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2017 Rescue Wrap Up

There are still plenty of swimmers and an occasional person blown offshore when these fronts come through. In fact, last Tuesday, Brandon Venegas and Micah Fowler made a rescue of a kite boarder that had some equipment problems and couldn’t make it back in.

The end of the season gives us a chance to assess how we did this year and to recognize those who performed heroic acts or performed outstanding community service. Last Tuesday, while the rescue was taking place, some of us were at the monthly Park Board meeting giving awards.

First the 54 lifeguards who worked during the storm were recognized. Since most couldn’t be there we will save their framed certificates for our next “All Staff” meeting so they can receive it in front of their peers. Then the guards who performed high water/urban flooding rescues were recognized. Their award is a framed certificate and a Beach Patrol “Challenge Coin” for meritorious acts of bravery. Those who worked the urban flooding were: Dain Buck, Joe Cerdas, Daniel Fleming, Micah Fowler, Michelle Gomez, Mason Healy, Austin Kirwin, Gave Macicek, Sam Toth, Alec Vaughn, Tyler Vaughn, Brandon Venegas, Tony Pryor, me, Park Board Coastal Zone Management department’s Larry Smith, and Joey Walker.

There were three rescues that really stood out this summer. The first was an incredible spot and rescue by Juan Figuerroa from 37th of a group of three in the rip current at 33rd. He rescued one that was actively submerging.

The second was a group of 3 way out by the Pleasure Pier T-head spotted by our Lieutenant of Administration on her way home from the office. She swam out through large, choppy surf and stabilized the group at the head of the rip current until Joe Cerdas made it out on a rescue board and brought them one by one through the surf. Few people could have made the spot of those little heads way out close to the west side of the pier as they drove east to west. Even fewer could have managed to power through that nasty, rough surf and brought people in without mishap through the same surf while navigating around the rip.

The final one also occurred as a very nice spot from the 37th street tower to the rip at 33rd early in the morning before all the guards were out. David Garcia called it in and ran down to find two groups of three. He kept one group afloat which included an unconscious man. I arrived first with Lifeguard Camilo Murillo. Camilo went to the second group and was later assisted by Hallie Pauling, to bring all three to safety. David passed the unconscious person to me, brought two to shore, returned to help me bring the last one in as I gave rescue breaths.

All in all this is one of the busiest seasons we’ve had with rough conditions and big crowds most of the summer. But, as always, our crew rose to the occasion.

 

Lifesaving and the Future of Drones

Drones are a hot topic right now in a lot of areas, but the international lifesaving community is becoming more and more interested in them as we look to see the newest developments. 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 a sort of 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 in an area working with the national lifeguard program. These drones reportedly can 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 in the process of drowning and, just as they submerge the flat 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 being used already in some beaches for overhead surveillance. They fly regularly at a couple of beaches in California for shark spotting. They’re used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. But actual rescue or search and rescue activities appear to still be a little out of reach. The drones that are within the range of most lifeguard programs budgets typically have a flight time of 20-30 minutes, can’t carry much payload, and don’t operate in winds over 20 miles per hour. My guess is that when the cost goes down a bit and agencies can get their hands on drones that have an hour or more of flight time in rougher conditions this may change and they’ll be helpful when looking for missing people.

There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, then grab them and tow them to shore. Even that they could initiate CPR and maintain until first responders arrive. 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 starting the conversation about how this type of technology could augment some of the more progressive and resource rich lifesaving services around the world. Even now, larger drones that look like mini airplanes are being used for mountain rescue and are able to drop survival packages to people. In places like Australia they are being used as a way to keep an eye on remote beach locations that lifeguards don’t regularly cover.

Double High Tides

Last weekend was the final day for the seasonal lifeguards to work. This means no more towers or tower lifeguards until next March. We’ll still have patrol units staffed with our fulltime guards out until December, and they’ll be back out patrolling on February 1st. We’ll also respond to 911 calls anytime day or night as we do all year long. But it’s a really good time to remind your family, friends, and loved ones about the basics for beach water safety.

The main thing to remember is that rip currents, which pull away from the shore out to sea, are generally strongest and most prevalent next to structures like rock groins and piers. So be sure if you swim to stay far from these areas and remember the longshore current will pull you parallel to the beach. Pick a fixed object well away from the rocks and use it as a reference point. If you can’t just walk or swim in place, come to shore periodically and walk back down to the area you want to stay in. Also remember not to enter the water at the ends of the island. The ship channel and San Luis Pass both have very strong tidal currents. These areas both have a history of drownings and should be avoided. If you fish, fish from shore.

Lots of people have been talking about the high tide event we had over the past couple of weeks. Actually there were two high tide events back to back and we saw almost 4 foot above normal tides at times. Both the beach and bay were really full and we even experienced minor flooding on some roads and elsewhere. There were several factors that at times combined to cause this:

  1. Full Moon- when the moon is full, it exerts greater gravitational force on the ocean, causing a higher than normal high tide.
  2. East Wind- When the wind blows to Galveston from the east or southeast it blows across a greater distance of water than from the west. This piles the water up ahead of it causing the tides to be higher than normal. So a stiff east wind blowing for a few days can typically cause both the high and low tides to be a foot or more above what a tide chart (astronomical tides) would indicate. The week before Hurricane Nate came through had both a full moon and east winds, so we saw tides up to 3.7 feet above the average (mean) tide.

-3. Storm Surge- Nate’s spinning pushed water ahead of it which caused a storm surge. This repeated the event of the 3.7 foot above normal high tides.

There were times over the past couple of weeks that two or three of these factors combined to cause tides that were much higher than normal. It was a pain in some ways but sure did keep people that fish and surf happy! Perfect clean waves and sunshine were a great way to close out the guarding season.

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.

 

Big Rescue

Time slowed as I jumped off the wall and ran to the water. I noticed two groups of people in the water and a woman running out. A group of four was ¾ of the way out to the end of the 33rd street groin and right in the middle of the “no swimming” area. Another group of three was near the end of the groin. There was no sign of a struggle from either group, but I noticed that Lifeguard David Garcia was in the first group and supporting all three with some difficulty. Lifeguard Camilo Murillo was past the first group headed to the second, but at least two of the three looked to be calmly floating. I high stepped, then dolphin dove, then put on my fins and swam to the first group to help David.

Last Sunday was beautiful with water like glass and almost no wind or waves. But there were left over troughs by the groins from the current that had been running for the previous week. These deep spots funneled what little current there was in a gentle rip current pulling away from the shore.

David looked tired and asked if I could take a man who appeared to be floating on his back. He then swam off with two kids towards shore. I started securing him and talking to him before and realizing he wasn’t breathing. A quick check showed he didn’t seem to have a pulse either. Knowing by where he was he couldn’t have been under longer than a minute or two, I knew that our standard procedure of bringing him to shore then starting CPR might be too long for his brain to go without oxygen. I gave him a breath and swam towards shore supporting his head. Senior Lifeguard Hallie Pauling swam up and asked if I needed help. I pointed at the group farther out and told her to help Camilo. Two more rescue breaths interspaced with short swims got me to chest deep water where David met me followed by Supervisor Brandon Venegas. We brought him to shore and, hoping that his system was oxygenated, I started chest compressions while Brandon set up the oxygen kit. David went to check on the other victims and then back to his assigned tower at 37th to continue lifeguarding. EMS and Fire were there and jumped in to intubate and start Advanced Life Support.

Three people were transported to the hospital, two adult men and one child. All were fine at the time of writing this save the one we did CPR on, but he’d been moved to ICU and was reportedly stable although still intubated.

David was working the early shift at tower at 37 and, incredibly, spotted the group 4 blocks away. Tower 33 wasn’t guarded yet. David won our “Night Swim” competition this year. The whole team, including our partner agencies, did a great job. But if David hadn’t been so incredibly alert, quick thinking, and such a great athlete, this would have resulted in multiple lives lost.

Teamwork Across Texas Agencies

It has been a rough summer on the upper Texas coast up to this point and this has led to some cause and effect incidents that are both interesting and tragic. We’ve had a persistent strong wind for most of the season, resulting in strong lateral current and surf. This has, in turn, led to almost constant strong rip currents near structures and occasional strong rip currents along the open beach. It’s also the reason the troughs between the sand bars have been so unusually deep, even near to the shoreline.

Partly because of the conditions and large crowds there has been a number of heart wrenching water related deaths all along our entire stretch of coastline. But as a result there have been some pretty interesting developments recently that have potential to reduce similar incidents in the future.

A friend from the Sheriff Office contacted me awhile ago to explore the option of synchronizing some of our water safety efforts. It looks like for starters they will be using a modified version of our water safety material on their website and will even use the widget from our flag warning system. This means that if we post a red flag warning of rough surf and dangerous currents the same flag warning will show on their website as well. People can sign up to receive notifications via email or text when we set the flag color for the day and if we change it. Also, if we post special advisories for extra strong rip currents, off shore winds, air or water quality warnings, etc., those warnings will include the Bolivar Peninsula. Additionally, I met with Bolivar County parks representatives recently and they are exploring several options including that of flag warning stations like we have on the seawall, at beach parks, and on the back of lifeguard towers.

As we all know the San Luis Pass has been a problem for years. We’ve reduced the average number of drowning on the Galveston side by an ordinance banning swimming and, more recently, greatly increased signage and dedicated weekend patrols throughout the summer. On holiday weekends we even have help from the County “Citizens Emergency Response Team” or C.E.R.T. These volunteers augment our efforts at keeping people out of the dangerous waters there. This week I spoke at a Brazoria County Commissioners Court meeting about the history and dangers of the area as well as what we’re doing on our side. They are very interested in increasing their drowning prevention efforts. They’ve already put signs on their side which are very similar to ours. They’re looking at putting a law in place similar to our ordinance. This is a great thing.

Quintana and Surfside Beaches are also exploring options.  With re-vamped lifeguard programs at Port Aransas and Corpus now meeting the United States Lifesaving Association national standards as well as the two relatively new lifeguard services at South Padre island the dream of a more standardized network of protective programs for Texas beaches seems to be in reach.

May School Graduates

We are having another tryout and lifeguard academy that will start at 7am on June 15th. Information is on our website. Spread the word!

Last weekend we had a big turnout for our lifeguard tryouts. Typically, less than half of the people that show up make it through the process and are admitted into our two week lifeguard academy. The 21 people that made it in may get whittled down more, but it looks like we have a really good crew. Unfortunately, we need more then this group to be fully staffed this summer, so we’ll try for more.

Our goal in the Beach Patrol Academy is to take a diverse bunch of people and make them into a seamless team. It’s always interesting to watch how people very different from each other become fast, lifelong friends in the process of this training and working together for a shared goal. We have one candidate that will make an unusual, but excellent addition to Galveston’s lifeguard service.

I’d like to introduce you to Bill Bower. As you’d imagine the average age in a typical academy is in the high teens or lower 20’s. Bill joined us a few weeks ago by volunteering to go through our Wave Watcher training program, which trains citizens how to spot trouble on the beach, be a tourist ambassador, and helps us expand our footprint. After getting to know a bit about our program as a volunteer, he decided to tryout. And tryout he did!

Bill holds the fastest qualifying time of all our candidates. At 62, this is impressive, but not surprising. He has an extensive background in aquatics. His father was a swim coach. Bill is a three time All American Swimming Champion. His senior year in high school he even broke the national record and went on a swimming scholarship to Tulane University. He worked for years as a swim coach and math teacher and has coached over 50 All Americans. But even more interesting is that while he coached and taught, he also traveled all over the world as a consultant for TSI.

At 60 this Renaissance Man started swimming competitively again and swims about 2 miles a day. He moved from Michigan to Galveston “for love” and is engaged to someone from Houston.

He said he was worried that he wouldn’t be accepted by the group. The first day a young woman sat next to him and said something about him being “brave”. But then they saw him swim.

Bill says, “It’s been a real challenge keeping up with the gifted athletes participating in lifeguard academy. They are an outstanding group and I’m proud to be part of the group. They have welcomed me despite my age…”

From my point of view we are very lucky to have Bill join the team. We’re excited to incorporate his experience and obvious skill in the water into our ranks. But even more, he is an impressive person who will represent Galveston well.

 

Tryout Time

Lifeguard tryouts are this Saturday!

I’m relieved we’re finally to this point. Spring is always tough for us to staff the beaches since so many of our seasonal employees are either college or high school students. Fortunately, we’ve had a number of our high school guards who have been willing to come out and work the weekends so it’s mostly been the weekdays that have been spotty.

There are several reasons that staffing is a continual challenge. The main one is that beach guarding is hard! Not only is it physically a challenge to pass our swimming, running, and teamwork requirements, but the guards have to go through about 100 hours of tough training before they can “ride the pine” and take their place in a tower. But additionally, beach guards have to work under very challenging conditions in a harsh physical environment. They don’t only work when it’s a sunny, calm, cool day with low crowds. They’re out there when the wind is blasting 30 mph and when the heat index is well over 100. They’re out there when the current is ripping and they have to spend literally half the day in the water keeping swimmers away from rocks and rip currents. They have to deal with obnoxious people, lost kids, injured people and animals, people in crisis who are at their worst, and people who are lost or afraid or panicky.

Many may want to find an easier summer job. But those who are physically, mentally, and emotionally capable and accept the challenge receive plenty of rewards. They get to work in a beautiful environment with an incredibly diverse set of people. They are part of an elite team that is motivated, positive, and inclusive. This team becomes family for most of them. And, perhaps most importantly, they get to go home each day with the knowledge that if they were not there many people would have been hurt or worse. They get to go home knowing that they did their part in making the world a better, safer place and their actions had a direct, positive effect. They may be with people at their worse, but they are also with people at their best for the most part. They are there to celebrate being with family and friends at the beach. And they are there to help when things go bad. This work builds a level of character and confidence that is hard to get elsewhere.

We need guards who are willing to accept the challenge. Tryouts are tomorrow, May 13th at the UTMB Field House at 7am. We’ll start with a 500 meter swim in less than 10 minutes and go from there. We’ll start our lifeguard academy immediately after tryouts. Information is on our website.

If you know anyone at all who may be interested and able to work as a Beach Patrol lifeguard please encourage them to show up tomorrow morning.

It will change their life and save the lives of others.

Pleasure Pier Rescue

The waves weren’t that big but there was a steady current running from east to west. After clearing the Pleasure Pier, it made a wide long loop to shore and, on the inside, pushed west to east. The new sand with its steeper drop off caused the waves and current to pile up and push offshore and towards the pier.

The three people shared two inner tubes between them as they entered the water between the Pleasure Pier and the groin at 27th street. They floated along and were unknowingly pulled towards the Pleasure Pier and out in a strong rip current. Waves and current mixed about half way out causing really choppy conditions. They tried to paddle towards shore but it was a hopeless battle. As they neared the end of the pier they really started getting scared and began to panic.

Lieutenant Kara Harrison runs the administrative arm of the Beach Patrol. Although not required to by her job description, she chooses to maintain her training, swimming , and skills each year. She re-qualified her lifeguard skills earlier this year and maintains them.

Kara was on her way home at the end of her shift from her office at Stewart Beach. As she passed the Pleasure Pier, her experienced eye caught a glimpse of three heads way, way out near the “T Head”. She called in that she was going in on three swimmers in distress.

Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas and Supervisor Gabe Macicek were at 10th street when the call dropped. They flipped on their lights and sirens and headed quickly to the area. Gabe maintained radio communications and Joe grabbed a rescue board and headed out to help. What followed was nothing short of amazing.

Joe is a full time Supervisor and a gifted “waterman”. He is our top paddler and stands out as a top athlete in an organization of incredibly gifted athletes. His rescue board cut through the chop and current like a hot knife through butter. One of the group had drifted off on an inner tube while Kara struggled to maintain her ground with the other two. He brought the first victim to shore and looked back out.

Meanwhile Kara was using her rescue tube and one of the inner tubes to keep the victims stable. She swam hard to keep them from drifting into the waves that piled up near the pier. They were ok for the moment but were unable to make progress towards shore.

Joe powered back out and took another victim in. Kara, with her lightened load, was able to make progress into the rip current and was about half way in when Joe relieved her and took the third victim back to shore.

Back on shore they heard the rare words lifeguards love to hear from a person they saved:

“If it wasn’t for you guys we would never have made it back in. You saved our lives”.

Kudos to Kara and Joe for an amazing rescue!

Easter Tragedy

Easter was a beautiful day on the beach. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze with moderate surf. All the beaches were packed and the guards were busy moving them away from the rock groins and other dangerous areas.

A 31 year old man and his 12 year old son walked down to the beach on 35th street. They waded into the cool water and went out to the first sandbar, which is about 20 yards from shore.

I heard a call on the radio from the lifeguard at 37th street that there was a possible drowning. Two of our trucks beat me there during the 5 minutes it took me to reach the area. When I arrived, Beach Patrol Captain Tony Pryor had assumed the role of “Incident Commander”. We had a jet ski team in the water and several guards were diving in the last seen point. A fire fighter had assumed the role of “Safety Officer” and was keeping track of all the people assigned to the various roles, especially the ones in the water. Other firefighters were on the adjacent groins and scanning. Police officers were controlling access to the area and taking information from witnesses and family members. We called the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network team to provide support for the family while we searched.

As I pulled up to the scene and started getting the details from Captain Pryor he spotted something that looked like a shirt in the water. I saw it as well and, upon closer inspection, you could tell it was a body. I ran into the water as Captain Pryor called the Jet Ski team and waved to the swimmers in the area. We converged on it and the crew had the body on the back of the rescue sled and was starting CPR before they even hit the beach. The man was transferred to the back of the Beach Patrol truck as CPR was continued seamlessly. He was again transferred to the waiting EMS unit on the seawall and taken to John Sealy Emergency Room. Jesse Tree re-routed to John Sealy and provided support to the family as they were informed that the man could not be saved. They stayed with them for three full hours counseling, translating, and just being there.

Back on the beach the story that unfolded from witnesses was both heroic and unbearably tragic. The 12 year old son watched his father slip under the water, but survived because a young man that was renting umbrellas in the area spotted him having trouble and rushed out to him, risking his own life so that this 12 year old boy could live. The boy had barely remained afloat after he and his dad separated. The young man got to him just in time and was able to make the rescue.

7 busy hours later, at the end of the day, the Jesse Tree crew met the affected guards at our office for a critical incident stress diffusion.