financial and psychological recovery.

The course itself was intense and even included three “table top” exercises that lasted several hours where we had to work together to address different problems that arose. A central theme that was repeatedly stressed was the importance of relationships and communication in getting a jump on both the response and recovery phase. It helped that we were locked into a compound in the middle of a blizzard! What little time was spent out of class was spent together continuing course discussions.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a group of Beach Patrol supervisors were taking their own course in disaster response. Kara Harrison, Josh Hale, Mary Stewart, and Kris Pompa went through a grueling swift water/urban flooding course in San Marcos. They spend 4 long days and one night in wetsuits learning swift water rescue techniques, search and recovery, and how to respond during a flood. This meets a goal we’ve been working on for some time on the Beach Patrol. We now have every full time member certified as a “Swift Water Rescue Technician”, which will prove invaluable to our community when we have our next flooding incident.

We don’t know when but we all know there will be another big one. The challenge is to keep the skills and institutional knowledge ready for that eventuality. Being prepared takes work, commitment, resources, and community buy in, but it’s essential.


Tommy Lee of GEMS and Peter Davis of GIBP at FEMA training camp in Maryland, 2014.


The lack of moon and heavy fog made the night darker than normal. The wind was calm and the water was like glass. As the stand-up paddler’s board cut through the frigid water, it left a glowing trail of phosphorescence behind. A wave broke ahead and sent a yellow/green light pulsing into the night.

Nowhere is the natural ebb and flow more apparent than along the coast line. Just as the tide rises and falls, animal and plant life increases and decreases depending on the amount of light, food, salinity, or predators. No doubt, human interference disrupts the natural cycles when we add pollutants or overfish certain species, but it’s hard to separate out what causes what. The relationship between organisms is so varied and complex that isolating underlying causes is tough.

We’ve seen a number of species multiply above normal in recent years. One season we have heavy Sargassum Seaweed, the next you see the wingtips of cow nosed rays everywhere in shallow water. Every few seasons we’re visited with a pesky red tide that causes inflamed mucus membranes and fish kill. The most recent bloom is something fairly benign but definitely one of the most beautiful phenomena we come across on the Gulf Coast.

This particular bloom is a type of algae and it involves tiny glow in the dark specs to shine when movement/oxygen affect them. There’s usually a bit of phosphorescence in the gulf but not enough to see. But this week there were so many that it lit up the night. It was mesmerizing.

The ocean has many forms of life that generate their own light. Animals that live deep in the ocean below the level reached by surface light often have weird glowing appendages to light their way or scare off predators. Others have huge eyes sensitive to the slightest glow. One of the coolest animals is found right here in the gulf and is really plentiful. The Ctenophore, commonly called the “Comb Jelly”, doesn’t sting and is pretty small. It feels like you touched a piece of gelatin floating in the water. Sometimes they are so thick that it’s like swimming though goo. At night, when prodded they produce about the same amount of light as a firefly.

Life struggles to find a balance. We know this in ourselves as we feel the natural mood swings we go through that are exacerbated by lack of sleep, improper diet, or a disruption in our routine. We also see it in the natural world in all types of forms. Normal amounts of ebb and flow ads spice to our existence. We wouldn’t appreciate the sun as much without the rain or the warmth without the cold. By the same token we wouldn’t value the days we feel like all is right with ourselves and the world if we didn’t have days that weren’t so good.

The trick within ourselves and in the natural world is to keep these fluctuations within a reasonable range.

White Pillars

The family of five showed up at the lakeside park in north Texas on Christmas Eve. Camping over Christmas was a long standing tradition and, as the kids were getting older, they were able to take longer hikes.

They followed a trail that ran around the lake. The youngest daughter was seven years old and lagged behind, unnoticed by the older kids and adults. As they made their way back to the campsite they realized the young girl was missing. What followed were something we know all too well- frantic calling and searching and eventually a 911 call.

Multiple agencies responded and researched the area. Eventually a tracker dog focused on a spot not too far from the campsite. A Department of Public Safety dive team arrived. They knew that this was a recovery operation and the time for potential rescue had long passed. They dove for several hours in the frigid waters but found nothing.

Thousands of people saw the heartbreaking story on the news.

Hundreds of miles away a woman in Louisiana woke up in a cold sweat. She had a dream that she saw the young girl in the water just in front of several white pillars. She couldn’t shake the image. It wasn’t a normal dream. It felt so real. Finally, after not being able to go back to sleep, she picked up the phone and made a call.

The woman was so convincing on the phone that the dive commander decided to follow his gut and go back out to the lake. On the far side of the lake there were some white barrels standing upright. They looked like pillars from a distance. He called his team back and they set up to dive. The first diver entered the water and resurfaced with the girl’s body within about 40 seconds.

This is a true story that was recently related to me by the very same dive commander. He was ex military and currently a police chief. He’d overseen the state dive team for many years, had seen a lot, and was definitely not the kind of guy that embellishes his stories.

It’s hard not to hear this and not believe in something. We see the world through our own lenses so some might say it was divine intervention from some type of “higher power”. Others might say its voodoo, telepathy, or an interconnectedness of being. My favorite is a connection that travels through a force that permeates the universe and binds it together (for the Star Wars fans).

It’s surprising how many people in public safety are superstitious. But after these men and women learn to follow their instincts and see patterns in seeming chaos, there is a real reward. There are too many police investigators that solve crimes by weighing the evidence AND following their instincts, or fire fighters that can “read” what fires will do even when it seems illogical.

Sometimes you have to trust your gut to see the unseen.

Police Chief Training

I was in Huntsville all this week for police chief training. The state of Texas mandates that all chiefs go through 40 hours of training every two year cycle. It’s interesting that Texas has so many departments per capita and the majority of departments are 5 or less. Even though we only have 7 certified officers on the Beach Patrol, our staff of well over 100 employees during the summer season makes us one of the larger departments in the room. I’m sure it’s hard to design a curriculum for a group that has such a wide range of responsibilities, but the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) does a good job.

I always kind of dread it, mostly because I have a hard time sitting still for 9 hours a day, but like lots of training we do, I’m always glad I went and bring good things back to the job. The topics are usually interesting and many of them are helpful. Of course we cover updates in the laws and pertinent issues related to whatever is current. For example, the last couple of cycles had sessions on terrorism. There are always really great presentations on management, human resources, and leadership that are easily put into practice.

This session we had a really good presenter named Kelli Arena who was a reporter for CNN for a number of years. She talked about the managing a crisis while handling the media. It was good to hear how this works from a reporter’s perspective. A big part of the discussion was about tension between law enforcement/public safety and the press. Of the 70 or so police chiefs in the room the majority admitted to avoiding the press when able and having predominately negative experiences when dealing with the media.

Our core mission is two pronged. Coupled with rescue, prevention and preparedness is an underlying philosophy that puts a very high priority on public education. This is one reason I don’t share the negative view of the press. I’m not saying there’s been a perfect history, but we’ve been lucky to have a long standing positive relation with most of the media outlets in the area.  Each person that learns about beach safety is one less person that we have to move out of dangerous areas or rescue. The media is an integral part in getting this information out there and has been very generous about letting us piggyback water safety information on to news stories related to events on the beach.

Ultimately all public safety works for the general population. The press is a direct line to the people. Part of the reason we’ve had a good relationship with the press is that we are as open and responsive to them as we can reasonably be. The same for the public we serve. Things work better when we all keep in mind that each of us plays a part in the greater good.

Doing the right thing brings good back to you.


Terrible Tuesday, Winter Activities and Marketing

After the first 5 minutes of swimming, we still felt like our faces were going to fall off.

On the initial immersion, we felt as if we couldn’t breathe at all. We had to force ourselves to put our heads down in the water and relax enough to swim. Every time we opened our mouths to breathe the water felt like a freezing cold water fountain. Those with cavities definitely felt it!

By the time we finished the first lap, our bodies were starting to adjust. Hands, feet, and faces became numb and the pain receded to a dull ache. By the end of the next lap, done on rescue boards, our core temperature was smoking hot and generating enough extra heat to make it much less of an ordeal to enter for the third lap, which was another swim.

After six laps, three swims and three paddles, and 9 runs we had averaged about an hour and 20 minutes of training. Enough to know that your body will adapt to water in the low 50’s or high 40’s. We do this workout, dubbed the “Terrible Tuesday”, once a week during the winter months. Enough to not become afraid or distracted or disoriented when you have to jump in for a rescue.

Training like this during the winter is a welcome break from the frenzy of activity at the Beach Patrol leading up to the next season. Looking back over the past 3 months we’ve replaced all the downed or damaged signs on the beach, done a lengthy employee review,  rebuilt all of our 26 lifeguard towers, ordered all vehicles and supplies, updated or training and policy manuals, trained and recertified staff members, revised our employee evaluation process, created an annual workflow calendar, revised our website, attended job fairs and other recruiting events, and helped in the design process of the new Tourist Ambassador Training program the Park Board has been creating. We’ve also researched and ordered almost all of our supplies for the year including vehicles, medical supplies, uniforms, rescue equipment, etc.

The nice thing about having the time to concentrate on all these internal projects is that once the beach crowd arrives we can focus almost completely on that. We have our hands so full in the “season” hiring, re-training, and supervising our 110 or so seasonal employees that it feels like there’s not room for much else. With 5-7 million visiting the beaches and so many seasonal workers it makes sense that we’d be stressed and running around like crazy to get ready for the coming storm!

With more tourists coming more of the year, and a focus on increasing tourism during the “shoulder seasons”, we are working to solidify our infrastructure and be prepared to expand to more of a year round operation if needed. As tourism becomes more and more important to our economy and livelihood, the best marketing we can possibly do is to make sure they feel safe and that the beaches and island are attractive.



Platform Fire

The 911 dispatcher came up on the Beach Patrol main channel last Monday evening with a request from the Galveston Fire Department to help with a fire on an oil platform fire on Pelican Island.

Three of our full time superstars responded, all of whom are surf guards, EMTs, and peace officers. As per our protocol Josh Hale went directly to the scene of the fire to assess what was needed from our end and to join the unified command. Kris Pompa and Austin Kirwin brought our rescue boat from Stewart Beach to the Yacht Basin, launched, and drove quickly to Pelican Island.

When Kris and Austin got there they realized that the Fire Department had a pretty intense situation going on. The fire was in one of the legs of an old oil platform that was dry docked. The fire fighters had been shuttled out to a barge. A crane lifted two of the fire fighters 50-60 feet up in the air so they could shoot water down into the leg.

The Battalion Chief called us in case one of the fire fighters fell in the water. Falling in the water from such a high place could be a big deal, but doing it in full bunker gear could be disastrous.

Fortunately, everything turned out fine. Our team’s role of sitting and watching was uneventful. The fire department put out the fire without any one getting hurt and without significant loss of property. Our guys got back to headquarters with even more respect for the amazing job our fire department does than they already had. For us watching how they handled it so smoothly was a real privilege. For them it was another day at the office. As the Battalion Chief put it, “If there weren’t accidents, none of us would have jobs.”

Situations where the different response agencies in Galveston smoothly help each other have become more and more common, thanks to the formation of the Galveston Marine Response group. Galveston Fire, Police, and Beach Patrol routinely assist each other, along with the Sheriff Office Marine Division, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, State Park Rangers, Schlitterbahn Lifeguards, and the Jesse Tree. When Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a cohesive response group for major disasters we didn’t realize how in the process we would drastically improve our response to localized events. Enhanced communication, joint training, and shared resources are common occurrences which is better for everyone, especially the public who depends on us.

The nice thing about this particular incident is that it was a good chance return all the favors we receive from the Galveston Fire Department on the beach each year. When those 6 million people hit the island’s beaches, no one group can handle it alone. We’re really thankful for all the good work Fire, Police, and EMS does each year and all the help they give us on the beach. Nice have the opportunity to repay them how and when we can.