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Teamwork

Calvin Stevens Jr., a new parking attendant, rode his Segue up on the seawall. As he went through his normal routine of helping people park, answering questions about the island, and serving generally as a tourist ambassador he noticed something out of the ordinary. Looking down at the 53rd street groin, he noticed a young man inside the no-swimming area.

Calvin is new to the job but he’s no stranger to Galveston or the beach. His Father, Calvin Stevens Sr. has worked with me in the Park Board system since the late 80’s. He works as a supervisor in the Coastal Zone Management Department. He is very conscientious and serious about his work. Apparently this rubbed off on his son as well.

Calvin Stevens Jr. impressed me at a recent training we put together for “De-escalation and Self Defense Techniques”. I helped the world renowned Grand Master Ishmael Robles teach this course and noticed that Calvin was really focused and serious while still enjoying himself.

As Calvin saw the young man in the no swimming area he waved and yelled telling him not to go any deeper because it was dangerous and pointed at the signs the guy had walked around. The guy heard him but turned around and waded out into the water anyway. Calvin quickly called his Supervisor and told him to call Beach Patrol on the radio. As soon as the guy started walking deeper than his waist he dropped into the hole by the groin and was quickly carried out by the rip current. He struggled briefly then submerged.

Our rescue truck was only 4 blocks away and pulled up within seconds. They saw the guy collapsed on the shoreline. He had drifted out and around the groin and back to shore. He was laying there having trouble breathing and vomiting repeatedly. Our crew stabilized him and got him quickly into an ambulance. He survived and was released from the hospital the next morning.

Calvin has no responsibility to watch the water. He’s definitely busy enough dealing with the hundreds of tourists he comes in contact with each day. But he paid attention when we mentioned the issues with rip currents we have along the seawall. And he was alert and conscientious enough to notice the problem and do something about it.

One thing we’ve been trying to focus on in the Park Board is cross training and increasing communication between departments with the goal of creating a broader network of support for tourists and locals alike. Beach Patrol now teaches all parking attendants, park staff and others first aid and CPR. Along with that we cover topics like how to spot people in trouble and what to do. This de-escalation/self defense course was a trial that we want to repeat with the park staff. And now we are scheduling park staff to join for the rip current presentation of our upcoming Wave Watchers community program.

With people like Calvin Stevens this type of teamwork is a natural fit.  What a great person to represent Galveston!

Wave Watchers

The Beach Patrol has been fortunate for many, many years to have great support from the community and county. We are so lucky that the hard work our guards do is recognized and appreciated and we recognize that that is something we continually need to strive to maintain. That’s a big part of why we have so many programs that tie to the community in which we are imbedded, such as the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network, our Junior Lifeguard Program, being designated as a “Safe Place” for kids, our School Outreach Program, At Risk Kids Camps, and more. This year we are starting two new programs that we’re very, very excited about and I hope that many of you will participate in. These are the “Senior Seaside Strolls” (a topic for a later column), and our new “Wave Watcher Program”.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol Wave Watcher Volunteer Program is a way for ordinary citizens to join our team. It’s a mini lifeguard academy for that is free of charge and that will serve as a force multiplier in our effort to prevent drowning deaths and aquatic accidents.

The Wave Watcher academy will run from March 27th-30th and will meet here at our headquarters from 8-12 each day. The first day will cover topics related to Beach Patrol history and operations, rip currents and general beach safety, “Code X” (witnessed drowning) procedures, victim recognition, and municipal ordinances related to the beach and water front. The second day will be dedicated to first aid and CPR specially tailored to the beach environment. The third will focus on tourist ambassador certification (CTA Training). Finally, on the fourth day, we’ll do a site by site visit of the “hot spots” for water safety and discuss in detail how our Wave Watchers can integrate into our operations.

Once through the academy Wave Watchers will be able to volunteer for various duties if they desire. They are able to help with our LCD (Lost Child Detail) on holidays, join us for special events and competitions, or assist with large scale emergencies. Most importantly they will form a cadre of informed beach goers who have “the eye”, so are able to spot trouble developing before it happens and notify us or other emergency service groups, so we are able to prevent the situation from escalating. This could happen in the course of their normal daily lives when they drive, walk, fish, surf, etc. along the beachfront. Or it could take place with a more organized activity. The level of commitment and involvement will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew contact Supervisor Dain Buck at [email protected] or 713-818-8347. The class will cap at 20 and will be first come first serve. There are no restrictions on who can participate and no physical requirement (like swimming, running, etc). Everyone is welcome.

I hope you will join us for a fun way to support a great cause!

Jesse Tree Support Network Fundraiser

Scanning the searchers briefly, I then turned to see with relief that a tent had been erected and the family was seated comfortably drinking water and talking to a Jesse Tree councilor who had just arrived…

Thinking back over the past decade I have lost count of the times we’ve worked a drowning on one of our beaches along with our public safety partners and had family members of the victim sitting on the beach looking to us for some type of resolution. We’re good at our primary mission of prevention and also, at rescue and the operational side of a recovery effort. But we’re just not geared for, nor do we have the resources for providing counseling or religions support. Nor do we have the capacity to beat the bushes for hotels to offer free rooms for families that can’t cover the cost or donations of meals, clothing etc. Families in this situation at times also need someone to be a liaison to public safety groups, consulates and embassies, or a network of emotional and spiritual support in their home communities. That’s why I’ll always feel a tremendous gratitude to Ted Hanley and David Mitchell of the Jesse Tree for their willingness to take on this emotionally draining, but critical role at a time that is so needed for these families. The team that has joined them through the years is no less compassionate and willing to step forward and do something that makes a real difference. They have done so much for so many and been amazing ambassadors for the spirit of caring and support that permeates so many people here on our island. And now it’s time for us to help them to help more of our guests. Here is what they are sending out to as many as will hear it and act:

“Tragedy Strikes when we least expect it. For over a decade the Survivor Support Network has responded with consolation, compassionate care, and common sense to the families and friends of drowning victims on Galveston’s beaches. This dedicated team of volunteers meets their immediate needs, while guiding them to the necessary resources in the aftermath of the tragedy. The team also ministers to the needs of the Beach Patrol staff- many of whom risk their own lives to save others and significantly feel the impact of these events. Without this well-trained team, these incidents would simply not offer the dignity and compassion that a loving community can bring to a tragedy. Please support our effort to keep this team on alert as the summer season approaches. The Jesse Tree invites you to support this worthy work by attending a Valentine’s concert fundraising event.”

The event will be held on February 12th at 3pm. Vocalist David W. Mitchell and Pianist Hector Bisio are the entertainment. Tickets are limited and can be reserved by calling 409-762-2233 from 9-11am M-F or by e-mailing [email protected] or visiting www.jessetree.net. The event will be held at the beautiful T-House 1619 Sealy, Galveston, Texas 77550.

Kayak Rescue

The wind was blasting from the west. The sand pelted the lone figure as he dragged his kayak to the water’s edge at Sunny Beach. Wearing waders and a lifejacket, he paddled his kayak from shore into the frothy water.

It was about one o’clock in the afternoon last Sunday as the man’s wife watched him paddle out. She quickly lost sight of him as he attempted to paddle into 30 mile per hour wind and 2-3 foot chop. By three she was completely panicked as she gazed at the empty beach and seemingly empty water. Someone noticed her, asked what was wrong, and called 911.

Beach Patrol and other members of the Galveston Marine Response group responded quickly. Working together, they quickly mounted a search. Because the wind and waves were moving from west, they searched to the east. Nothing. But they found a bystander who had snapped a picture of the man in his kayak off the west end of the seawall as he man was blown out and to the east.

Supervisor Mary Stewart and Sergeant Kris Pompa worked with a couple of officers from the Galveston Police Department to check the area, re-interview the man’s wife in Spanish, and extend the search area all the way to the east end of the island. Still nothing.

As evening approached, they knew that they would be almost ineffective just shining lights out into the water. As each minute went by the chance of a rescue diminished. Mary called the Coast Guard and asked for a helicopter.

As light faded the helicopter ran search patterns while coordinating with the Galveston group who searched near shore. Everyone was starting to give up hope. The water was 62 and the air temperature was dropping which put the wind chill in the 50’s. Someone blown offshore wouldn’t stand much of a chance once their core temperature dropped. The farther offshore you go the bigger the waves and more likely they’d tip a kayak over. It’s a big ocean in the daytime, but at night it’s virtually impossible to find something so small. The rescuers searched into the night.

But our team made the right call when they requested the helicopter. The Coast Guard pilots are almost always very experienced. This one put himself in the right spot and, almost an hour after it was fully dark, his crew spotted the victim using a thermal imager, which detects differences in temperature.

They lowered a walkie-talkie down and the man called up that he was OK. They lifted him with a rescue basket and watched his kayak drift out rapidly. They let our crew know to meet them at the Galveston airport.

The man spent a full 6 hours lost at sea. This is one of the longest searches I remember that resulted in a successful recovery. This guy is alive because of how well the whole team worked together and because they didn’t give up. Kudos to the Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and our crew!

Wave Watchers

Saturday afternoon I got a phone call from my friend Mark Porretto. He told me there were two kids close to the rip current on the west side of the Pleasure Pier. He added that they weren’t in immediate danger, but that we should check on them. I immediately radioed our “on call” unit and they were on scene within a couple of minutes. The kids were removed from the water just as they got to the edge of a strong rip current next to the posts.

Mark and I grew upon the beach together. We both surfed. We both rode bikes up and down the seawall in Jr. High and High School. We both worked and spent all of our spare time on the beach and in the water. He has a good lifeguard eye and calls me periodically to let me know when he sees problems developing on the beach. Those calls through the years have resulted in many accidents prevented and, no doubt, several lives saved. When Mark calls I know he knows what he’s talking about and I make sure one of us responds quickly.

Mark isn’t the only one that makes these calls. I have a number of beach people that help by keeping an eye out when they drive down the seawall or visit the beach. And the lifeguards I work with each have their own network that does the same thing. Add all of the people without direct connection to one of our staff who call the Beach Patrol or the city dispatch non-emergency number to let us know when there is some kind of problem on the beach and you have a serious force multiplier. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people out there who help us do the difficult job of keeping millions safe each year.

This year we will be formalizing this process with a new program called “Wave Watchers”. Designed by our very own year-round Supervisor Dain Buck, our goal is to essentially train volunteers to do the same thing that Mark Porretto does. We’ll teach them to identify rip currents and other hazards on the beach, recognize swimmers who are in distress, spot dangerous environmental conditions. They’ll also be trained in CPR, First Aid, and Beach Patrol operational procedures. If they wish they can volunteer on busy weekends to manage first aid and lost child stations and to keep an eye out along the entire beach front.

Keeping all 33 miles of beach safe is more than any one group can do. We are lucky to have partners in the other public safety groups on the island and in the community who help. It definitely takes a village.

Very soon we will be putting out information on how to join our team of Wave Watchers. If you or someone you know is interested, send your contact information to Supervisor Dain Buck at [email protected] and he’ll make sure you get program and registration information as soon as he makes it public.

Go Texas Beaches!

Some exciting things to do with ocean safety are happening in Texas right now.

Galveston has had some type of lifeguard protection for recreational swimmers since just a few years after 1900. This isn’t the case for most of the Texas coast. For many years the beaches of South Padre Island didn’t have any type of lifeguard protection at all. Now there are two lifeguard services on South Padre Island, one for the city of South Padre Island and one for Cameron County. We helped them both get off the ground a few years ago, and they eventually joined and became certifying agencies for the United States Lifesaving Organization (USLA). The USLA is America’s nonprofit professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers . The USLA works to reduce the incidence of death and injury in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs, promotion of high levels of lifeguard readiness, and other means.

The Corpus Christi area is another story. Both the city of Corpus and that of Port Aransas have had some type of lifeguard organization for a number of years. Although they never had the structure, resources, and quality of the Galveston Beach Patrol, back in the early 90’s they were fairly well organized and we even had competitions and other types of interaction with them for a brief period. They’ve gone through several changes- some political and some related to resources, but overall seem to have declined over the past few years. That seems to be at an end. For a long time they have been using a Red Cross pool certification for their lifeguards. The formal training they’ve received does not prepare them for working the beach. It is also way below what the national standard is. Not only is this a liability for the cities, but is a disservice for the lifeguards and the people they protect. Making a rescue in the ocean is really dangerous even if you’re properly trained, equipped, and meet a high level of swimming and fitness requirement.

The Corpus group recently hired a new lifeguard chief who was one of the people we trained down in South Padre. He and his boss have applied for their agency to join USLA and plan on implementing training that meets the national standard that USLA sets this spring. They invited us down to teach a “train the trainers” course at the end of this month and were open to including the Port Aransas group in the course. The Port Aransas group is also applying to USLA and is planning the same. They may even have joint training courses for the two groups in the late spring.

The big picture is that now, as long as Texans choose a beach with lifeguards, they will get protection that meets the USLA national standard. USLA statistics show that your chance of drowning at a beach with USLA certified guards is 1 in 18 million. That’s a good deal for Texas.

Fin Cut and Night Swim

Last Tuesday evening a call came out that there was a shark bite at 42nd and sand with heavy bleeding, and unconscious person, and CPR in progress. Beach Patrol, EMS, Fire Department, and the Police Department were all dispatched to the scene.

When everyone got there they expected something pretty dramatic. The first call on the radio was the lifeguard truck, who called in that there was no CPR in progress and only minor bleeding. They added that the cut was from a fin. A surfboard fin.

It’s not abnormal for calls for service to come in as one thing and in actuality be something else. Usually the reality is much less severe than the call, but it can be the other way around. Other times our hardworking dispatchers field multiple calls about the same thing, and each has a completely different take on what they saw. First Responders all react assuming the worst case scenario but arrive ready to re-evaluate once they see with their own eyes.

In this particular case the “shark bite with CPR in progress” was a 4inch cut to the thigh of a 15 year old girl that was caused by the fin of her surfboard. We treat many surfboard fin cuts each year and rarely see a shark bite. But surfboard fin cuts can be severe. A fin that is connected to a big surfboard getting pushed around by a wave has a lot of force. It can slice to the bone easily, and at times can cut more than just fat and muscle. The good thing is its usually a fairly clean cut that can be sewn up easily. File the sharp edges of your fins down when you buy them to minimize the risk. Also, for beginners who are not yet aware of how to get away from their board when they fall, they make flexible fins that are way safer. We use them along with foam boards for our Junior Lifeguard Program.

Speaking of Junior Lifeguards we are accepting applications now. This year we have new partnerships in place in the form of “complimentary camps”. Martial Arts America, The Kitchen Chick, and Clay Cup Studios all offer camps that are compatible with the times of each age group of our Junior Guard Camp. So, for example if you have a 10 year old, they’d go to Junior Guards from 8-12 and then could go to one of the other camps in the afternoon. They’d be doing these fun, educational activities most of the day. Information on these complimentary camps is available on our website.

Next Wednesday around 5pm we’d like to invite you to 29th and Seawall for our annual “Night Swim” event. All of our lifeguard candidates will attempt their final physical challenge and will be joined by our veteran lifeguards. They’ll swim, paddle, climb, crawl, and suffer in unimaginable ways for your viewing pleasure. Come cheer us on and help us welcome our new recruits to the team!

Mass Rescue

The report of the incident starts out, “15:04 Unit 290,Supervisor Buck & Stewart, dispatched by headquarters for swimmers out to far at TWR 25.  Unit 290 rolls from 28 and sand.

15:05 Unit 290 gets on location.  From the beach we can see 5 swimmers about 50 yards off shore  …  My partner, Supervisor Stewart immediately heads into the water to check the swimmers…”

As most of you are probably aware, the rescue of five people at 26th street a couple of weeks ago received quite a bit of media attention. Our full time Lifeguard Supervisor/EMT Mary Stewart was credited with these rescues. Mary is a fantastic lifeguard, wonderful employee, and deserves every bit of this attention. The scary thing is that she almost drowned during the process, as one of the two victims she was attempting to bring to shore panicked and climbed on top of her and pushed her under water, as she tried to simultaneously fight him off and keep a small child afloat.

Not to take anything away from Mary, but there was more to the story than most of the media outlets reported. Despite Mary continually praising her co-rescuers during interviews, the public story cut that part out.

Meanwhile the report tells a more complete picture:

“Once my partner gets to the swimmers I receive the “ok” signal and return to shore and my radio to relay the “ok” signal.  Immediately after radioing everything is ok I see my partner signal for help.  15:07 I radio HQ to send back up and that I will be in the water to assist.  294 begins to roll from 18th and wall.   The guard from TWR 25,Dornak,  had brought 3 swimmers closer to shore where I met them with the rescue board.  Dornak then headed back to Supervisor Stewart to assist with the two swimmers she was bringing to shore.

15:09 Unit 294, Supervisor Garcia & Sr. Guard Letnich, arrive on scene.  Myself and my three victims are now in waist deep water, I instruct Sr.  Guard Letnich to go see if Stewart or Dornak need any more assistance.  I take my three victims to Unit 294 with Supervisor Garcia to get further checked out.”

Obviously there is quite a bit more going on. Jared Dornak stabilized the situation, brought three victims to Supervisor Dain Buck, then helped Mary bring the two she was wrestling with to shore, which may have saved her life. Dain watched everyone’s safety while still effecting three rescues himself and making sure backup was on the way so we could keep the ratio of rescuers to victims at an acceptable level.

There are layers of protection built into our system, which makes a dangerous job less so because we can provide all our guards with quick backup. These layers are there because we are provided enough resources to do lifesaving the right way. This event demonstrates clearly that we would have lost at least a couple of lives if this were not the case. And that we have many heroes in our ranks.

 

Mary’s Rescue

Last Saturday we almost lost several lives, including one of our lifeguards.

The incident started relatively harmlessly. 5 people were swimming between the Pleasure Pier and the 27th street groin. There was a spot where there was a very weak rip current. A gentle drift that pushing offshore. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But the 5 people were having a bit of difficulty returning.

The lifeguard from the nearest tower went to check. When the rescue truck made the scene they called in that no one was in distress but that Supervisor Mary Stewart was going to go in and help the guard move them closer to shore.

As they do at times, things escalated rapidly. Three of the victims, escorted by the tower guard’s made it in with minimal help. This is normal stuff. Two of them, a child and a man who went to help the group to shore, were floating on Mary’s rescue tube as she towed them to shore. It was, at this point, a simple rescue like the multitude our guards make each year.

But suddenly Mary was pulled underwater. It seems that the man started panicking. She was instantly catapulted from a situation where she was making a routine rescue, like she has done scores of times in her 11 year career as a lifeguard, to a struggle for her very life and the life of the two people she was trying to help.

As she tried to hold the child up she grappled with the man. There were times she felt like she’d have to make the choice between letting go of the child to try and save herself, or giving up and going down. All three lives hung in the balance.

In Mary’s words, “…someone’s life was slipping from the palm of my hand, as I struggled to maintain mine. The feeling of being someone’s only hope to live, while trying to hold onto your [own life] at the same time is indescribable. In an instance your whole life flashes before your eyes; every struggle, every tear, every laugh, every smile. You don’t realize your own strength until you come face to face with your greatest weakness.”

In the end, her grit, training, fitness level, and fellow lifeguards gave this near tragedy a happy ending. Everyone made it to shore and lived to tell.

Every lifeguard who works enough time faces what Mary faced. A moment when you realize that fitness, training, and good intentions only get you so far. You have to dig deep beyond the physical part of you and draw strength from…somewhere else. And then, after passing though the crucible, you realize what you are and what you are actually capable of.

Mary later wrote, “For those of you fighting unbearable battles or drowning in despair- refuse to give up, refuse to sink… Your real hero is right there holding on to your…hand. And if you hold on long enough , you may just get the chance to be [a hero yourself.”

Storm Scare

A pop up storm can cause us to walk a tightrope and really highlights the interdependence of the groups that care for and protect our beaches.

 

History shows us that a tide of more than 3.5 feet above average puts our lifeguard towers at risk, which potentially could cost several hundred thousand dollars. It’s also been demonstrated that if we wait too long to get down there and move the towers, we can reach the point of no return where the equipment to move them can’t get down there, and high water, strong winds and sometimes lightning can put our crews at undue risk. The problem is that the farther we are out from the weather event the greater the degree of uncertainty.

 

This week really demonstrated how this works and how much we rely on our partners. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service predicted terrible weather headed our way. By terrible, we’re talking about up to 10 inches of rain in some areas, potential lightning, hail, and tornados, and tidal surge coupled with 30 mph winds and offshore waves of up to 15 feet. Bad. But the tides were only predicted to be around 3 or 3 ½ feet, which under “normal” circumstances wouldn’t warrant all the trouble, expense, and potential damage that moving all 31 towers off of the beach would incur.

 

The NWS office put out updates every few hours and we, as well as the other public safety agencies and city staff, had been following them closely. Our Emergency Management Office kept checking to make sure we all had the latest info as well. I can’t really adequately explain how much the NWS crew does for us and all the other groups they work with including the general public. One example is that one of the guys up there who is also a friend sent me a text late Monday evening saying that the projected offshore wave height had increased and that there was a good chance that on the beach the waves and wind could push that maximum tidal height up even more and could potentially cause the water to reach the base of the seawall. Talk about a hot tip!

 

So, at 10:30 at night I called Jesse Ojeda, who heads up the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board. Without hesitation his answer was, “We’ll start at 5am”. Wow! By the time I checked with him at 6:30 they’d already gotten half of them up to the top of the seawall where they’d be safe. And since the wind wasn’t going to blow harder than about 30mph we didn’t have to truck them all the way to another part of the island.

 

Good to have friends!

 

Stay tuned because lifeguard tryouts and spring break start tomorrow. Time to start the beach season!