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!

G-Town Surfing

People who don’t surf often have a misconception that there’s not very good surf in Galveston. And it’s true that on many days if you drive down the seawall and look out to the Gulf there’s not much in the way of waves. But if you know a few tricks and secret spots, there’s more than enough surf to keep even the most diehard surfer happy.

This is a great time of year for surfers. Once the fronts start rolling in periodically in the Fall and the Spring, there’s a pattern to it. First, we get a strong on shore wind which brings in some choppy surf. It’s usually short period waves that may have some size but aren’t great for surfing. But it’s enough to get a rush if you’re game and have a good fitness level. Then, the front hits with an offshore wind. If the wind comes in soft and blows either directly offshore or from the northeast, it will clean up the surf. Once its good and lined up we’ll get nice, clean, surfable swell. The past couple of weeks had we’ve had a couple of frontal systems that were good examples. They started with short-boardable waves and, as it got smaller, still was great for long boards, stand-up paddleboards, and foils.

One not so secret local spot that is pretty extraordinary is the area on the east end of the island, in the ship channel. Typically, this doesn’t have ridable waves, but when the conditions are just right it can be world class, with freight train tubes 100 yards long. Its ridable maybe a couple times a year for those that are there at exactly the right time, but only gets really good once every couple of years. Conditions have to be extremely rough on the beachfront- usually white water to the horizon with a west to east current. Huge waves refract around the south jetty and end up hitting the “beach” at an angle. Its often only good for a couple of hours, so only the most dialed in birds get the worm. That’s why “surfers isle” is so elusive and has reached mythic proportions in the surf community.

After some 47 years of surfing, I think the trick to enjoying surfing in Galveston is to embrace what it is. There are a number of classic surfing days here each year, but there’s a lot of days that you have to work for it. This means maintaining a high level of fitness for both those big, nasty days and for those tiny days where you work for every wave.  You’ll want an array of wetsuits for the incredibly variable water temperature that shallow Gulf waters are known for. And you’ll want a diverse quiver of boards that definitely includes either a longboard or a stand-up paddleboard for the tiny days.

But mostly you need a good attitude. One wave makes the session a success, if you appreciate the gifts our beach and ocean have to offer.

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.

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.

Umbrellagedon

I followed my routine of getting up early, driving the entire beachfront, then if things seem calm, meeting whoever is interested for a workout before the beach action heats up. Getting that exercise in first thing helps to maintain balance, perspective, and focus when things get a little crazy later in the day. Little did I know the nuttiness would start early!

On this particular morning I met a small group of guards and we did a run-swim-run-paddle-run. As we started the first run we noticed a little dust devil stirring up some sand to the east of us. This is pretty common in the late summer when we get these unstable, hot air masses, so we thought nothing of it. As we continued our run we were suddenly blinded by sand and buffeted by wind as another one crossed our path. It lasted only a few seconds and we kept running, laughing about it and saying, “What are the odds?!!” We were half way through the swim leg when we started getting tossed around. For those who have had the pleasure of swimming right beneath a helicopter you’ll be familiar with the sensation. It was so windy we dove underwater and just came up when we needed air. Fortunately, this passed quickly, and we finished the swim, had an uneventful paddle on rescue boards, and were just starting the last run leg when something very unusual happened.

We heard screaming and looked up to see what seemed to be a wall of umbrellas coming at us, twirling in the wind. Some were as high as 30 feet in the air and others somersaulted along the ground.   The Beach Service crew are pros at setting them in the sand, so we knew this had to be something powerful. Squinting through a sudden driving sandstorm we sought cover behind my rescue truck as large beach umbrellas bounced off the truck and careened by us. “Let’s go!” someone yelled and we sprinted into the melee, tackling umbrellas rapidly and closing them so they wouldn’t hit anyone. The Beach Service did the same and the stationed lifeguard called for backup and then joined in. It ended as quickly as it started. Over 100 umbrellas were scattered all over the beach in the wake of a large dust devil. Some people were calming crying children while others laughed hysterically. Others ran around aimlessly. In the chaos we culled through people looking to see if anyone was injured. Miraculously, there were only a handful of bumps of bruises.

This summer there was a death up on the east coast in Garden City, South Carolina when a Beach Patron was impaled by an umbrella. Thinking about this, I realized how rare events like this one are here on our beach. I’m especially appreciative for all the seasoned Umbrella Vendors who take such care to set the poles deep and at the right angle to avoid this kind of thing and are so responsive when emergencies pop up.

Ike Anniversary

We heard a lot about Hurricane Harvey, but September 13, the anniversary of Hurricane Ike, came and went without much fanfare.

I still remember how the water felt as I slogged down 16th street heading into the biting wind. How the grit had gotten in my water shoes and how saturated my skin felt after several hours in and out of the water. The fear in my stomach as a transformer blew close by. Wondering if the electricity could travel through the water to me. Trying to breathe and see through the thick smoke coming off of the huge fire burning at the Yacht Basin.

It seems like yesterday I felt the tiny boy’s hand in mine, as I held on to him and his sister while walking chest deep in the grimy soup next to their mom and pulling a rescue board piled with another sibling and a few belongings that they begged to bring along. Bringing them to high ground at Broadway and piling them into a waiting police car that would take them to the emergency shelter at Ball High school. Taking a moment to watch them drive off and grab an energy bar before heading to the next group a few blocks away.

Those of us that went through Hurricane Ike have memories like this etched into us that probably will never leave. Unfortunately, as time slips by, that institutional memory fades. But it’s encouraging how much better prepared each group is now as a result of lessons learned.  Charlie Kelly, who is no longer with us, was the Director of the Emergency Operations for Galveston for many years. He once mentioned his fear that all the event memory would be lost as people who went through the storm moved on. Fortunately, proactive planning if done correctly, can put systems in that compensate for lack of personal experience. And it’s good to have a system that doesn’t depend on individual personalities or experience. After 9-11 the National Incident Management System was integrated throughout the nation’s emergency services. And locally, each group’s emergency action plan is much more comprehensive than what we had before. We annually revise the Park Board’s Emergency Action Plan, and I intentionally try to think of how it could be improved so that it doesn’t rely on any one person’s experience.

We still have a ways to go until we get through storm season, so don’t get complacent. In lifeguard training we talk a lot about eliminating variables that can mess you up during a rescue. We practice them to the point where your body remembers even if your brain doesn’t. If you practice and internalize all the things you can control in advance, you are better able to handle the inevitable wrinkles that arise. This applies to systems as well as individuals. It works for hurricanes and manmade disasters.  It works for officials and emergency response teams.

And it works for you and your family as well.