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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.

Snapshot

A sea of hands are raised in the Galveston school while students struggle to keep their bottoms on the gym floor. Supervisor/Officer Kris Pompa surveys the crowd and picks a young man way in the back. “What do you think?” The little boy says, “Lifeguards are there to protect people from sharks and undertoads”. Kris chuckles and says, “Close! But the main reason lifeguards are on the beach is to protect people from dangerous currents when they swim in the water. But we protect people from other things too. We even tell people when they’re starting to get sunburned. We also enforce rules and help kids who get lost find their parents.”

Meanwhile, at a mainland high school, Supervisor Mary Stewart is talking to the swim team about what beach lifeguards do every day. “…. After you finish your morning workout and skills training, you have 45 minutes to check out your flag bag and radio and get to your tower. Once on location you clean the tower, put your flags up and swim the rip current to see how hard it’s running and how deep it is there. Then your main job is to keep people away from the rocks, see if anyone needs help, and do whatever you can to keep people from harm. Every day we train, and on Sundays anyone can enter the weekly competitions. Most of my friends are on Beach Patrol and it’s a great bunch of people. I hope you guys will come try out, most of our guards are either on swim teams or were at one time.”

On the seawall, around 37th street Supervisor/Officer Josh Hale and Supervisor Lauren Hollaway pull over to check on a young surfer that is hanging off the side of his board in the rip current by the jetty. They watch him for a bit to make sure he’s able to get back on his board and paddle back out to the lineup. Turns out he’s OK and they don’t have to jump in the 56 degree water to help him. They drive on to the next cluster of surfers at 27th street while scanning the seawall for any problems or anyone needing a hand.

At headquarters in the garage Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas is finishing some work on a new rack system he’s been intermittently working on between other jobs, patrolling, and special activities. Upstairs Captain Tony Pryor is putting the finishing touches on the next employee schedule while Lieutenant Kara Harrison solicits bids for some equipment that needs to be ordered.

This is a snapshot of an average day for the full time staff of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol during the “down season”. Soon we’ll have all 100 of our seasonal workers back and we’ll finish up our annual school water safety talks and recruiting visits. Maintenance and administrative duties continue all year but the focus will be almost completely on the millions of beach patrons that visit the beach each year.

And so it begins!

 

Puerto Rican Beach Story

Wispy clouds scudded across blue Puerto Rican sky as the woman entered the water to cool off. 10 steps into the water the bottom disappeared. Surprised, she swam to the surface and began to swim back to shore. To her dismay she found herself being pulled out to sea despite her efforts.

The current ran, as it normally does from right to left down the beautiful Puerto Rican beach. As the farthest point on the left side, in front of a beautiful 4 star resort, there was a rock groin and breakwater that extended out into the ocean. Just like in Galveston, there is always a rip current by the rocks.

Suddenly, as the woman was pulled near the rocks, she hit a turbulent area. A wave broke over her head. Coughing and sputtering she made it back to the surface, but she’d choked on some water and found it hard to breathe. Panic gripped her as she realized she couldn’t make it back, and she was disoriented by the rough sea. She thought about her children and husband up in the hotel room. She remembered a load of laundry that she’d left in the dryer back in her New Jersey home, and then wondered why that would occur to her. The realization that she would not survive this event hit her like a punch to the gut. She struggled harder despite having trouble breathing. She quickly tired and felt impossibly heavy. She started slipping under water.

The resort offered all kinds of amenities, but the main draw was that it sits right on a very beautiful beach. The designers and investors thought about every little detail so their guests would have the ultimate experience. Every little detail but one. It sits right in front of a permanent rip current, and rip currents are the cause of 80% of ocean rescues (and likely ocean drownings). They didn’t plan for a beach safety program for their guests. Like many resorts around the world, this one was placed on a beautiful beach without thought to the safety of the beach itself.

Just as the woman slipped beneath the surface strong hands grabbed her. She found herself floating on a ratty old boogie board as a man yelled in Spanish and kicked her back to shore. Upon arriving to safety the man walked off and she sat down numbly. After a time she looked around and saw the man selling coconuts to tourists out of a shopping carts. Behind him under a bench she saw an old sleeping bag.

This beach sees about 10 drownings a year, usually rich tourists. The man selling coconuts averages 5 rescues a day. Partly because of the success of Galveston’s beaches, I’m part of a small team from the United States Lifesaving Association working up a proposal to combine private sector funding with governmental management of a beach patrol there. Until then, our hero, who is 62 years old, will hopefully be hard at work…

 

Image by cogito ergo imago.

Dobbins

The older guard pointed to the west side of the 47th street groin as he pulled the jeep over quickly. “Look at that rip, let’s go check it out!” he yelled as the pair sprinted down the rocks and jumped off a rock that was “just right”. The older guard then made them climb up the rocks again despite the churning surf, algae, and barnacles. Over and over the pair climbed up and jumped back into the surf before getting back in the jeep and racing up and down the seawall moving swimmers and checking on guards.

I worked with Jim Dobbins on weekends during the mid 80’s. The days were full and active. Lunches generally lasted about 15 minutes and consisted of a quick bowl of rice in his beachside apartment. I learned a great deal.

He taught the guards how to work the rocks. In those years a guard worked a groin all summer and Jim knew each rock of each groin. He taught guards where it was “safe” to jump from, and how to move around on the rocks without getting cut up. An avid surfer, he knew the rip currents well, and taught the guards how to use them to get to a victim quickly. He was a ball of energy as he made each guard that worked the seawall swim his/her area each morning so they would know exactly where the holes and currents were for the day (a practice that we continue to this day). He was relentless in stressing the importance of getting to someone before they actually got in trouble.

Dr. Jim Dobbins was an Epidemiologist working as a professor at UTMB in those years. As a teacher, he didn’t like being away from hands on preventative work in his field. With the Beach Patrol he was able to put theory into practice in the direct prevention of injury on Galveston’s beaches. He went on to work for the Center for Disease Control in a research program and later was employed by the World Health Organization. With the W.H.O he was able to once again take a hands-on approach as the guy who was tasked with handling potential infectious disease outbreaks in the Caribbean.

On Jim’s first day of work he responded to 7 people on inner tubes getting pushed into the South Jetty under extreme conditions. He was able to push them through a gap one by one and finally able to get himself through. He was shredded by rocks and exhausted but committed to preventing this type of thing from happening. He devised a strategy where people were kept far from the jetty, which we still employ.

Now in his 70’s Jim visits Galveston periodically. He likes to talk about the old days. But I think he really enjoys seeing how proactive we’ve become as an agency. Many of the techniques we use to keep people from ever getting into trouble today are based on strategies he implemented. After all, prevention is the essence of both Epidemiology and Lifesaving.

 

Dobbins

 

Winter Is Here

Water temperature in the 50’s is a game changer. Even our hard core surfers don’t last long with the 3 millimeter wetsuits most Texans wear, and the only swimmers we encounter seem to be Russian or Canadian.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and got to spend time with people they care about. This is always a great time to reflect on things we’re grateful for. I personally feel really appreciative of the hard work our staff did this season, the support of all the groups we work with and the community of Galveston, and the chance to slow down for a bit, recharge the batteries, and fill in some details that we couldn’t get to during the busy season.

We’re almost at the end of our patrol season with this weekend being the last where we’re proactively out there checking the beaches for a while. Most of our crew has been working hard refurbishing our 28 lifeguard towers while alternating the days they take a patrol shift. They’ve also been doing one last pass of replacement and repair of the 300 or so signs we maintain along 33 miles of beachfront. But starting December 1st everyone will focus on finishing the towers up so they can spend the remaining time until everyone is able to work on individual projects.

Each of our full time supervisors has an area of responsibility that they take full charge of. There is a window of time from late December until March 1st when they have time to get the bulk of this work done. Some of the areas are board and craft repair/maintenance, website upgrades, virtual lifeguard museum, recruiting/water safety video projects, policy and procedure manual updates, training material preparation, and ordering supplies and equipment.

One major change we are trying to make is to move to an almost completely paperless system. We recently purchased computers for each vehicle so reports can be done while overseeing a zone of responsibility. We’re getting close to purchasing an electronic records management system for storage and easy retrieval of reports and other documents. My hope is that by 2016 we can operate with 90% digital files and documents.

There’s an upcoming event that I wanted to mention. We’ll follow up with more details, but the annual public safety Christmas parade is scheduled for Saturday, December 13th in the morning. This event has been growing and has been a fun X-mas holiday kick off. It’s been a nice way for first responders from different agencies to show our community how appreciative we are for the support we receive. Also it’s an opportunity for the community to show support for everything these hard working public safety organizations’ men and women do.

From all of us at the Galveston Beach Patrol we hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season. Hopefully you’ll have the time and opportunity to reflect on and appreciate the things and people that are most important to you.