Posts

Beach Patrol and What’s Coming Up

This Sunday, May 1st, we are expecting 70 or so lifeguard candidates to show up for lifeguard tryouts. The following Saturday we’ll have another tryout and academy as well. We need them all!

I thought it would be fun to walk you through a sample of a summer day with us to illustrate all the things that are happening behind the scenes.

Starting at 7:30am the first patrol truck hits the beach, puts out flags, gets an overall feel for conditions, and updates the warning system. Our 1st dispatcher arrives and preps for the shifts to arrive. Three shifts of guards arrive starting at 7:45, followed by 10:30, and the main shift comes on just after noon. All shifts go to the beach for physical training, followed by short sessions that rotate between topics related to lifeguarding, medical response, resiliency, leadership, tourist relations or intercultural competency. For every 3 towers we ideally have 4 guards scheduled per day, to allow for breaks. Dispatchers work in a similar way.

We stagger our shifts to best use our resources and aren’t at full strength until after noon. To help fill the gap, many of our Wave Watcher volunteer program are out early checking various areas of the beach. They are a huge help in spotting potential issues before they escalate.

Meanwhile, we are also working administrative staff 9-5 and running our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp, with kids between 10 and 15. The first session of the day runs from 8-12 and the second from 1-5. They typically bounce back and forth from the headquarters to the water. They recover from exercises, games, and skills sessions while having lessons on similar topics as the guards. Then they go back to the ocean for swimming, paddling, rescue techniques, etc. We choose instructors carefully, so they’re learning from the best.

Guards get off around 8:30pm and supervisors and dispatchers continue for another hour. Then, some lucky soul gets to be “on call” and be ready to respond throughout the night to all kinds of emergencies.

Afternoons are our busiest time and can be filled with emergencies, or just the steady work of keeping people from danger. We work a zone system, where each truck takes care of a zone having 5-9 towers in it. We work a zone system, and are always ready to backfill, so we’re able to maintain uninterrupted coverage.

To accomplish all of this, we have approximately 125 lifeguards- most of whom are teenagers, 10 dispatchers, and 15 year-round employees. We cover 9 miles with 34 towers, provide patrol for 33 miles, and respond 24/7/365 to emergencies that happen in about 70 miles of waterfront. We also maintain our police department, support 15 or so Survivor Support Network Volunteers, and about 60 Wave Watchers. And our JG day camp program has 120 kids ranging in age from 10-15.

This all works because we have layers of supervision and coaching, both in our facility and on the beach, where the adults are in constant contact with the teenagers and children.

How would you like to be an open water Lifeguard?

NEW LIFEGUARD TRYOUT DATE!

May 1st @ 9:00 a.m.

Location:

UTMB Field House (swimming pool)

301 Holiday Drive

Galveston, TX 77550

Must swim 500m in 10 minutes or less.

Bring your physical signed by your doctor, and one of the following: Drivers License, ID, Passport, Birth Certificate, School Report Card and additional I-9 acceptable documents.  Drug Screen will be performed on site.

Lifeguard Academy will begin the same day.

GIBP Headquarter Crisis

39 years ago, I stood in the sand with 16 other lifeguards as radios were issued from our “Headquarters.” I studied the old run-down trailer parked outside a small beach pavilion on the sand and thought, “This is the Headquarters?” In 1983, Hurricane Alicia wiped all that away. The following season, we moved into a brand-new space, which was situated in a large, modern, beach pavilion. The effect of a professional facility sparked a fire which increased coverage, professionalism, partnerships, and outreach, and we eventually became a premier lifesaving force of 140 strong. Thirty years later, we have expanded inside that existing pavilion into a space that was once a night club, but it barely serves our ever-growing operations.

 

Our trusty old workhorse’s time is over. Concrete is spalling from salt air and water, the pilings are brittle, and it has become a hazard. We are eight years beyond the maximum lifespan, and despite Galveston’s harsh climate, we’ve protracted the “expiration date” with willpower and elbow-grease. It’s been a good home and it has permitted us, like our professional counterparts around the world, to best serve the public from the most demanding beach. Your 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. Galveston boasts one of the busiest, challenging, and most visited shorelines in the nation, and the demand increases every year.

 

Lately, the urgent need for a replacement Beach Patrol headquarters facility has been debated. Ideas of including it in a public/private partnership with Stewart Beach amenities were considered, but the two concepts are completely separate issues. Each effort serves different needs, and each financed independently. It is crucial that something happens soon for the Beach Patrol headquarters, as it increasingly costs more to keep it safe enough to occupy, and lifesaving operations are impacted. This summer our Junior Lifeguard Program, a critical feeder for lifeguard staffing, will operate out of a tent to ensure the campers’ safety.

 

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.

 

Our Park Board is committed to finding a timely, cost-effective solution to meet the needs of the Beach Patrol because Galveston’s beach patrol is one of the largest, most professional, and in-demand lifeguard services in the world. They need your support because Galveston deserves and demands a first-class, professional facility for its world-renowned patrol to work, train, and deploy from.

 

We urgently need a new home, and the clock is ticking.

 

 

Academy and Spring Break Prep

A group of men and women hold onto the pool wall, each in their respective lanes. Some are visibly nervous and already breathing hard. Others are taking deep controlled breaths and look calm, at least on the outside.

“Swimmers take your mark. Go!”

We are on the precipice.

In just two weeks we will hold lifeguard tryouts! At 9am, Saturday, March 12 in the UTMB Fieldhouse swimming pool, prospective lifeguards will swim 500 meters. To make it to the academy, they must complete the swim in 10 minutes or less.

From the pool, the ones that pass will go directly to the Beach Patrol headquarters and drug test, fill out paperwork, and dive right into the academy. Over the nine-day academy candidates will take a high-level Red Cross first aid and CPR course. They will learn and practice open water swimming and rescue techniques in the pool before using and building on these skills in the surf. They will have lessons about Galveston beach and lifesaving history, the way the city and the Park Board operate, and learn about the importance of teamwork. Front-line tourism ambassador training, how to diffuse conflict, how to build cultural competence, and how to become a better leader and follower are all part of the syllabus too.

Throughout the course, a variety of experienced instructors emphasize the importance of important concepts, including the understanding general rescue theory vs. getting mired in details of techniques that may or may not work in a real rescue. They learn about the need for flexibility and independent thinking and the balance between concepts like chain of command and group decision making. We repeatedly emphasize and practice the critical importance of physically and mentally rehearsing how to make a variety of rescues. Rehearsing and visualizing helps first responders to make the basics automatic and it can help them focus and helps reduce “tunnel vision” when first responders are stressed.

During this 90-hour course, our returning lifeguards will be out working Spring Break. Once the candidates course work is near completion, they’ll get to join the more experienced guards and work some busy beach days. There’s nothing more valuable than putting their new skills into practice in real life, under supervision.

We need guards! If you or someone you know is interested in a challenging, rewarding and life-changing job that helps people and allows you to explore your full potential, consider joining the men and women that protect Galveston’s beaches. There is specific information on www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com  about the academies we offer and other ways to support Galveston’s designated lifeguard service. Even if you are not one of those people in the pool on Mar 12, we still need everyone’s help and there are many ways to serve your community and “pool” our resources and experiences.

Come by and say hello and get connected to us. Anyone can help save a life by listening to advisories, learning, sharing safe practices and being “water safe.” And always, let us know if we can help. We are here to serve you.

Flags

We’re just over a month away from beach season, believe it or not. Soon we’ll be putting out all kinds of information about how to stay safe when visiting the beaches. One area that’s important to refamiliarize yourself with is our Flag Warning System (FWS).

The FSW advises beach patrons of the current water conditions and any applicable environmental warnings. The flag colors described below used to help beachgoers understand the current conditions in the always dynamic environment of open water.

On Galveston Island, informational signs and warning flags are posted each day year-round along Seawall Blvd. at flag warning stations. Also, each guarded Lifeguard tower hoists the appropriate flags for the day, and they also are displayed at beach park entrances.

We post flag color, warnings, and other important safety info on our homepage and on multiple social media platforms every day. You can also sign up on our website to receive the notifications via email and/or text message daily.

Here are the different flags we use and some inside background information on them:

Green: Conditions are calm, but swim with care. Remember this doesn’t mean you’re 100% safe. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond so you should always be extra careful even on flat days.

Yellow: Indicates that beachgoers should use caution when entering the water. This flag is flown for normal ocean conditions to remind swimmers to stay alert. It is very important to stay close to shore on yellow days.

Red: Flown when conditions are rough, such as presence of strong wind, strong current or large surf. Adult swimmers should stay in water no more than waist deep and non-swimmers and children should enjoy the water along the surf line. When there is a red flag flying you should assume the presence of very strong rip currents near any type of structure like groins or jetties.

Purple: Indicates potential problems with jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, stingrays, or other marine life that could be a hazard for swimmers. Purple flags are used in combination with other flags. Every lifeguard trains before every shift and we are the “Guinea Pigs” to test the waters If we get several stings while swimming, the flags go up. Sometimes a wave of critters comes up midday, so we put the purple flags up when we reach a minimum threshold of the ratio of stings to swimmers.

Orange: Indicates an environmental warning for air and/or water quality. Ask the Lifeguard for more details. Orange pennant flags will be used in combination with other flags. We have a partnership in place with UTMB for air quality warnings and one with the Health District’s Texas Beach Watch Program for water quality warnings. Water quality warnings can be specific to certain places so these flags, when flown, may just be applicable in some areas. We don’t determine when either of these warnings are issued. But we help spread the word by our flag system, or website, or via social media.

Perfect Storm & Non Fatal Drowning

Sergeant Andy Moffett and Supervisor Michael Lucero were powering up and down the seawall last Sunday moving swimmer after swimmer away from the rocks. The wind was howling, water was rough, there were strong lateral currents pulling people to the rocks, and the rip currents were really strong. On top of all that the beach was packed, the water and air were both in the ‘80’s, and only a handful of guards were able to come in to work.

They moved a woman away from the rocks on the west side of 17th street, explained the dangers, and raced to the next rock groin to make sure no one was getting too close since their last pass. They covered a zone that went from 37th to 10th street, but other trucks were working other zones along the beach doing the same thing. Even the 6 lifeguards in towers were busy just watching their one area.

A few minutes after they pulled away from 17th street, the 911 dispatcher came up on our radio reporting a call on a possible drowning. Moffett and Lucero raced back to 17th to find the same woman with bystanders having started CPR after finding her face down on the shoreline in shallow water on the opposite side of the rocks. They later learned from witnesses that she’d entered the water again a few minutes after they left outside of the “no swimming” area but was quickly swept to the rocks and got caught in the rip current. The rip currents caused a drop off so she couldn’t stand as the water pulled her away from shore. She struggled and went face down for a couple of minutes before the bystanders found her and pulled her up on the shore to begin CPR.

Moffett and Lucero arrived, ran to the crowd with their medical gear and quickly took over CPR. They got a heartbeat back with the help of the Galveston Fire Department. Police provided crowd control and got witness statements as she was moved up to the Seawall into a waiting ambulance.

By the end of the weekend, we moved about 2,500 people from the dangerous areas near the rocks and responded to quite a few emergency calls.

Monday was the last day for seasonal lifeguards. By the time you read this we will probably have all the towers off the beach for the rest of the year and will be working out of mobile patrol vehicles until next March. We still have quite a bit of warm weather ahead of us. Hopefully we won’t have another weekend like last one.

I am so proud of our staff for how they rise to the occasion when we have these “perfect storms” of warm water, crowds, and rough conditions. But we really hope that the people coming to the beach over the next few weeks realize that patrolling out of a vehicle is way less effective than having guards at each spot and take that personal responsibility to be safe upon themselves.

Preventative Actions

For us, the big measure of how much work we do is “preventative actions”. This captures a range of activities anywhere from jumping off the rocks and swimming next to someone in a rip current around the head of the groin to a blanket announcement on a loudspeaker telling people to clear the water because lightning is moving into the area, to talking to a mom on the beach explaining the dangers in the area. We track all of these by calling the numbers in by radio to our dispatcher, who then enters it into our dispatch program. We have a specially designed system that keeps track of the numbers so we can pull out all kinds of statistical data which helps tailor our program to best use our resources in the places and times that are most efficient.

This year so far, we have already hit 293,602 preventative actions, and we’ve still got a ways to go. Last year the total for the entire year was 217,537, and in 2019 we hit 263,170. This is really eye opening, because 2019 was one of Galveston’s busiest years ever. Last year was still high even though the beaches were intermittently closed, and we missed quite a few potentially busy weekends and holidays.

Stats are weird in that you have to really tease out the contributing factors for them to be used for something as practical as to measure the efficacy of a lifeguard service or to measure workload. The number for preventative actions is a good measure of workload, but there are several factors that go into it. The amount of people on the beach is the obvious one, but that alone isn’t too significant since they have to get well on their way to trouble before we intervene. By that I mean, for example, that if a thousand people are swimming between the groins at 53rd and 51st street and the water is completely calm, we won’t have to move many from the rocks. If there is a current running and/or large surf with the same number of people swimming, we could be crazy busy and make hundreds of preventative actions in a matter of a few hours.

Water temperature is another variable. Thousands of people on the beach, but water too cold to swim in for long will keep stats way lower than a few hundred on the beach with warm water. Also, if the water is warm early in the spring and late in the fall as is the trend, our annual stats climb even higher because we’re having to work hard more of the year. In recent history, we’ve been looking at the swimming season as almost the entire year as opposed to just a few months.

And finally, the one that’s not immediately obvious is how many guards we actually have out there working in towers for how much of the year. More guards equate to higher stats related to prevention. Less means less prevention more rescues from vehicles and more drownings.

Drowning at 61st

Last Tuesday morning a man got to the beach at 61st early, walked around a bit, left his things just east of the pier, and went into the water. The time that elapsed at that point is unclear, but when the lifeguard arrived on location, all he saw was calm, clear, water with a tiny hint of clean waves rolling onto the beach. Unlike most mornings this season, there were only a handful of people on the beach.

As the lifeguard prepared for the day, he opened the tower, raised the appropriate flags, arranged his things, and left tracks to and from the water when he checked the conditions. He looked for unusually strong currents or drop offs, and felt which way the current was going, so he’d have an idea how far to keep people from the groin and what hazards he would protect them from. After his usual routine, he settled in for his shift.

A short time later, he spotted a body floating in about chest deep water, maybe 50 yards from the rocks on the east side. He notified dispatch and ran into the water. The guard at 59th reported he had no swimmers near his groin and was cleared to run down and help. A supervisor arrived a very short time later as they dragged the man from the water onto the sand. The three of them did CPR, intubated the man, and hooked him up to the AED (Automatic External Defibrillator). The machine did not advise a shock. They continued CPR with the help of the Fire Department and EMS when they arrived. The man was quickly loaded into the ambulance, and they drove away. A short time after arriving at the hospital he was pronounced dead.

Once the ambulance, police vehicles, fire truck, and Beach Patrol rescue trucks left the area, the beach returned to the quiet, apparently innocuous, day it started as with the exception of our tire tracks and prints from walking, dragging and kneeling.

There was more. We interviewed people to try to figure out what happened. Gathered his things off the beach and let city officials, other public safety groups, and the media know what happened. Wrote up a report that contained everything we could figure out and sent it to the Medical Examiner’s office. Talked to the man’s two sisters and met with one to give her his things. Reviewed the event internally to determine if we did everything we could have and what we can do to prevent a similar occurrence. One of the most critical things is that we contacted our partners at the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network to contact the family to see if they could offer any type of psychological or spiritual support, and to set up a critical incident counselling session with the guards who responded, to make sure they were ok and will continue to be ok.

The marks we made on the sand were washed away with the next high tide.

Tommy Leigh

 

 

 

I noticed, as if from a distance, that my hands trembled slightly as I fitted the airway device into the man’s mouth. Once it was in, I repositioned the head, tilting it slightly back, and tried again to get oxygen into the lungs. This time the chest rose. As my partner did a round of compressions, I waited for my turn to ventilate again.

West beach was crazy back then. Once the traffic piled up and the beach filled there was no backup by land.

As I waited, I panned the area quickly. We were surrounded by hundreds of people who were yelling insults, threats, or encouragement. It smelled like a sickly mix of sweat, sunscreen, seaweed, and beer. We were ringed with a small group of cops that barely held the crowd at bay. Nearby, another group of lifeguards, firefighters, and helpful bystanders carved an area out of the crowded beach big enough to land a helicopter in.

EMS Supervisor Tommy Leigh found his way in there somehow by entering down the beach and driving his ambulance down the surf line into the maelstrom. He waded through the crowd as if taking a Sunday stroll. He smiled and said something just smart alecky enough to relax us. He knew all the first responders by name as he joked, instructed, and calmed. Within a couple of minutes, we had a line in the victim, had shocked his heart into a regular rhythm, and Tommy had quickly and efficiently intubated him. While this was going on he somehow also redirected the landing zone to account for wind direction, so cars weren’t sandblasted, had us humming like a well-oiled rescue machine, and had a plan for moving the body safely to the helicopter without the crowd jumping on top of us. He was supportive and calm while maintaining complete situational awareness.

As the helicopter lifted off, he came up to me and clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Not a bad medical response… for a lifeguard”.

Tommy was part of an amazing team that worked EMS in the 80’s and 90’s that was so inclusive and proactive that it had an impact that resonates to this day. They helped Beach Patrol into the formal pre-hospital care chain and are largely responsible for us having EMTs in every truck and being registered as a “first responder organization” with the health district. They were getting hammered with minor beach calls and we took a lot of the burden from them, while stepping up our medical response game considerably. Now we respond to almost 2,000 medical calls a year that Fire or EMS doesn’t have to deal with at all.  For over three decades he was there with advice, training, encouragement, and most importantly, friendship.

35 years later, last Friday night, I sat across from Tommy at his retirement party trading stories and having a beer. After saving thousands of lives and mentoring many of us, he’s finally getting a well-earned “rest” that will involve all kinds of national and international travel.

Thank you, Tommy Leigh!

 

 

Picture courtesy of Frazer, Ltd. on Twitter @frazerbilt

 

Charlotte Blacketer Rescue

A man entered the water with his son and two daughters around 13th street in the afternoon over the 4th of July weekend. It was a beautiful day with small, clean waves and green water. The beach was crowded.

The kids ranged from a very young daughter to a teenager. The little girl was in a lifejacket. They waded out to a sandbar that was about 30 yards from the shoreline and were in 3-4 feet of water. Even though they were well within the designated swimming limit of 50 yards and in a guarded area, a relaxing day at the beach took a turn for the worse.

Senior Lifeguard Charlotte Blacketer relieved the tower 13 lifeguard for his lunch break. Charlotte is an experienced guard who is one of the Junior Lifeguard Program instructors. Because she’s serious about lifeguarding and because she is constantly on the move with the Junior Guard program, Charlotte maintains a high level of fitness and keeps her lifeguard and medical response skills sharp. This was what tipped the scale on this particular day.

The small girl drifted a little farther than her family group. The two bigger kids stayed where they were while the dad walked toward her. Suddenly he stepped off the sandbar into water over his head. He didn’t know how to swim.

Charlotte heard screaming and saw people pointing in the direction of the man struggling in the water. Charlotte reacted quickly, grabbing buoy and fins, and sprinting into the water. She automatically used well-practiced techniques of high stepping, then dolphining, then rolling over to quickly put on her fins before powering out towards the man.

On the way she looked up periodically. Through the sunlight reflected on splashing water, she spotted the man’s head briefly. She caught a glimpse of a bystander swimming while pulling the little girl in the lifejacket towards shore. Looking up to try to see the man’s head again, she saw the two other kids in the safe and shallow area in her peripheral vision. As she neared the area where she’d spotted the head, she switched to breaststroke so she could get a good look around. She didn’t see anything. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as it hit her that she’d lost the man and he’d gone under right in front of his kids.

But then she spotted some bubbles breaking the surface about 10 feet in front of her. She sprinted to the bubbles, did a surface dive, and swam down while keeping her eyes open. She saw a body face down floating beneath her with its arms spread wide.

Charlotte remembers grabbing him and pulling him to the surface. She doesn’t remember how she got her rescue tube wrapped around him, but as she swam him in, he started moaning and coughing. Other guards came out to help pull him in and put him on Oxygen. He was semi-conscious by the time we loaded him in the ambulance and was reported to be stable later that day in the hospital.

 

Photo of Charlotte Blacketer