Beach Labyrinth

It’s always interesting how chance encounters can lead to great things.

At the “2015 Safe Spring Break Event” at Texas A & M Galveston, Mary Beth Trevino met Mary Stewart of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. Mary Beth is the Coordinator for the Galveston County Community Coalition of the Bay Area Council on Drugs and Alcohol. Her job involves working to reduce public health risk factors and increase protective factors.

Mary Beth invited Mary Stewart to come and speak at their upcoming May 2015 Town Hall; “Connecting to Create Change”. Mary Stewart presented about the dangers of Swimming under the Influence of drugs and alcohol.

On Thursday, June 9, 2016, Mary Beth was at a meeting with me and Sharon Croissant, Associate Professor, Preventive Medicine & Community Health at UTMB. Sharon has been involved in several joint initiatives between the Beach Patrol and UTMB and was instrumental in starting our “environmental alert” program that involves the use of flying an orange triangular flag from stations and towers in the event of air or water quality issues. She also used Beach Patrol guards as a subject pool for a study on the relationship between particular matter in the air and lung capacity. In a post- meeting conversation we talked about the event Mary Stewart presented at. The conversation shifted to keeping beach crowds safer. Mary Beth, Sharon and I discussed the possibility of providing a set of binoculars to each lifeguard tower to enhance public safety. Sharon was able to secure some grant funding to cover the cost and we’re working on getting that in place before the season starts up again in March.

Another serendipitous conversation that had a great outcome happened recently when I bumped into Kay Sandor at a recent event. Kay was trying to figure out how to bring a disabled woman out to the beach for a labyrinth building event and had heard that we’d started a program years back where people could borrow sand wheelchairs with giant tires at the beach parks. Although we did start the program, the Park Board Beach Parks department runs it now. Basically, if you come to the parks during the season you can use a chair free of charge for the day by leaving an ID at the gate. I put her in touch with Chris Saddler, Park Board Parks Superintendent, who helped her out.

This particular event involved building a number of labyrinths on the sand from seaweed and other materials. My mom was very involved with the original labyrinth that was on Holiday Drive but now resides over at Moody Church. I was familiar with the concept but had never been exposed to the building of temporary labyrinths. What a concept and what a success!

It’s amazing how much can happen when people collaborate as opposed to just working in separate silos. And it seems that there is so much of this type of thing going on right now in Galveston.


Anniversary of Hurricane Ike

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 grimy 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 he and his sister while walking chest deep in the grime 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. Only two city department heads were in the same role when Ike hit. But it’s encouraging how much better prepared each group is now as a result of lessons learned.  Charlie Kelly, who recently passed, 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 its 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 recently revised the Park Board’s Emergency Action Plan and I intentionally tried to think of how it could be improved so that it didn’t rely on any one person’s experience. Last week all the Chiefs of the various public safety agencies met at the Emergency Operations Center to plan a table top exercise for a worst case scenario during biker weekend.

In lifeguard training we talk a lot about eliminating variables that can mess you up during a rescue by practicing them so much 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.  And it works for you and your family as well.

Heat Wave

We are in some weird weather patterns fluctuating between storms and heat waves. Although in Galveston the actual temperature isn’t really that high, the real thing that worries us is the heat index, which is a combination of relative humidity and air temperature. When the relative humidity is over 60% it hampers with sweat evaporation and hinders your body’s ability to cool itself. Since in Galveston the humidity is pretty much always over 60% heat related illnesses are an ever present danger in the summer.

Heat exhaustion is the first stage of heat related illness and is usually accompanied by some type of dehydration. According to Web MD, there are two types of heat exhaustion:

Without proper intervention, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which can damage the brain and other vital organs, and even cause death.

We see heat exhaustion often on the beach in late summer. Many people spend he whole day in the heat and sun and often aren’t used to those conditions. Sometimes people who are outside regularly forget to hydrate or drink beverages that hasten dehydration. Generally people will be confused, nauseous, dizzy, light headed, tired, have headaches or cramps, have pale or clammy skin, sweat profusely, and/or have a rapid heartbeat.

The first thing we do is try to get them out of the heat and sun. On the beach this can mean an air conditioned vehicle, wiping their skin with a moist cloth and letting the wind blow, or applying cold packs or ice in areas of the body with lots of circulation. We try to get them to drink fluid as well, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or sugary drinks.

Normally this is enough and we are able to treat at the scene and release them with a warning to take it easy for the next few days. This would be one example of the roughly 1,800 calls we’re able to filter for EMS annually. But if these measures don’t work within a few minutes we call for EMS because heat exhaustion can progress rapidly to heat stroke. Heat stroke is a critical life threatening situation so we want to avoid it if at all possible.

An important, but not well, issue that affects our guards and people that are on the beach all the time is that of cumulative dehydration. New lifeguards often find that on the second week of work they are dizzy when they stand up or have stomach issues. They don’t feel thirsty so there’s no clue that they have become more and more dehydrated. Until they learn that they need to drink close to two gallons of water a day even if they’re not thirsty it will continue.

Living where we do in Galveston County it’s important that we are consciously aware of the effects and dangers of heat and sun and takes steps to mitigate them.




The two men were paddling a canoe about half a mile off of their dock on sportsman road when they turned over and were thrown in the water. They were not wearing life jackets and the water was cold. Although they could swim they began to tire quickly as their heat and energy were sucked away. Their movements became slower and slower as they struggled to maintain their heads above water.

Fortunately, unbeknownst to them, someone spotted them from the porch of a house with binoculars and called 911. As they gradually lost their battle with the elements, help was on its way in the form of the Galveston Fire Department, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, Galveston Police Department, Galveston EMS, and the Beach Patrol. This coordinated rescue team, the Galveston Marine Response (G.M.R.) all worked off a shared radio channel to figure out how best to effect a rescue using the available resources. The fire and police departments arrived and searched the area to locate the victims while others brought boats from the nearest staged locations. EMS staged in the most likely place for the rescuers to return to shore.

From the Beach Patrol perspective, Supervisors Kris Pompa and Lauren Holloway grabbed the jet ski we keep staged at 61st street and headed directly to the nearest launch site from the incident. By the time they arrived at the Sportsman Road boat launch, the other responders had a good visual on the overturned canoe. Kris and Lauren pulled up to find someone they knew pulling up in a boat. To save the time it would take to launch they asked if they could jump in, and the boat went straight to the accident site.

When they approached one of the guys was swimming around, but the other was starting to go under. Kris grabbed his rescue tube and dove off the boat. As Kris brought the victim to the boat after making the rescue, the other guy swam over and they helped him in the boat. Heading back quickly to the dock, EMS checked out the two guys, both suffering from mild hypothermia.

This story had a happy ending because of the same teamwork that these agencies employ all year. Sometimes Jamaica Beach will have the closest boat, other times with will be GFD or GPD. But now that we have a system in place, more people with more qualifications get to these water emergencies more rapidly. And save more lives.

Last weekend the same groups, along with the crews from Ironman, a kayak club, and the Coast Guard Auxiliary all coordinated together to get 1,900 or so triathletes through the mile long swim course. 22 rescues and 208 swim assists were effected, but everyone left in good condition. Later that day some of the same people from the same groups saw each other several more times as we dealt with various beach emergencies. And there will be many more to come.

The busy season is just starting.

Snakes and Social Media

I love spring on the beach. Fog, sun, hot, cold, empty beach, people. It’s a time of transition that doubles back on itself repeatedly. One day it’s cold and empty and foggy and the next it’s warm and there are a couple hundred thousand people swimming around.

One thing that always entertains when the world starts to warm is that lots of people suddenly re-realize that the beach is part of the natural environment. I guess they forget over the winter that it’s not just a big water park, but is instead a thriving ecosystem with fish, birds, crabs, jellyfish, and even snakes. Realistically, the threat of these creatures is extremely minimal when compared to the risks of driving to the beach through traffic or swimming in areas known to have rip currents. But the news is always looking for a new angle. Giving the old “Spring Break” coverage a makeover by adding some footage of a shark being pulled up by a fishermen or the rare sighting of a snake that ventured out of his normal home of a sand dune does the trick nicely.

Of course the best way to avoid any unpleasant encounter is to keep your eyes open, obey warning signs, and to follow safety recommendations. Some of the most important of these would be not to mix drinking with driving or swimming, swimming near a lifeguard, avoiding areas near groins, and shuffling your feet when walking through the water.

Despite some of us realizing the natural environment is… well, natural, Spring Break went really well overall. Somehow the weather worked out to be just about perfect. Lots of foggy or cool mornings followed up by sunny weather in the 80’s. The water cooperated as well with temperature around 70 (cool but bearable), and moderate to mild surf conditions. Many of our guards were back “riding the pine” and they were hard at work. We got by with very few serious incidents but the guards collectively moved over 2,500 people out of dangerous areas with rip currents, submerged debris, or too far from shore. They worked hard and spent a lot of time in the frigid water. Hard to imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t been out there though. The beaches were literally packed with hundreds of thousands of people.

The crowds were well behaved though. We had very few problems along the seawall or at Stewart Beach and East Beach Park (Apffel Park). There were a few issues on the west end but the Galveston Police Department handled them well as usual. Social Media is a real force to reckon with from a law enforcement and safety perspective. Crowds of hundreds of high school kids would seemingly materialize at the San Luis Pass or Sunny Beach. Finally, a couple of proactive officers got one of the revelers to tweet that the party was over and they all pretty much vanished back over the causeway.

And now we’ll do it all over again for Easter!

Spring has Sprung!

One week from today the Spring Break Crowd will be arriving. But, in case you didn’t notice, no one notified the tourists or locals that the beach season hasn’t officially started yet. The past few weekends have seen big crowds on the seawall and some brave souls have already been getting in the water for brief amounts of time.

It’s weird when you think about how things have changed over time. Although we used to see big Spring Break crowds in the 80s and early 90s, you really didn’t see much beach activity on in the early spring aside from that. And the beaches used to pretty much shut down once October hit. Now we consistently seen decent beach crowds all but two months out of the year. We’ve even dedicated at least one lifeguard mobile patrol starting in February and ending the first of December. They’re actually moving people away from the dangerous areas by the rocks and making the occasional rescue during those previously cold months. Galveston has basically turned into a year round resort. With the growth rate in the Houston area and elsewhere coupled with what is now a clear difference in average temperatures, we can expect this trend to continue, provided we continue to make sure the experience our guests receive is a safe, positive, and memorable one.

Next Saturday, March 12th, we’ll have our first lifeguard tryouts and lifeguard academy of the year. Information can be found on our website if you know anyone that’s interested. The 9 day academy is intense, and many of our potential guards who are students don’t want to “give up” their spring break. But for those who have the right stuff and are committed, it’s a very rewarding experience. Transforming people into beach guards in such a short time is painful, but when they come out on the other side they have all the tools they need to join the team that comprises Galveston’s designated lifeguard service.

The 12th is also the first day for the beach parks to open. The park staff also has quite a bit of training to go through before they’re ready to meet the onslaught of tourists. The Beach Patrol teaches CPR and First Aid to them, as well as the other Park Board employees that work with the public. They also go through a course to become Certified Tourist Ambassadors, so they are not only customer friendly, but know enough about the island to answer basically any question.

So it’s time to get out there and have some fun! But remember to swim near a lifeguard, follow the recommendations of signs and flags, avoid swimming near groins, piers, or the ends of the island, and take precautions for the heat and sun. And remember to use good common sense and keep an eye on friends and family. You’re the first line of defense. The lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection if you miss anything.

See you on the beach!


Heroes Around Us

Tuesday night a call dropped in the evening. The original version was a 911 call and was that there was a suicidal person that jumped off the causeway. The caller wasn’t specific about the exact area. The dispatchers called Fire, EMS, Police, and Beach Patrol (Galveston Marine Response) who all headed that way. Fire and Police grabbed their boats and we brought a jet ski and headed to Payco Marina at the base of the causeway. One of the fire trucks went to the top of the causeway to get an aerial view.

New information came in that the incident involved a car being driven into the water. Nobody found anything during an initial search. Then, another person reported that the event actually happened at the Texas City “Y” area and wasn’t in Galveston at all. Finally, everyone got confirmation there was a car in the water at the base of the north side of the railroad bridge. The Fire Department made the area first and reported that there wasn’t anyone in the water.

We all deal with many calls of this type throughout the year. The dispatchers do an excellent job of sorting through varied and sometimes conflicting reports and getting the pertinent information to the first responder agencies. But many times very different information comes in from different sources. Well meaning people aren’t aware of where they are when they see an event. It’s also not uncommon for people to call in an “emergency” as a hoax and sit and watch from somewhere nearby as we all scramble around trying to save lives. Tuesday night was an example of how professionally and unemotionally our local heroes work a call, putting aside emotions that could interfere with clear decision making. Trying to focus on that person in need and the shortest path to helping him/her, as opposed to letting ego or frustration interfere with the process.

You see these heroes every day and don’t realize it. Our military, police, fire, lifeguards, EMS, medical personnel, etc live among us. When someone chokes on food in a restaurant they are the person who calmly puts down their fork, walks over, and calmly clears the airway. When you see a wreck, they are the person who puts aside their own needs, stops their car, and helps.

There are many opportunities to join their ranks. One that’s coming up soon is our spring Lifeguard Academy which starts March 12th and finishes March 20th. There is another one in May. Those who pass the swim, interview, and drug screen will go through an intense experience that includes a high level of medical training, water rescue techniques, lifeguard training, tourist relations, surf swimming techniques, and a whole lot of physical training. For the few that pass through this crucible, some will work a season and others may make it a lifetime. But they join the ranks of our first responders permanently.

The United States Lifesaving Association has a slogan:

“Lifeguards for Life”