Rescue Theory – Part 3 (conclusion)

The last two weeks we talked about the basics of rescue theory and how we use techniques to make as many parts of a rescue become automatic as we can. The key components of elimination of distracting variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness. That gives the guards the tools, but they still need to prepare themselves for the myriad of unexpected variables that inevitably are thrown at them while making rescues.

Cognitive flexibility under stress, the ability to demonstrate flexibility and creative problem-solving strategies under duress, is a little harder concept for the guards to grasp at first. Through repetition neural pathways become more “worn”, much like a foot path that has been traveled more often and therefore becomes easier to use. This is a good thing in that response to a given stimuli becomes automatic, but with the obvious benefits come inherent risks. The potential issue lies in the environment itself. The ocean and beach are in a constant state of flux, as are the beach patrons themselves.  No rescue is routine as there are a multitude of factors that can affect the process. When in a stressful situation we all have a tendency to default to what we know. That’s good if it means we perform CPR the way we were trained. But you also hear stories about police officers who, in the midst of a shootout, start collecting their empty magazines off of the street because that’s the way they did it when practicing at the range. The goal of teaching people to show “cognitive flexibility” during a rescue or crisis is for them to default to their training while at the same time being able to expand their awareness and come up with creative solutions to problems that pop up while dealing with a multitude of issues.

Understanding this principle helps in the teaching process. In ocean lifeguarding we teach from the top down. Our instructors focus on the overarching principles and teach to trouble shoot application of these principles to a variety of real life scenarios. For example, instead of teaching exactly how to make contact with a victim in the water, we focus on basic principles such as keeping floatation between the rescuer and victims’ bodies, pausing and assessing a safe distance from a victim. That way the concept works when you use other types of floatation and/or in a myriad of specific rescue techniques. Once these general concepts are internalized through training and repetition (muscle memory), the guards become more confident and comfortable in their ability to handle anything that is thrown at them.

These concepts and a respect for the power and variability of the ocean are the beginnings of forging competent and professional lifeguards.

Rescue Theory – Part 2

Last week we talked about the basics of rescue theory and how we use techniques to make as many parts of a rescue become automatic as we can. The key components of elimination of distracting variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness.

Level of fitness involves a great deal of physical training that is specific to the actual environment that rescues will be made in. Our guards work out every day they work in the beach so they’re intimately familiar with the bottom contour, waves, and currents of that particular day. We also use periodic competitions as a means to motivate the entire staff to be at their physical peak during the beach season and to normalize the physical stresses inherent in a rescue.

Rescue skills atrophy if not used regularly. Incorporated into our daily pre-shift workouts is a skill component. They may practice CPR, hand signals, components of a rescue, public relations, or handling a lost child. Sports enthusiasts and public safety professionals regularly use the term “muscle memory” to signify repeating something over and over again until you don’t have to consciously think about it. For example, you may practice a modification to your swim stroke so many times that you start doing it automatically when you swim. It’s almost like your body remembers how to do something without your brain having to tell it. If these skills are kept current through repeated training and practice, they happen almost subconsciously during the rescue process so the rescuers consciousness isn’t spread too thin and he/she can focus on the weird stuff that inevitably happens instead on things that need to happen for every rescue.

Equipment preparedness is integral in the process. There’s nothing worse when trying to save another person than equipment malfunction. A fairly routine rescue can go horribly wrong when a fin strap breaks or a buoy is wrapped up improperly so the strap doesn’t play out smoothly. One of the first things the lifeguards learn is how to properly wrap their rescue tube. Once this is committed to “muscle memory” it’s automatically done the same way each time. The same principle applies to oxygen units, personal watercraft, rescue vehicles, automatic external defibrillators, and any other piece of equipment. Fewer variables stand between the rescuer and successfully saving a life.

State of readiness is a general concept that basically means the lifeguards come to the job each day prepared mentally, physically, and psychologically. They are able to maintain a state of alertness for their entire shift because they are well rested, hydrated, and wearing the proper gear for sun protection or temperature control. It also implies that they aren’t distracted by personal issues. Finally, before a lifeguard is able to work a stand, they need to have developed a certain level of confidence in their ability to save someone. This is accomplished by instilling the belief that they can handle unusual situations on the fly because they are proficient in their ability think creatively under the gun.

Rescue Theory – Part 1

A swimmer’s head sits low in the water and his arms flap out to the sides while trying to keep his head up. The lifeguard sees the telltale signs of a swimmer in distress. She immediately kicks into a whole pre-determined plan as she radios for backup, grabs her fins and rescue tube, chooses the proper entry (from sand or rocks), dolphins through shallow water while unwrapping her tube. Swimming with her head intermittently up to keep sight of the victim, she pauses on the approach, and talks to him as she keeps her buoy between them while extending it. Upon contact, she moves to his rear and buckles the buoy around him, assesses him, signals to shore what his condition is and if she needs help, swims him to the beach while checking intermittently, re-checks him more thoroughly at the shore and renders whatever medical aid is needed. While doing this she prepares to pass all this info on to her supervisor or other first responders.

Making an ocean rescue is a complicated process which requires a great deal of preparation to effect safely. There are a lot of ways this could potentially go sideways, so we spend a large percentage of precious training time on this topic. Obviously, there is a lot of physical training required in advance so the body is prepared, but the real keys are the mental aspects. These we break into two general categories, elimination of variables and cognitive flexibility under stress.

Elimination of variables encompasses a whole range of physical, mental, and psychological components. The overarching concept is when you start the rescue process there are a lot of things that need to happen, so you want to make sure you take care of as many of these variables as you can in advance and have fewer unknowns as you enter the rescue scenario. In addition to the areas that are consistent between most rescues, each event is unique and so things will be encountered that that could not be planned for.

When you go into action your body instinctively kicks in a whole range of physiological responses so you can do things you wouldn’t normally be able to do. Time seems to slow down as chemicals are dumped into your blood stream. Depending on your training and history you can experience a diminished mental capacity while at the same time have an enhanced physical capability. Taking care of as many things as possible in advance is crucial since you may not be at your best mentally during the rescue process. The key components in the concept of elimination of variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness.

This is the first of a three-part series that is the basis of how we teach rescue theory. Next, we’ll go into each of the specifics of the elimination of variables. Stay tuned for the next installment and Happy Holidays from all of us at the Galveston Island Beach Patrol!

4 Things To Be Grateful For

Happy Holidays! We’re suddenly at the end of a tough year with increased tourists, warming climate, and ever-increasing crew  reduces patrols to one vehicle a day for a couple of months and turns attention to rebuilding lifeguard towers, working on administrative duties, responding to occasional emergencies, and completing special projects, there is time to reflect. The holidays are a time to take stock of where you are in life, focus on important things, and take time to appreciate what’s good about living on our bizarre, unique, and very special little island. Here are the four things I appreciate the most:

  1. Working as a Lifeguard– It’s an incredible privilege to serve, and to have that service built into your career. So often ex-lifeguards come back to visit and talk about how the time they worked for the Beach Patrol was the most fun, most significant, and most pure. Going to bed knowing that what you did that day directly impacted lives for the better is something of real value. Along with 14 other amazing full-time people, I am fortunate enough to do that all year, and to have done it for most of my life.
  2. Living in Galveston– An old friend and I were talking on the phone recently. He and I grew up on the beach together and worked together for decades. He moved away for a time and couldn’t wait to get back here. He said mostly he missed the people, who are not like anywhere else. He’s from a big local family that’s been here several generations and was also talking about how great it is to live in a place where you have deep roots. We reflected on whether or not you have roots here, how many times and how many ways you cross paths with people in a mall island community like this as you move through life.
  3. Guarding in Galveston– Galveston is a place where people value what a professional lifeguard service brings to the community. The Beach Patrol staff really appreciates the support the community gives us within the city structure, the Park Board, other first responder groups, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, CERT teams, and the citizens themselves. Getting over 7 million tourists home safely is a real team effort, and it takes all of us working together to make this happen. In return, repeat tourist business brings the revenue we all need to remain a vibrant city. Also, I can’t express what a privilege it is to work with the incredible staff of the Beach Patrol. They are a constant inspiration.
  4. The Water– As a 7th generation Galveston who comes from a long line of beach people, I was taught to love and respect the beach and ocean. Now after surfing for 48 years and guarding Galveston’s beach for 40, I still feel honored each day to have the privilege of seeing the sun rise and set over the Gulf.

Message In A Bottle

Detective Kris Pompa works for the Galveston Police Department, but years back worked as a Beach Patrol Officer/Supervisor. One day, as he was patrolling the beach in front of the condos on the east end when he spotted something unusual on the shoreline. The aquamarine blue colored bottle glinted in the sun as he stopped the vehicle and walked over to it. It was an unusual, long necked bottle. It was corked, but the cork was covered in wax that had been carefully dripped down the length of the neck. It was light and felt empty of any type of fluid. As he held it up to let the early morning sun’s rays shine through, he noticed several pieces of paper folded up inside.

Back at our headquarters we opened the bottle and pulled three sheets of carefully folded paper out. We unfolded them to find two separate letters in meticulously written German.

I asked my brother, who is fluent in German, to translate for me and sent him scanned copies. A few days later he sent me a summary. The story was heartbreaking.

Both letters were written to a one year old child who would have been just a few days short of his second birthday if he had been still alive, although it sounded like he died just shy of his first birthday. They talked about how much they missed him, including his now 4-year-old brother. At the time of the letters, he also had a younger sister. The father talked about how he wished he could play soccer with him and his siblings and how he still wants to be a better father to him and to pay more attention to him. The mother talked about how she wants to set aside an hour every two weeks to think about him and how, even though she misses him terribly, nothing can take away the fact that she was once able to hold and kiss him. They both talked about how he belongs in their family and always will. Neither says how he died.

Another lifeguard told me he found a similar message to a lost loved one from the Corpus area, but others had found the bottle and added their own notes of sympathy. He added his own, resealed it, and set it free in the ship channel on an outgoing tide.

I’ve never found a message in a bottle but it seems like a really poignant way of communicating, especially in the digital age where everything is immediate, but seems to also hold less weight.

All too many of us know how true loss freezes that last moment in time. Sending a message in a bottle reflects that. It is simultaneously both impersonal and intensely intimate. Not only are you writing to a loved one, but also to a complete stranger who finds the bottle. The idea that this stranger is connected to you both by fate, and is potentially someone who fully understands the essence of your message, seems very significant.

African American Lifeguard Monument Committee

After a full day, I climbed down a metal ladder from a flat, wooden platform with a thatched roof at 28th. It was a community beach back in ’84, and I knew most of the beach patrons by sight, if not by name. At that time, it was also still mostly an African American beach, as it had been designated either culturally or since the ‘20s.

As I made my way up to the seawall with my bicycle, I stopped to chat with 4 guys around my age or a bit older, one of which had recently graduated from Ball High with me. They were the “evening watch”, and I was never clear if they assigned themselves that role or the neighborhood leaders did. I let them know about things to watch for. As I rode home, I knew the beach was in safe hands, and that at least one of them would stop by the next day and update me on whatever happened after I left.

Years later, I ran down to stop a group of teens from getting caught in a rip current at the same location. An older African American man was already there when I arrived, yelling at them to get away from the rocks. Although he looked strong and fit from a distance, when I approached him, I could see that he was much older than he appeared. Well into his ‘80’s then OC Brown, as he introduced himself, was still full of that fire that lifeguards for life have. He told me he’d worked that beach for years and scolded me that I was a bit slow in responding. He was so impressive, and that event emphasized for me the layers of untold history, much of it involving African Americans, that is woven into our beaches and our island.

To that end, we’ve pulled together a committee that has been working on some really cool stuff, chaired by David Mitchell. The Beach Patrol, NIA Cultural Center, Old Central Cultural  Center, Visit Galveston, The Historical Foundation, Galveston Lifeguarding Inc., and others have been working on a multi staged project. Phase 1 was submission of an application for an “Undertold Story” marker on the same spot of the seawall that the “Evening Watch” sat, with the help of the County, City, and a myriad of groups that have thrown in support. The marker will honor the African American Beach and the black lifeguards that worked it.

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. We are also exploring the possibility of a large, sculptural monument to these lifeguards. The idea is that there will be a way to point your phone at either project and access the data base, and this will be part of a larger cultural tour of the island.

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.

Winter Precautions

There have been a few wake-up calls in the news about people who didn’t take proper precautions before heading out into the water.  Our year-round staff has been busy while patrolling keeping people away from rip currents near the groins and responding to a myriad of beach emergencies. Hopefully the water will stay cold enough to keep the casual beach visitors out for a couple of months so our crew can rebuild lifeguard towers and take care of all the projects we postponed until the two months we run light patrols. Of course, we’re still available for emergencies and provide rescue response 24/7.

In the winter getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should wear the right wetsuit for the specific activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way, when the unexpected happens, you’ll be able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming. Sometimes in the winter, and often in the spring, the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in.

Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. When we see big difference between the air and water temperatures, they may put out a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition stay busy during these times when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay or San Luis Pass, while the Coast Guard typically handles the offshore area.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water, especially during the winter. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the more accurate a starting point a rescuer has, the more likely they are to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. There are a number of apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on fancy electronics! Be sure you have a back up. A built-in watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once, and I personally never go out on the water without wearing it.

Winter on the beach and waterways in our county can be incredible, just be sure and take appropriate safety precautions. And have fun!

Triple Rescue

Recently, two young men and a woman were making an Uber Eats delivery to Galveston and decided to go to the beach. Walking down to the sand at 26th, they saw a ton of surfers and several people out swimming in the warm water. They decided to hit the water.

As they got out to chest deep, the feeder current pulled them towards the Pleasure Pier, gently causing their feet to bounce along the bottom. A fairly strong east to west longshore current ran along the beach. As it hit the jetties and piers, most had significant rip currents on the leeward sides (west side in this scenario). These rip currents had been running for a couple of days and had scoured out pretty deep troughs on the west side of all the structures.

The trio quickly went from bouncing in the shallow waters of the feeder to getting sucked away from shore in the deep waters of the rip current. All three started panicking and went vertical in the water, struggling for each breath.

Someone spotted what was happening, and called the 911 dispatcher, who quickly notified Beach Patrol, then the Galveston Marine Response partners of Police, Fire, and EMS. The call came in that there were 5 people in distress. A minute or so later, the first Beach Patrol truck arrived, and the two Supervisors hit the water.

It was a bit chaotic as they sorted out what was what, but eventually it turned out there were three victims, and the other people were surfers who were helping the victims. This isn’t unusual, surfers probably make at least as many rescues as lifeguards, although this can come at a cost, since most don’t have formal rescue training. Two of the victims were being brought in by surfers and Beach Patrol, Fire, and EMS went to help one that collapsed. One of the lifeguards helped with this while the other, Michael Lucero, went for the third victim on a rescue board.

Michael spotted her being assisted by a surfer, who was reaching across his SUP board and holding her steady about 60 yards from shore. The rip current had spat her out about halfway out the Pleasure Pier, and they were floating quickly to the 27th street jetty. Michael approached and made contact with them about the time they rounded the end of the 27th street jetty. He attempted to get her on the rescue board, and she fell off. Then it got interesting.

The surfer got her up on his board and said, “You ever surf? No? OK 1,2,3!”, and he pushed her into a wave. She made it part way in as Michael paddled after her as fast as he could. She then fell off the board and started to struggle and go under. Michael arrived just in time, grabbed her, wrapped her in his rescue tube, and took her the rest of the way to safety.

This would have gone a different way, were it not for the surfers, and those who make it possible for us to work guards all year!

GIBP HQ Update

Thirty-nine years ago, as a second-year lifeguard, I watched the current pavilion at Stewart Beach being built. Now we are inside a space that was once a night club, and barely serves our ever-growing operations. The building is almost a decade past its intended lifespan. We’ve thoughtfully considered relocation, but the most cost-effective option is to remain in the existing building until we construct a building that can adequately accommodate our day-to-day operations.  But each year we incur significant costs to maintain a building that is no longer functional and has become a safety hazard as well as an eyesore.  Galveston deserves better.

Galveston’s Beach Patrol covers all 32 miles of beach 24/7/365, intervenes in a half-million potential accidents annually, and serves over seven million visitors and residents each year. We serve more people than beaches in California and Florida with a fraction of the budgets of those agencies.  We also filter between 4 and 5 thousand calls for both EMS and police annually by first responding to medical emergencies and crowd problems, most of which we’re able to “catch and release” without tasking our already overburdened public safety partners. Galveston boasts one of the busiest, challenging, and most visited shorelines in the nation, and the demand increases every year. We will need to keep up.

With more than 140 lifeguards and dispatchers, 120 Junior Lifeguards, and another 60+ volunteers, a safe, 24-hour, all-weather sand-base facility is critical for training, working space, and supervision. To mitigate risk for our children and adults, direct access to the beach and water must be accessible without the danger of crossing Seawall Boulevard while carrying rescue equipment. When covering assigned beachfront zones, rescue vehicles need to stay on the beachfront to relay information and deliver lifesaving equipment while continually protecting beach patrons and guards. An on-beach facility is also critical in providing an unobstructed view to handle weather and medical emergencies, lost children, and command and control of our most populated beach.

The current Park Board trustees have been very responsive to the urgent need for a facility that supports and maintains one of our nation’s most professional lifeguard services. Under their direction we worked with an architecture firm to come up with the schematic design of an incredible professional home for our array of programs that would last 70 years and would include capacity for growth to match the ever-increasing demands placed upon us.  Designed to use natural breezes to provide climate control for sections of it, we can both save building costs now, and operational costs for years to come. Potential for resiliency using even more cost saving renewable energy and repurposed water will be built into the design, which could make this a tourist attraction and educational center for the public in its own right.

We’ve been squirrelling away money in our reserve fund for decades to kick this off. I’m so excited to share this design with our board, the city, and the community of Galveston next week! We trust that, despite everything else going on, we can all move forward quickly together on this critical and historical project. For Galveston.

 

 

 

Moving Into Winter

As the season changes, we shift to winter mode. “Winter mode” isn’t what it used to be, when we would pull everyone off the beach for maintenance and administrative work. Today, we have more patrol responsibilities with increased water and beach visitation and have more professional trainings and certifications to maintain.

The first priority is, obviously the lifeguard towers. Our staff rotates through the patrol and maintenance positions. Each full-time staff member has a couple of areas of specialty such as towers, signs, vehicles, facility management, website oversight, Junior Lifeguards, museum project, public education, administration, etc. However, at times all staff that are not actively patrolling may work together to get something done. Signage and tower refurbishment are the first priority, and everyone helps out. For example, we maintain some 600 signs along the beachfront, so they are often in need of replacing a portion of them after high tide or weather events. Others are more specific. For example, Supervisor/Officer Jeff Mullin handles the bulk of our water safety education talks at schools and community group. Others handle, dispatch, website, medical supplies, rescue equipment, and more.

There is also important training that happens in the wintertime that we wouldn’t be able to do in the summer. New officers train with the Galvestion Police Department, mostly in the Patrol Division. That way, they get some good experience from the Island’s primary law enforcement entity and learn how to coordinate and assist GPD which is good for everyone. Each year we send a couple to be certified as Swift Water Rescue Technicians, so our team can better respond to natural disasters and more fully support the Galveston Marine Response Team. And there is always online training to sync with the Park Board, maintain EMT status, etc.

Each of the full-time employees has areas they are responsible for, but the goal is to get everyone’s projects done and it takes the entire team working together to make this happen.

It’s easier than you’d think to get all of our full-time crew to work together. They’ve mostly all been in our program since they were young. Most of them came up through our Junior Lifeguard program, starting at age 10. Their instructors taught them the importance of teamwork and the concept that we all work together for the good of the millions that visit our beaches.  As they matured, they became guards and put that idea into practice, trusting their lives to each other to make rescues and prevent accidents. They understand the value of our new leadership/resiliency/intercultural competency training that’s been integrated throughout our staff’s daily and periodic training. They recognize the importance of a harmonious work environment and the direct impact that it has on our ability to serve and protect beachgoers. They know we are only as strong as our weakest link, and they know it to their core.

Now they are the leaders and are teaching the younger guards and Junior Guards the values they were taught and live out daily. You can be very proud of your lifeguards.