Drones

Drones have become commonplace over the past few years and are being integrated increasingly   into public safety. It is, however, hard to separate fact from fiction in a world where a YouTube video can go viral and become “fact” simply because there are so many people that see it and it takes on critical mass.

Over the past few years there have been a number of internet hoaxes related to lifesaving and drones. Usually, the story is that a drone manufacturing company is testing a drone with a national lifeguarding association. These drones appear to drop some type of floatation device, such as an inflatable ring buoy to a person in distress in the water. In the videos a person is drowning and, just as they submerge the float falls magically within their reach. Then, even more magically, the person has the presence of mind to swim a couple of strokes and grab the buoy. Through the work I do with the International Lifesaving Federation, some of these stories come across my desk to look into. So far, when I’ve followed up with the national lifesaving groups in Brazil or Venezuela or wherever else, they’ve turned out to be clever marketing ploys with no basis. But that may change soon.

Drones are already deployed in some beaches for overhead surveillance of remote locations or to add an additional layer of protection. They fly regularly at beaches in California and New England for shark spotting. They’re also used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. And, although actual rescue is still a little out of reach, search and recovery has improved because of them.

When used for public safety purposes, drones can get a bit expensive and complicated. For example, there is a requirement for a type of pilot’s license and flight planning especially near airports. Fortunately, there are local organizations that have drone programs. Proactive law enforcement agencies, like the Galveston Police Department, have introduced internal drone programs. And we rely more and more on our Galveston Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to help. This summer CERT responded to a missing drowning victim several times to help search inaccessible wetland areas. It was amazing to see how efficiently they covered tough terrain, and could even see beneath the surface of the water when the light was right.

There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, grab them, and tow them to shore. They even predict that they could initiate CPR and maintain care until first responders arrive. It still seems a bit like science fiction, but we’re probably not too far away from some real developments. Real enough that the International Lifesaving Federation is having serious conversations about how this type of technology could augment lifesaving services around the world.

So, the next time you hear someone “droning on about drones,” it might be worth a listen.

Off Shore Winds

If there’s one thing lifeguards hate on an offshore wind day is an emergency where a person is being blown out to sea. When the wind blows offshore, it creates a unique set of circumstances that can be lethal. This is mostly a danger during the spring and fall when repeated frontal systems pass across the Texas coast. When someone is blown offshore on a floating object, they can quickly realize that it gets rougher the farther from the shoreline you drift. Short period, choppy surf pushing away from the beach is almost impossible to swim or paddle against. We don’t permit inflatable objects, which act like sails, in the water when wind blows from the north for this reason.

Dusk is the absolute worst time to get into a situation like this. The wind and waves can carry a person beyond the field of vision of a rescuer really quickly. Looking out to sea while standing at sea level only enables a person to see 3 miles or so before a floating object disappears beyond the curvature of the earth. If there are waves or chop this distance is lessened and once a person disappears over the horizon the chances of finding them drop. Add low light to the equation and the chances drop even more. In this scenario, finding someone using a boat is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We move quickly on these calls and try to keep an eye on the victim, or the “last seen point”, until we can launch a jet ski. Fortunately, we’ve saved a number of people by making an educated guess based on wind, current, and a last seen point.

A few years ago, a couple of lifeguards were out training in our surf boat on a strong offshore wind day. A surf boat is essentially a two-person rowboat with a closed bottom and big holes in the sides that allow wave water to run out. They were only about 50 yards from shore when one lost an oar and decided to swim in and get help. The other couldn’t maintain solo against the wind and as he got farther offshore the water got choppier, and the wind increased. By the time we got a jet ski into the water, we could no longer see him. It took an hour search following the direction of the wind to find him five miles offshore and another half hour to make it back to shore. We had just decided to call for a Coast Guard helicopter when we spotted the boat on the horizon. We were lucky on that one, but it shows how quickly things can go bad on those days, even for professionals.

Now that we are getting frontal systems regularly, always swim with a friend and be sure to keep a close eye on the wind direction. Stay really close to shore when the north wind blows and be extra careful about paddling out on anything that floats.

Drowning, Rescue, and Beach Event

Last weekend was the end of tower guarding for the season. A few towers covered with the seasonal lifeguards able and willing to give up their weekend between school or another job and work the beaches. But even with that help and our trucks patrolling up and down the beachfront, we had a drowning of a 60-year-old man at an unguarded area around 31st street. There didn’t appear to be a rip current in the area. Response was quick and a beach vendor reportedly was there to make first contact until our truck arrived. But even with a quick rescue and early CPR intervention he didn’t survive. Many thanks as always to our Galveston Marine Response partners with Fire, EMS, and Police as well as the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Program who provided a much-appreciated diffusion within a couple hours of the event itself.

Our staff went through a lot this past week. And I must hand it to them, they performed admirably under very tough circumstances. In addition to the fatality, we had a number of night call outs. One in particular was pretty impressive. Supervisor Stephen Limones made a rescue of a father and son who were caught by a rising tide way out on the south jetty. The call dropped at 2am and Stephen used a rescue board to ferry them one at a time across a cut in the rocks over to a couple of brave Galveston Police Department officers who made their way out on the barnacle and algae covered rocks to grab the pair. Stephen is a long-time guard who started with us many years ago as a Junior Lifeguard. He’s a surfer and great all-around waterman who allow works in the medical field. Good guy to have your back!

Whether or not people acknowledge it, these events take a huge emotional toll on our emergency response crews and others involved. But knowing you’re not the only group that cares means a lot. There is definitely a great team here in this county from the Emergency Operation Centers, dispatchers, first responders, and groups that provide emotional support.

Special kudos to the organizers of the annual Alzheimer’s Walk last Saturday! This is a wonderful annual event held at Stewart Beach. This year they really stepped it up with an amazing sounds system, a ton of participants, and a whole lot of vendors.

Our hard-working Coastal Zone Management Crews are in the process of picking up our lifeguard towards for the season. So, if you go out to the beach to enjoy some of this amazing October Galveston weather, please remember we are spread incredibly thin this time of year. Stay away from any structures like rock jetties to avoid rip currents and swim well within your limits. And if you see anything that looks questionable out there feel free to call our direct number 409-763-4769 so we can go check it out. And, as always, call 911 for any water related or other type of emergency.

Fall Coverage

October is my favorite month on the beach. As usual, we’ve been experiencing some amazing beach weather. A number of people have been out enjoying Galveston’s 33 miles of beach on the weekdays in small groups or solo and weekends will still be crowded for a couple of months. Our staff has remained focused, moving swimmers away from the deep holes and rip currents by the jetties and making the occasional rescue.

There are clearly more beach patrons using the “shoulder season” on the beach now-a-days and it’s likely due to a combination of warming trends, the growing population around Houston, and Visit Galveston and local businesses’ work to promote tourism. It seems our beach season now stretches from the end of February all the way to December. It’s not at all unusual to have a nice sunny weekend in November with many swimmers in the water.

This is the last weekend for our seasonal lifeguards. As “seasonal workers,” we are only permitted to employ them for 7 months. After this Sunday we’ll be covering all 33 miles of beach with two or three vehicles each day.

Beach Patrol’s target number of lifeguards is around 145 and 12 of the guards are full-time, year-round employees. This means that when fully staffed during the summer months on a normal weekend we are able staff 32 lifeguard towers, 7 trucks, 3 UTV’s, and a boat in the water. Even with that, we sometimes struggle to stay on top of the volume of calls and need every bit of help we get from our partners with Park Security, Police, Fire, EMS, park staff, and others.

Starting Oct. 11 until March, we’ll be operating using just our year-round staff, with some help from our volunteer “Wave Watchers”. These same staff members will rotate to cover “call”, meaning that someone will be available for emergencies, day or night, all winter.

If you observe one of our tower lifeguards for a summer day on the Seawall, you’ll see them repeatedly moving swimmers away from rip currents by the rocks. These preventative actions keep swimmers out of danger and keep our guards from having to make rescues that are extremely risky to victim and rescuer alike. When combining tower and truck work, we make between 300-500,000 preventative actions annually.

Working in a mobile vehicle is another story. We do the best we can to get to swimmers before they get in trouble, but we’re spread thin and covering a lot of ground, so its less proactive and we end up making many more challenging rescues.

At some point down the road, we’ll need to address increasing our capabilities as the shoulder season grows, but for now, we’ve got it. As the “season” closes, we’re looking forward to spending more quality time with residents, catching up on maintenance, training, and doing administrative work, especially once things cool down in December. I think our lifeguards and all islanders need that down time to recharge for next season! Thanks to everyone for their continued support.

Labor Day Advice

A big part of what makes America such an incredible place is all the work of the American labor movement and the work and contributions of so many laborers to the development and achievements of our country. Many Americans have a tradition of celebrating the special holiday that honors that by spending time with loved ones at the beach.

With Labor Day upon us, we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. Fortunately we have a lot of help from other groups. The Coastal Zone Management team has cleared paths to the water at the San Luis Pass and at the beach parks to allow for first responders to access the beachfront. Our partners in the Galveston Marine Response have trained and prepared and are staffing extra help. The County Emergency Response Teams (C.E.R.T.) will provide valuable support at the San Luis Pass and Boddecker drive to augment our lifeguard patrol keeping people from entering those dangerous tidal areas. And, of course, our dedicated group of “Wave Watchers” will provide an extra layer of surveillance, help with lost children, and be there in many other ways.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point- and that point is the shoreline. Water is not our natural environment. Things can go wrong quickly in the water so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment, or seconds of inattention, for things to break bad.

Taking a moment to observe your surroundings and think about potential risks at the beach or any other body of water does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, what to watch for before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, designating a “Water Watcher”, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, non-swimmers and children should wear properly fitted lifejackets, and take precautions for the heat and sun. At the beach, it’s very important to avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage. Also avoid areas with strong tides like the ends of the island. Both the San Luis Pass and Boddecker Drive areas are illegal to swim in.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association agencies, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” agency.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it.

Interrelated Systems

More and more I appreciate all the people that collaborate to make miracles happen in our beachfront spheres.

Last Saturday the annual American Institute of Architects (AIA) Sandcastle Competition went about as well as anything could go during an event of 11,000 people and 3,700 parked cars on one beach. The logistics supporting all the Architectural Firms’ teams building those incredible sculptures was an impressive feat. My role was on the organizational and security side, but it was a true “incident command system” with teams handling parking, trash, supplies, accounting, and medical response. As you’d imagine, it’s a ridiculous amount of work with a zillion moving parts. But when each subunit “digs in” and supports the others and the greater goal, it’s a rush to be part of. I’m impressed with the AIA volunteers, Park Board, and Houston Precinct 1 CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), all of whom labored over 12 hours in the heat to make it work. I have to say, after being involved in this event for over 20 years, this is the smoothest its run. We still can improve on a few things, but Park Board Park staff, Galveston Police Department managed security, AIA, CERT, Beach Patrol, and others all knocked it out of the park!

The next day was another collaborative effort of an entirely different type. The second drowning fatality of the year on the island, and again at the unforgiving San Luis Pass, occurred after 7pm on the north side of the pass in the wetland area. A 3-year-old girl on a float perilously drifted into the bay. Fortunately, our San Luis Pass Patrol crew was able to quickly rescue her using a jet ski, but her father perished in the unpredictable deep and treacherous waters while attempting to save her. With practiced professionalism the Galveston Marine Response (Beach Patrol, Police, Fire, and Jamaica Beach Fire) and the U.S. Coast Guard mounted a comprehensive search. The following day, Galveston County CERT joined local responders and deployed drones in an exhaustive search, following up again the next day with 3 drone crews. Meanwhile, the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network assisted the family with critical information, counselling, and the additional support needed to navigate the first stage of this tragedy. Media outlets were respectful and continued to help push the message out to avoid swimming at either end of the island because of severe and dangerous tidal currents.

These are just two examples of how complicated the response can be to the many happenings on the beach. And behind the scenes, all the complex systems and relationships at both the City of Galveston and Park Board of Trustees provide us with the resources we need to serve residents and visitors. With that support and the incredible partnerships and systems we’ve developed through the years, we are able to accomplish so much more as an interrelated system than we could as individual entities. I’m thankful that we all work together to save lives.

Competition Results

From Supervisor Jeff Mullin, Team Captain for the team that recently competed in the United States Lifesaving Association National Lifeguard Competition, to staff of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol:

“Good afternoon, folks! Team Galveston is back from USLA Nationals and boy did the squad bring back some serious hardware and results!

To start, our very own Jacqueline Emmert got 4th overall in age group points (all ages combined outside of open events) and brought back a gold in the surf swim and 2k, silver in run swim run, international ironwomen (run-swim-board paddle-surf ski) and surf ski, and bronze medals in beach flags and board race. Way to show up and show out Jacque! Especially at your second Nationals appearance!

Next up with medal performances was Chief Davis, as usual coming back with hardware including bronze medals in his age group for American Ironman (run-swim-board paddle-surf boat row) and surf ski, and top 5 finishes in board race, run swim run, and international iron man, and barely missing out on making the open finals for surf ski by literally a foot and a half.

The landline team of Jacque Emmert, Jeff Mullin, Charlotte Blacketer, and Caleb Tiffin missed semi-finals by a mere few seconds.

Tiffin came to continue his winning beach flags performance in a stacked field of speedsters to make it to semi-finals in beach flags. Blacketer, even with an ankle injury, managed to get one spot away from making the finals in the pit! She even had the baton in her hand for a microsecond before it got snatched away!

Not to be forgotten, Mac Livanec and Axle Denner were one spot away from making the semi-finals in the open board rescue, with Livanec also making the semi-finals in the open surf ski.

Finally, with a combined team for the open women’s Taplin relay that consisted of Emmert from Galveston, Padre Beach Rescue, Monmouth County, and Virginia Beach, we were able to place for points which moved us up to tie with Hollywood Beach (Florida) and beat out Capitola Beach Lifeguard Association (California) and take 14th place out of 27 teams, many of whom had scores of competitors.

Our junior guards also had a great showing with Brendon Lusk placing 5th and Landon Morris scoring 7th in Beach Flags, Maddy Scott getting a 4th in the 2k and 8th in the Iron Guard, and Ryan Pryor with a 4th place finish in the swim relay. Not to mention 3 more top ten finishes in beach flags and iron guard!

Congrats everyone and “good on yas”. It was a fun one! Everyone come on out next year to Sunday comps so we can send an even better and faster team to Virginia Beach for Nationals 2023!”

In a profession where every rescue is a race, and every guard is an athlete, competition is our primary tool for maintaining the high levels of fitness required. I’m proud of both the competition team and the guards who trained and competed all summer to be rescue ready.

 

National Championships

The early morning light glimmered across the water, bathing the line of figures in a coppery glow. Each of them carried a narrow, sleek racing board under their arm. They were coiled and vibrating, until the whistle blew. In a blur, they exploded as they raced out into the water. First, they high stepped until they were in deeper water then they hopped on the boards either prone or on their knees. Waves knocked a few back, but the front pack shot through the surf line in a tight clump and headed out to a line of flags and buoys.

The leader sliced through the water with the others drafting in his wake. They jockeyed for position as they neared the first turn, knowing even a small error would be critical at this point. Only a few would advance to the next round.

One of the competitors who was towards the middle of the front pack nabbed a nice wave on the outside, joined shortly after by a clump of others. Having been able to rest on the wave, he jumped up in knee deep water and sprinted in through a funnel finish.

Welcome to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) national lifeguard championships. This year Hermosa Beach, California will host several hundred competitors and their support crews on August 10th-13th. The best of the best ocean lifeguards and junior lifeguards in the country will compete in a multitude of Lifesaving Sport events which simulate the skills needed to rescue people in trouble.

More than any other of the emergency services, ocean lifeguards rely very heavily on their skill and fitness in the water to effect rescues. All the inter and intra agency competitions lead to regional competitions and eventually the best duke it out at the “Nationals”. Competition is the key motivator for thousands of beach lifeguards to maintain the incredibly high levels of physical fitness required to do the job. This is critical in a profession where every lifeguard is an athlete, and every rescue is potentially a race against time.

Los Angeles County takes the championships almost every year. Their depth of field ensures a pipeline of great athletes, and the percentage of year-round professional lifeguards brings a lot of master’s level competitors to the event. When the event is held is LA County it gets really competitive. Additionally, the colder water and larger surf can be a challenge for Junior Guards and less experienced athletes from Florida, Texas, and much of the East Coast. Hard to train in 88-degree water and compete in 65 degrees! But both our guard and junior guard teams have been training really hard and you shouldn’t underestimate Texas spirit!

Leadership Fridays

Sergeant Andy Moffett and Senior Lifeguard Gheffri Preciado stood in front of the room surveying the small groups of four or five that were having animated discussions as David Mitchel and Iris Guerrero sat off to the side watching intensely. David is our Ecumenical Support and Volunteer Coordinator specialist, and Iris is part of our Wave Watchers and Survivor Support Network Team. She often helps with translation and support for our Colombian guards.  Just as the discussions started to wane Moffett spoke up. “Ok I think you’ve all got some good ideas together. Let’s get each group to give the most important part of the different roles our teams have.”

Team by team they went through the list that included Command Staff, Supervisors/Senior Guards, Lifeguards, and Dispatch. By the time the 10 or so groups were finished, they had covered virtually every component of our operations. I was completely blown away by their comprehensive understanding and support of what people in all parts of our organization do.

For about three years we’ve been working towards a leadership program. Partnering with the Occupational Therapy team from UTMB, our Leadership Committee modified an existing program that was based on a program generated from a Navy Seal team. It’s been a great fit for our staff and incorporates the three key elements of leadership, resiliency, and intercultural competency, emphasizing “extreme ownership.”

Looking at our existing structure and understanding we don’t have much budgetary wiggle room, our team decided to integrate the training into something we already do. Each guard each day has about an hour of training at the beginning of their shifts. They typically go down to the beach and train for about 45 minutes using rescue boards, fins, and rescue tubes. This part is really physical, as it incorporates the elements of making rescues. Then, the last chunk of time is devoted to skills. So, in an average session they may practice repeated rescues using swim fins or rescue boards, then transition to practicing CPR, reviewing hand signals, or review rip current theory.

What our team decided is to turn Friday sessions into “Leadership Fridays.” So, Friday training is now done in our large training room and is mostly devoted to peer guided discussion about how to better guard, better protect yourself physically and psychologically, and to becoming better at seeing the point of view of people in different roles or from different cultures.

This sounds like something that is a good idea on paper but is met with a certain degree of skepticism and cynicism in the real world of teens and young adults. I thought it would take some time to integrate these concepts into our daily lived experience. But I was wrong.

They are all in, and approach it in the same positive and collaborative way they do for the technical side. They dive in just like they do in the ocean, training, or any other way they can pitch in to make us even better at protecting the millions that come to Galveston’s beaches.

Currents and Bottom Memory

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, occasionally, we’ve had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter was body surfing with me a while ago, and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.