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The 4th

Summer is flying by. There have been so many people on the beach that even weekdays feel like weekends. As busy as it’s been even all of our rookie lifeguards have gotten a good amount experience under their belts which helps things run smoothly. We’re already to the 4th of July weekend!

The beach has shifted into its summer pattern. Tides have dropped from spring to summer levels. We requested that the Coastal Zone Management Department of the Park Board move our towers closer to the shoreline. Winds and waves have started dropping and we’re bouncing between green (calm condition) flags and yellow (caution).

The water is full of all kinds of critters now so we’ve been seeing a few jellyfish stings and an occasional stingray hit. This is still pretty minimal when you compare it to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, but more than we were seeing a month ago. Just as a reminder, the treatment for a jellyfish sting is rinsing with saline solution (or salt water if that’s the nearest thing). This gets the tentacles off and keeps the sting from getting worse. Then do something for the pain like rub ice on it or treat with a topical anesthetic. Most stings are a pretty short time event and it’s extremely rare to see any kind of allergic reaction to them. For stingrays, they’re easily prevented if you shuffle your feet while in the water. If you are unfortunate enough to catch a barb in your foot or ankle you want to soak it in hot water immediately- but not so hot you burn your skin. The pain goes away very quickly. Then you need to seek medical attention because they have a 100% infection rate.

We would really like to thank all of you that attended our 18th annual BBQ fundraiser or sent in donations. Well over a thousand people came to support, swap stories, eat food, and hang out. It ended up being a perfect night and a really good time. We really appreciate all the support and it was good to have all the friends, supporters, and beach people in one place!

If you or yours are headed to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard and don’t check your brain at home or on the other side of the causeway. Stay far away from groins and piers.  Also remember to keep a close eye on your kids and wear a lifejacket if you’re a poor swimmer/child or on boats.  One thing to keep in mind is that we typically see a lot of heat related injuries (heat exhaustion and heat stroke) on this particular weekend. I’m not sure what it is about the combination of 10 hours of sun, food, and beer that brings this on? But it’s an easy thing to prevent if you remember to stay hydrated (no my fellow Texans, beer doesn’t count!), wear protective clothes and use sunscreen, seek shade periodically, and use decent sunglasses.

Have a great holiday!

BBQ and Recognition

It’s been a rough summer. The guards have performed under all kinds of adverse conditions admirably. Come support them tonight for our 18th annual BBQ fundraiser. This is the beach party of the year with well over a thousand Lifeguards, Junior Guards, water people, beach lovers and supporters of the various groups that work so hard to keep our beaches safe, clean, and enjoyable.

This year we’ll have it in our traditional spot at 24th and Post office and the base will be the Press Box from 6-10. If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet you can buy one at the door. Music provided by DJ Joe Rios and luau style BBQ cooked up and served by the Galveston Rugby Team. There will be a silent auction as well. Proceeds benefit the Lifeguards and Junior Guards and help cover the cost of competing at the national lifeguard championships and various water safety projects. The Press Box is owned by none other than Rudy Betancourt, long time Beach Patrol Lifeguard and 100% G-Town local.

Last week we had the honor of giving awards to all the groups that came together to support the search for the 12 year old girl who drowned at 56th street. An unbelievable amount of volunteers, including family members, aided in the search. Food and lodging were provided while public safety personnel from a myriad of agencies spent untold amounts of time searching. We wanted to do something to recognize them. The sensitivity, perseverance, and altruism these scores of people showed is hard to describe. The intent was not to detract in any way from the unbelievable loss that the family is facing. While acknowledging that, our hope was to simultaneously recognize that there is an emotional component to the work the first responders do and they have a need for some type of closure to the incident as well. Hard tightrope to walk.

The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network spent three days with the family providing counseling, translation, and information regarding the search efforts. The Red Roof Inn and 4 Seasons provided rooms and an area for the families of two separate events to base. Tortugas, Kroger, and the Lighthouse Charity Team brought food. The US Coast Guard spent hours of air and water time. Texas Parks and Wildlife put two boats in the water to search, the Sheriff Office and Galveston Police Department Marine Division were ever-present, and the Galveston Fire Department did everything in their power to help. The Galveston County Community Emergency Response Team came out multiple days using volunteer labor to try to speed up the recovery process. They even allowed for walk up volunteer labor at their command post.

It’s not enough. It never can be. But I people have a basic desire to do whatever it is we can do to help others when they need it most. All these groups did everything they could and, at the very least, they showed their love and support through their actions.

 

Beach Patrol Fundraiser Poster2

Sandbars

I got an interesting call from a local woman who told me to write about what it means to “step off a sandbar” and why that can cause someone to drown. The woman, now in her 90’s, said when she was young she had to hand her 3 year old to someone else and trust him to bring her child to shore when she “stepped off a sandbar” herself.

Most of what we focus on in beach safety involves rip currents. Rip currents, responsible for 80% of rescues in the ocean (and presumably drownings) run roughly perpendicular to shore and are formed when water brought in by waves has to find a way back out past the surf zone. In Texas our strongest and most predominant rip currents are formed near a structure like a jetty. This is why we recommend people stay away from the rocks and why we post our towers on the seawall near the groins. If you’re caught in one, float with it and you’ll likely return to shore on your own. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore, but never try to swim directly into a rip current (directly to shore).

The phrase “stepping off a sandbar” refers to times when someone is standing in relatively shallow water and currents or waves push them from the shallow sandbar into a trough where the water is deeper. Just as is the case with rip currents, if you simply relax and float you’ll be fine, but bad things happen when people panic or choke on water.

At our beaches we have a sandbar and trough system, both of which run parallel to the shoreline. As you walk into the water from shore you’ll step into deeper water, then shallower water, than deeper, shallower, and so on. Gradually it gets deeper and deeper but we have 4-5 sandbars and troughs before it gets deep enough for the bottom to level off. The sandbars farther from shore need bigger waves to break on them but the first couple are easy to spot by the breaking waves even from shore. Waves break in water about 1.3 times their height, so an experienced guard or person can tell water depth by looking at the waves. The waves don’t break in the deeper water so the troughs are calm looking areas between the sandbars.

The difference in depth between the sandbars and troughs is exacerbated by long shore current, which runs parallel to shore. The longer and harder it runs, the deeper the troughs. Generally when the current lets up the bottom levels off to normal in a couple of days, but this past week it was so calm that the normal “jiggling” of the bottom sand didn’t happen and there was a neck deep trough very near the shoreline all week.

Generally the most important way to be safe is to swim near a lifeguard, but it’s also a good idea to stay in shallower water than you would in an artificial environment.

What If

In this line of work saying “What If?” can be dangerous. Would this bad thing had happened if we had or hadn’t……? It’s better to use all the data and statistics you have coupled with what your team’s cumulative experience is. Sprinkle in what your gut tells you and shake it up- then decide a course of action. Once you’ve made the call its best to not torment yourself with second guesses.

This past weekend could have been full of those moments if any of us had time for introspection. At one point we had three calls working almost simultaneously on Monday. A jet ski floating around in the bay with no owner, an unconscious man at Stewart Beach that had been in the water, and a possible drowning at East Beach stretched our resources to the limit. Fortunately all ended well for those situations but it really made us appreciate our partner agencies who were there with us for these three events and for many others throughout the weekend. We really can’t say thank you enough for the CERT Team (Strike Team #1) whose public safety volunteers helped to move several hundred people out of the waters of the San Luis Pass, Galveston Fire/EMS/Police and Park Board Security and Park Staff who were there at every major event, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network who offered free counseling to lifeguards who gave CPR to a submerged man, and to our amazing National Weather Service Houston/Galveston office who kept us up on the latest weather all the way through the weekend. It’s good to have partners and friends who are there when you need them most.

Mostly though I’d like to thank my staff who did an unbelievable job protecting hundreds of thousands of tourists in unbelievably rough water, blasting wind, and the most adverse conditions imaginable. Many worked longer hours and extra shifts when it became obvious that this was an exceptionally challenging and dangerous situation. By the end of the weekend they’d moved over 3,000 people away from rip currents and closer to shore, made rescues, reunited lost kids, treated medical emergencies, enforced rules, and offered water safety and tourist information to hundreds.

I’d like to finish by doing what I said I shouldn’t and asking two big “What ifs?”

The first is what if Supervisor Kris Pompa and several others on our staff hadn’t taken my early spring challenge to provide water safety talks to at least 8,000 kids in the Houston/Galveston area? Kris was on the road for over two months sometimes hitting as many as three schools a day. By May 1st he’d exceeded all expectations by providing beach water safety instruction to 16, 761 students! Each of them spread that info to families and friends. We’ll never know how many accidents will never happen as a result.

Finally, what if Galveston and the Galveston Park Board didn’t provide us the resources to staff those towers, trucks, and boats?

What if?

Ready for Memorial

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! With all the strange weather this spring it seems like summer just pounced on us.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office are predicting some rough water and strong rip currents over the weekend so be extra careful. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We’re also getting some help from the Emergency Operation Center for extra patrols at the San Luis Pass and hopefully some flashing signs on the side of the highway coming on to the island. We have a new crew of lifeguards that complete their over 100 hours of training today that will be out working with the more experienced guards.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the Lifeguard Academy going on, all the re-training of recurrent seasonal lifeguards, dispatch training, jet ski rescue recertification, taking care of all the last minute details on the beach, bringing water safety material to the hotels, final checks on equipment, and making sure all our personnel are good to go. We also had two major events this week.

Last Tuesday we had representatives from the Fire and Police departments, EMS, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and others participate in a mass casualty exercise at Stewart Beach to practice our skills, communication, and ability to work together during a crisis. We simulated a water accident with 15 victims. They were rescued, triaged, treated, searched for, and counseled. This is a great event for our lifeguard candidates to see how what they do is a small part of a whole system of emergency response. It also sharpens all of our skills right before the big weekend and summer season.

The final physical exercise was the next day where our entire staff (minus the ones that guarded and facilitated) competed in the dreaded “Night Swim”. This includes all kinds of challenges including runs, swims, rescue board paddles, calisthenics, a wall climb, knowledge checks, and ended in a long slip and slide at the finish line. Once our rookie lifeguards finish this they know they face any kind of physical challenge, which translates to a more effective lifeguard force.

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol and hope you and yours get a chance to take some time over the holiday to celebrate in whatever way that’s best for you.

Beaches and Risk

Years back I climbed up the pyramids in Tical, Guatamala. It was really steep and the steps were not designed for big American feet. I reached the top and looked out from a view above the rainforest canopy in awe. Then I looked down and realized there were no handrails. I was shocked. In the US this just wouldn’t happen. There would be railings and arrangements for disabled people and cable cars so no one collapsed on the way up.

We’re Americans. We live in a country with quite a few resources. A country that has city, state, and federal governments that do all kinds of things that allow us the illusion of complete safety. We rarely see holes in the sidewalks or stairs without railings. Signs are everywhere reminding us how to stay safe. “Caution Drop Off”. Plastic bags can suffocate you. Apple filling is hot.

All of these precautions are aimed at one thing. Minimizing risk. Not eliminating risk, but minimizing risk. The concept is “layers of protection”. It starts with each of us watching out for our own safety, then the safety of loved ones or companions. Then there are the railings, signs, metal detectors, airbags, child proof caps, security checks, health codes, etc.

It works almost too well. We forget that all of these layers of protection, while reducing risk, do not guarantee that we’ll be totally safe. We forget that there is no guarantee because we’re constantly inundated. We look for blame when accidents happen (“Was he wearing his seatbelt?”). And then we go to the beach.

Of all places the ocean is still the Wild Wild West. We do a great job of mitigating the risk considering the ocean is something that can’t be controlled. We train our lifeguards beyond all standards and expectations. We maintain over 300 safety signs up and down the beach. And we have layers upon layers of supervisors, vehicles, and watchers for the watchers. And at beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards (like ours) your chances of drowning in a guarded area are 1 in 18 million. But, ultimately, we are only an additional layer of protection. We can’t guarantee safety, only mitigate risk.

There was a terrible, terrible tragedy last Saturday night. It was extremely rough and we held the guards late due to the abnormally large surf, strong currents, and crowds. The lifeguard at 24th called in that there was a swimmer out too far. The swimmer was past the waist deep we recommend for red flag days, but he was neither past the legal swimming limit nor was he in between the “no swimming” signs and the rock groin. And he was not struggling. The man did nothing wrong and our guard not only did nothing wrong, but was being more proactive than could be expected. But the man slipped underwater within just a few seconds without warning and died.

My heart goes out to both the family and our staff who are struggling to come to terms with this.

NOAA Conference

Rip currents, which typically pull people perpendicular from shore, are the cause of 80% of drowning death in beaches both in and outside of the USA. In Galveston, we are lucky because rip currents mostly occur right next to the rock groins. That’s why we have signs and ropes near the rocks and why we place the lifeguard towers near that area. Each year we move around 60,000 people from dangerous areas, the majority of which are near those rocks.

Since the water carries you out but nothing pulls you under, there are some clear ways to get yourself out of a rip current. If you relax and float the current will usually pull you out to the end of the groin then back around to the shore. If possible you can call or wave for help. If you are a good swimmer you can try swimming parallel to the shore and if you are able to clear the area with the rip current it is easy to get back to shore. If you see someone in a rip current you should never go after them unless you have proper equipment and training. Instead try throwing something that floats connected to a rope, like the ring-buoys and throw bags we have in the rescue stations on the end of each groin. Or if they’re close you can extend an object (towel, stick, fishing pole) to them and pull them up.

For about a decade I’ve been involved, as a representative from the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), with a group that developed a body of information to educate the public about the dangers of rip currents. This group includes the USLA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically the National Weather Service (NWS) and Sea Grant. Over the past couple of years another group has been meeting to design a pilot project where lifeguard agencies are partnered with their local NWS office and give feedback on how accurate the new science of rip current predictions on specific beaches. This partnership between the NWS and USLA agencies has grown to about 25 groups and, after an evaluation period will likely expand throughout our nation’s beaches

Last week the NWS had a conference in Virginia. NOAA brought another USLA representative and I up to a “Coastal Resiliency Workshop” where over 100 researchers and weather forecasters spent three days together listening to presentations and dialoguing in workshops about the best ways to protect our nations beach going population from rip currents in a consistent and proactive manner. Both of the USLA presentations were really well received and it was encouraging to see this marriage between theoretical science and practical applications take shape. As lifeguards our primary mission in protecting people from the dangers of rip currents and other beach and ocean hazards. Being able to provide on the ground data that will eventually lead to accurate rip current predictive models is a real privilege, as it will ultimately lead to lives saved.

 

Image by: Invertzoo

Hypothermia Story: Part 2

In last week’s column I talked about a young girl who suffered the effects of hypothermia as a result of swimming in the cold beach water. While most of us know the basics of what hypothermia is there is specific information that could be helpful, especially when swimming during the colder months.

The Mayo Clinic describes Hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature”. This “dangerously low” body temperature starts at 95 degrees and is more severe the lower it gets.

Your system doesn’t work well when the body is at lowered temperatures. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart and respiratory system failure. Eventually it can cause death. Sounds scary right? Does this mean that every time your kid starts to shiver he/she is going to have serious problems? Of course not. This may be just an early warning sign for mild hypothermia. Read on..

The first thing your body does when its temperature drops is to shiver. What it’s trying to do is generate heat by causing movement. When swimming, this is the sign that it’s time to warm up. It may be a matter of just sitting in the sand for awhile then jumping back in the water on a warm day. Or when conditions are more serious this is the signal that you need to get out of the water and warm up, now!

Hypothermia is divided into three categories- mild, moderate, and severe.

The symptoms for mild hypothermia include shivering, hunger, nausea, fast breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate. As your temperature continues to drop and moderate to severe hypothermia kick in. Shivering eventually stops and you’ll start to show clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion (even to the point of trying to remove warm clothing) and eventually loss of consciousness, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing. Babies may have bright red, cold skin, low energy and a weak cry.

Warming a person with a more advanced case of hypothermia can be tricky, since you don’t want the cold blood in the extremities to rush to the center of the body. In these cases you want to call 911 for professional help and to move the person as gently as possible in doors. Remove wet clothing and cover them in lots of blankets. Then wait for help to arrive.

Differentiating between mild and more severe cases can at times be difficult so, as always, when in doubt call 911. But for those cases that we all experience where we’re just shivering a little and our body temperature is near normal warm sun and maybe a hot chocolate is just the thing. Then get back out there and keep having fun!

The good news is that the water has risen almost 15 degrees and is now getting in the zone of comfortable swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

Winter Dangers

For those who have not heard, there was a terrible accident last weekend involving a couple of kayakers in West Bay. The Galveston Daily News did a comprehensive story on it, but in a nutshell two kayakers were capsized by strong currents and one managed to make it to a channel marker post where he hung on until a boat arrived. At the time of writing this, one of the men is still missing. This incident is only part of a larger safety picture, and hopefully can be used to prevent similar incidents.

With recent water temps in the low 50’s and even high 40’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

Each spring when the air starts to warm but the water is still cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. Last weekend there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition were kept busy when several kayakers and boaters got lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass area over the weekend. Some were really close to shore. In fact, at the San Luis Pass, a fast acting Galveston Fire Department crew was smart enough to go to the area that a kayaker entered the water and blast their siren continuously until the kayaker paddled back in following the sound.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting on the water, then plan accordingly.

 

 

A Small Thing

It was a small, but deeply meaningful thing.

The other morning it was cold, windy, rainy and overcast, but there were some nice little waves breaking. It was early as I grabbed my board and paddled out at 37th street.

As I used the rip current to paddle out, I noticed our rescue buoy box was open and the ring buoy was laying on the rocks with the rope spread out all over. These boxes are invaluable and we document at least 15 rescues a season by fishermen or bystanders who throw the ring buoy out to a person in distress without having to endanger themselves by going in the water after the victim. I made a mental note that when I finished I would pick up the buoy, stuff the rope back in its throw bag, stick it back in the box, and latch it closed so it would be ready if someone needed it.

After awhile a couple of other guards joined me before their shift. Between sets of waves we chatted about how cold it was. It was in the 40s with a strong north east wind and drizzling. Pretty miserable.

We saw our “on call” unit coming down the seawall and stop to put out the condition advisory flag on the sign up on the seawall at 37th street. The “on call” unit is the person and vehicle assigned to answer any 911 calls during the night. We rotate this job each night so anytime during the year, day or night, we are available to help if a water emergency comes up. Supervisor/Officer Josh Hale was finishing up his on call shift by putting out the daily flags. It was so cold and miserable that we all decided that Josh would either not notice the buoy on the rocks or would act like he didn’t see it. We realized we were wrong when we saw Josh trudge out through the rain and wind wearing his big red coat. He carefully put the rope back in the bag and set the whole thing back in the box, waved at us, and walked back to his truck and drove down the beach.

I later found out that this was not for show. Every day when Josh puts the flags out he double checks each of the buoy boxes and makes sure they are stocked and ready to go. Josh, like most of the Beach Patrol lifeguards has seen enough of what can go wrong to be motivated to do whatever he can to keep bad things from happening. He doesn’t do it to please me or anyone else. He goes the extra mile because he believes in what we do and knows little proactive actions like this save lives.

Josh is not alone. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many others who do thousands of unrewarded, quiet actions to keep organization running well. The combined result of these small things keep thousands from injury or death each year.