The mission statement of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) includes that we “work to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.” Much of this happens when many of us gear up during the spring.
During the spring many agencies including Galveston, step up public education programs in order to do what we can to drown proof students before school lets out and millions flock to the beach. We have increased our numbers of agency reported public safety lecture contacts to the point where it’s almost a half million per year nationally, and locally were hitting over 20,000. Looking at drowning from a public health perspective, there is a concept called “herd immunity”. If the majority of people in a group are inoculated against polio, then the minority who are not have a drastically reduced chance of contracting the disease. By the same token, if a group of people have been educated in how to avoid hazards when they go to the beach, it is unlikely that other members of the group who have not received the “inoculation” of this information will run into trouble. The thing about this is that there’s not any way to tell how many people our efforts save because they just go to the beach, have a great day, and return home without a problem. But we nonetheless know intuitively that all our collective efforts across the country in this area are making a difference. For example here in Galveston County it’s relatively rare that one of our own die from drowning.
Agency renewal ensures that we are all at least meeting minimum accepted standards when we train new guards and re-certify experienced guards. Since all USLA agencies meet the same standards when we train and certify guards, we are making sure the family that goes to the beach in Jersey, South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, California, or almost anywhere in the United States where they can swim near a lifeguard is protected by professionals who meet standards that ensures the safety of both beach goers and lifeguards. The Galveston Beach Patrol exceeds the national minimum standards by quite a bit.
Many of us tend to get busy in the spring with outreach, recruiting, training, prepping for junior guard programs, and dealing with special events and high beach use during times that our staffing may be less than full capacity. Many of our guards are working in conditions that can add even more risk, such as high surf or cold water. During these times we need to watch each other’s backs even more than when we have a full safety net around us. Our Beach Patrol full time staff works very hard to provide the training and educational tools that our many seasonal guards need when they join or return. That, a healthy respect for the water, agencies doing the best they can to train and equip guards properly, and all of us watching each other’s backs is a big part of protecting the protectors.
We pulled up a little before first light and parked under an overpass. We sat in the van as the world turned slowly from black to dark grey. The guys spoke quietly in Japanese, but even without understanding the words I could detect an underlying tension and excitement to their voices. A big swell was reportedly hitting this section of the Japanese coastline and we’d driven the better part of the night from Osaka to be here. The beach wasn’t much to look at, just a thin strip of brown sand, but we could hear and feel the growling, vibrating surf with each pounding wave. As it got light enough to make out the surf, I could see we’d definitely hit the swell right on.
Onosan was the leader and not only did he have a successful surf shop, but he’d surfed professionally and had spent a couple of years on the world tour. In true Japanese fashion he had a whole possessed of disciples. As we paddled out through the big surf I stuck close to Onosan. There’s nothing like local knowledge and he seemed to know exactly how to find the rips to get out and how to time it perfectly between sets.
It was fully light by the time we made it to the outside. It was bigger than I thought and I had some serious butterfly’s. None of the disciples had made it all the way out but I spotted them on the inside break. None looked good but they were dropping in with no fear and a sore of reckless abandon. Onosan had taken a couple of big ones before I worked up my courage to drop in on a juicy 12 footer. After that , following him I started adjusting and catching good rides until I got caught in a close out and my leash broke. It was a long swim in and I had to detour around a fat rip current. But I switched out leashes and made it back out.
Suddenly I heard shouting. Several of the disciples were trying to get a swimmer to shore and he almost choked one of them who got too close. They had him on a board but that rip current was keeping them out while the waves pounded them all. A fire truck arrived and some guys in bunker gear yelled from shore. I paddled to them and we ended up swimming sideways out of the rip and eventually to shore. The guy was in bad shape and left in an ambulance. But the surfers spotted Onosan catch a nice tube on the outside and excitedly ran back into the water.
Hopefully that beach has a lifeguard service by now!
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.
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
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
For a few months our newer full-time staff members have been getting acclimated to their new jobs. Josh Bailey is one of the 6 new hires we made in October. He’s a great addition to the staff and brings special skills to our team.
He was originally from Nebraska, then Oklahoma, California, and eventually attended college in Missoula, Montana. In high school he lived in Apple Valley, California where he wrestled, played soccer, and bowled. He also interned in the office of Congressman Paul Cook, where he increased his administrative capability, about working with people, and learned how much you have to apply yourself to effect any type of meaningful change. During college in Montana, he worked as ski patrol at a local resort, but felt like there wasn’t enough action. He also managed a GameStop for a year and a half long stint, which he enjoyed because he was a big gamer, is a decent salesman, and likes people. He also got into lifesaving and was a swim instructor at the local YMCA.
From there he was ready for a life change. He saw a news program about what was going on here during Hurricane Harvey. He saw lifeguards working in concert with other public safety entities to save lives and knew that was what he wanted to be part of. Since not a large percentage of our nation’s lifeguard agencies operate at that kind of level, Galveston was where he wanted to be.
Josh showed up here for lifeguard tryouts. He impressed us with his enthusiasm. He also impressed us with a big book of all his accomplishments that he brought to the perfunctory interview that we do with all our seasonal staff. When, at the end of the season, a full-time spot opened up he was hired. We’re looking to build capacity in our organization, which includes leadership development. Josh is full of potential and we decided to hire him even though he had only been here a short time.
Since Josh started working full-time, he feels that he’s learned a myriad of new skills. He’d never been on a rescue board, done maintenance projects, or dispatched. More importantly, he has developed a deep appreciation for Galveston and Beach Patrol’s place in it. He feels like its an “honor to work for Beach Patrol, which plays such an important part in the community”.
I chose Josh to lead a group to explore expansion of our core mission. Part of what we’re working on here, which is part of a larger change within the Park Board, is changing our decision-making process to be more collaborative and less hierarchical. So, Josh headed up a group of his bosses to look at what 5 words we feel best expresses the essence of what we do. Josh and his team rounded it out with two additional, and I have to say very important, concepts. Now our mission is encapsulated by the words “Prevent, Rescue, Enforce, Educate, and Train”.
Nice work Josh!
Before you get to beach safety, there are a number of precautions that should be in effect. They are like the stepping stones you take before you even get to the point where you would swim in the surf. Water Safety USA is a national group composed of 14 of the major players involved in water safety and drowning prevention. Some of the groups involved include the Center for Disease Control, Corps of Engineers, YMCA, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, National Swimming Foundation, American Pediatric Society, Coast Guard, etc. I sit on this group as a representative of the open water lifeguards, the United States Lifesaving Association.
With Water Safety USA one of the main things we’ve been working to achieve is common ground for water safety messaging. So we’ve been working towards coming up with shared messages that we all have in common. However, it’s not enough to give the same message different ways. We, as much as possible, are trying to use the same wording for messages we share so as not to confuse the public. One of the hard things about public water safety messaging in the USA is that there are so many groups putting out different messages. Sometimes it conflicts and sometimes the message is the same but we say it in such a different way that it’s confusing. We’ve so far agreed on a message about learning to swim, wearing lifejackets, and designating a “water watcher”. Learning to swim is really about swimming to survive, not about competitive swimming. But, as they say, swimming is the only sport that will save your life, so the focus is on getting to safety. Wearing lifejackets when boating or when in or around the water for non-swimmers and children is pretty obvious, but it also involves wearing the right kind of lifejacket. The wrong kind of lifejacket can float you face down, so that’s not too useful for non-swimmers or unconscious people. A water watcher is a term used for a person designated to have the sole responsibility of focusing on the people in the water. An example is if there is a pool party, one adult is always keeping an eye on the kids who are swimming. The adults could trade out but someone is always assigned to do that and just that. Talking, playing on the phone, or doing anything that could distract is not OK.
All of these apply to going to the beach as well, but then you additionally would add things like swimming near a lifeguard and avoiding rip currents, which in our case here in Galveston typically mean not swimming near rock groins or piers.
The plan for Water Safety USA is to continue looking for common themes, but we’re starting another, larger project as well. We’re starting work on a national water safety plan. Many of the developed nations have one, so there are plenty of resources out there. The goal is define strategies and set targets to reduce the amount of drownings we see in our country each year.
This is the time of year lots of us try to focus on things that we feel thankful for. So many things come to mind for me. My staff, who always go the extra mile when it comes to protecting and rescuing people. All the volunteers with the Survivor Support Network and Wave Watchers who are always there when we, and the public, needs them. The Park Board, City of Galveston, County, and other governmental groups that have consistently supported our program for decades. The many public safety groups that are always willing to work together for our shared mission. Working within a community that supports what we do. And, I have to say, living in a community where my family has such deep roots and where we have the privilege of living in concert with the natural environment.
When I think past the obvious things to be appreciative of, I’m also reminded that the Beach Patrol, as the designated lifesaving service for the city of Galveston, also has a fairly unique funding mechanism. The majority of our funding comes from hotel tax dollars, which means citizens of Galveston do not pay for our services. Tourists do. We still would not be able to provide all the services we do with just that, but we also receive money from beach user fees, which are also primarily generated by tourists. This is a good thing because we do not, as many beach patrols do, have to compete for funding with other emergency services or city departments. This system was created in the 60s when Galveston, working with then Senator Babe Schwartz, realized how much importance a beach tourist town has to put on the care, maintenance, and protection of people on our main tourist attraction. Early on, we realized we needed to provide a high level of service on the beaches in order to attract and maintain tourist revenue.
I’m also appreciative of working as a professional beach lifeguard in the United States. Through volunteer work with the United States Lifesaving Association and through the International Lifesaving Federation I’ve been exposed to lots of different types of systems. Some hotels pay for guards in front directly, others work through national fire or military, and in a shrinking tradition, many still use volunteer lifesaving corps. A few parts of the world mark off areas that are guarded with flags and sort of ignore the other areas of the coast. But in the US, the accepted best practice is comprehensive programs that cover areas of high risk or high use, like we do here in Galveston. So with the resources we have we guard busy areas, patrol others, provide social programs and an after hours on call system, etc. Bottom line is that in the US we are able to prevent more, rescue more, and do all that with state of the art equipment.
So, bottom line is I’m grateful to be in a place, time, and community that supports helping people and preventing tragedy as much as possible.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!