Posts

Ike Anniversary

We heard a lot about Hurricane Harvey, but September 13, the anniversary of Hurricane Ike, came and went without much fanfare.

I still remember how the water felt as I slogged down 16th street heading into the biting wind. How the grit had gotten in my water shoes and how saturated my skin felt after several hours in and out of the water. The fear in my stomach as a transformer blew close by. Wondering if the electricity could travel through the water to me. Trying to breathe and see through the thick smoke coming off of the huge fire burning at the Yacht Basin.

It seems like yesterday I felt the tiny boy’s hand in mine, as I held on to him and his sister while walking chest deep in the grimy soup next to their mom and pulling a rescue board piled with another sibling and a few belongings that they begged to bring along. Bringing them to high ground at Broadway and piling them into a waiting police car that would take them to the emergency shelter at Ball High school. Taking a moment to watch them drive off and grab an energy bar before heading to the next group a few blocks away.

Those of us that went through Hurricane Ike have memories like this etched into us that probably will never leave. Unfortunately, as time slips by, that institutional memory fades. But it’s encouraging how much better prepared each group is now as a result of lessons learned.  Charlie Kelly, who is no longer with us, was the Director of the Emergency Operations for Galveston for many years. He once mentioned his fear that all the event memory would be lost as people who went through the storm moved on. Fortunately, proactive planning if done correctly, can put systems in that compensate for lack of personal experience. And it’s good to have a system that doesn’t depend on individual personalities or experience. After 9-11 the National Incident Management System was integrated throughout the nation’s emergency services. And locally, each group’s emergency action plan is much more comprehensive than what we had before. We annually revise the Park Board’s Emergency Action Plan, and I intentionally try to think of how it could be improved so that it doesn’t rely on any one person’s experience.

We still have a ways to go until we get through storm season, so don’t get complacent. In lifeguard training we talk a lot about eliminating variables that can mess you up during a rescue. We practice them to the point where your body remembers even if your brain doesn’t. If you practice and internalize all the things you can control in advance, you are better able to handle the inevitable wrinkles that arise. This applies to systems as well as individuals. It works for hurricanes and manmade disasters.  It works for officials and emergency response teams.

And it works for you and your family as well.

Interrelated Systems

More and more I appreciate all the people that collaborate to make miracles happen in our beachfront spheres.

Last Saturday the annual American Institute of Architects (AIA) Sandcastle Competition went about as well as anything could go during an event of 11,000 people and 3,700 parked cars on one beach. The logistics supporting all the Architectural Firms’ teams building those incredible sculptures was an impressive feat. My role was on the organizational and security side, but it was a true “incident command system” with teams handling parking, trash, supplies, accounting, and medical response. As you’d imagine, it’s a ridiculous amount of work with a zillion moving parts. But when each subunit “digs in” and supports the others and the greater goal, it’s a rush to be part of. I’m impressed with the AIA volunteers, Park Board, and Houston Precinct 1 CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), all of whom labored over 12 hours in the heat to make it work. I have to say, after being involved in this event for over 20 years, this is the smoothest its run. We still can improve on a few things, but Park Board Park staff, Galveston Police Department managed security, AIA, CERT, Beach Patrol, and others all knocked it out of the park!

The next day was another collaborative effort of an entirely different type. The second drowning fatality of the year on the island, and again at the unforgiving San Luis Pass, occurred after 7pm on the north side of the pass in the wetland area. A 3-year-old girl on a float perilously drifted into the bay. Fortunately, our San Luis Pass Patrol crew was able to quickly rescue her using a jet ski, but her father perished in the unpredictable deep and treacherous waters while attempting to save her. With practiced professionalism the Galveston Marine Response (Beach Patrol, Police, Fire, and Jamaica Beach Fire) and the U.S. Coast Guard mounted a comprehensive search. The following day, Galveston County CERT joined local responders and deployed drones in an exhaustive search, following up again the next day with 3 drone crews. Meanwhile, the Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network assisted the family with critical information, counselling, and the additional support needed to navigate the first stage of this tragedy. Media outlets were respectful and continued to help push the message out to avoid swimming at either end of the island because of severe and dangerous tidal currents.

These are just two examples of how complicated the response can be to the many happenings on the beach. And behind the scenes, all the complex systems and relationships at both the City of Galveston and Park Board of Trustees provide us with the resources we need to serve residents and visitors. With that support and the incredible partnerships and systems we’ve developed through the years, we are able to accomplish so much more as an interrelated system than we could as individual entities. I’m thankful that we all work together to save lives.

HAPPY HOLIDAY!

REMINDER:

  • Always swim near a lifeguard:
    • Lifeguards work continually to identify hazards that might affect you. They can advise you on the safest place to swim, as well as places to avoid. They receive many hours of continuous training and most have been with Galveston Island Beach Patrol for several years.  They want you to have a safe day. Talk to them when you first arrive at the beach and ask them for their advice.
  • Stay Away from Rocks!
    • Rocks present special hazards to swimmers. Piers and Jetties act as the perfect environment for the formation of Rip Currents, which are the number one cause of open water drownings worldwide. For more information on Rip Currents, visit our informational page
  • Four Legged Fur Babies:
    • Sand has been really hot lately.  Be passionate about your pets paws.

More information:

Sand Bars, Troughs, and Holes

Hidden deep spots in the surf are hazardous, especially for small children. Waves are powerful and dig holes in the bottom near shore that may be several yards wide. They can form at any water depth, so you may step into one while wading in very shallow water.

When you visit the beach, you may see swimmers standing in waist-seep water far offshore. What you don’t see is how deep the water is between the beach and the sand bar area they are on.

The natural processes of the Gulf create a series of bars and troughs in the nearshore areas of coastal Texas. The height of the bar and the depth of the trough vary, but the water in the trough is sometimes “over your head”. Unless you swim very well, do not try to reach the sand bar offshore.

Effects of Heat & Sun

Protect yourself against sunburn. You can become sunburned even on cloudy or overcasts days.

Ultraviolet rays are harmful to the skin, regardless of the color of that skin. You should wear a high SPF sunscreen (15 or higher); wear loose fitting light colored clothing, hat & sunglasses. Also, drink plenty of non-alcoholic, caffeine free liquid to prevent dehydration.

Piers and Jetties

The Texas coastline is lined with fishing piers and rock jetties. These present special hazards to swimmers. Barnacles and other sea life tend to make these structures their homes, increasing the possibility for stings, bites, and cuts when swimmers get near them. Piers and Jetties also act as the perfect environment for the formation of Rip Currents, which are the number one cause of open water drownings worldwide. For more information on Rip Currents, visit our ‘informational page’.

Stings, Bites, and Cuts

Stinging jellyfish abound the Gulf waters and randomly sting whatever they touch. The most dangerous stinging jelly is the Portuguese man-o-war, a community of animals called zooids. This most obvious zooid is a purple float with its tentacles dangling in the water. Lifting the tentacle from the skin and dousing the area with a saline solution brings relief. Do not rub the area with sand – this will only ensure that all the stinging cells fire. And remember just because the man-o-war or jellyfish is washed up on the beach does not mean that you are safe. The tentacles can still sting. Avoid stomping them or smacking them with a stick.

Stingrays frequent shallow Gulf waters and can thrust a sharp shaft into an offending foot or ankle when stepped on. This shaft, located at the base of the stingray’s tail must be handled carefully, usually surgically, because the spines point backward and prevent easy removal. One good preventive action is to shuffle your feet while wading. When disturbed, the stingray will move away.

Swimmers, particularly children are advised to wear some type of footwear when in the Gulf or on the beach. Broken glass and sharp shell remnants are everywhere, and children often fail to watch where they are going. Remember there is a high concentration of bacteria on objects in the water and near the beach. Clean even minor wounds well and monitor for signs of infection.

Currents

For any body of open water, currents will always be a danger, presenting a hazard not found in swimming pools or waterparks.

The Long Shore Current (also known as the Littoral Current)’s strength and direction are generally determined by wave and wind energy. Look for the Long Shore Current by the angle of the waves coming into shore, by the foam, swimmers and surfers flowing parallel to shore with the Long Shore Current. Always be aware of your surroundings and your position in the water relative to your location on the beach. The Long Shore Current can push swimmers far down the beach, and towards hazards such as piers and rock jetties.

The Long Shore Current can also influence and help create Rip Currents, which present a very deadly danger to swimmers. Be sure to avoid swimming or wading near rock jetties and piers, as Rip Currents often form next to them.  See our ‘Rip Currents’ page for more information.

Always adhere to warning signs.

Memorial Wrap Up

Somehow it all came together for Memorial Day Weekend.

The beach cleaning crews worked through the night to ensure the beaches were free of trash left from the day before. By first light, the beaches looked amazing. We finished the last part of the new lifeguard training Friday night and the rookie lifeguards hit the towers early Saturday with an experienced partner for their first shift. The Park Board Beach Security detail did an admirable job of dealing with the thousands that visited the parks. Wave Watchers patrolled, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) helped keep swimmers out of the water at both ends of the island, dispatchers were trained and in place, beach vendors had all their equipment out, and beach park staff was hired, trained, and ready to go. EMS, Fire, and Police were fully staffed and out in force. All the pieces were in place, and we needed every one of them.

From the time we started on Saturday morning until we crawled home late Monday night it was non-stop. Crowds were massive and the water was extraordinarily rough. Sunday was the peak, and there seemed to be so many people on the island that their combined weight would make it sink. Over the weekend we completed over 30,000 preventative actions where people were moved from dangerous areas, reunited 23 lost children with their guardians, made 105 enforcement actions, gave 1,366 tourists information about the island, let 16,069 people know to stay out of the water because lifeguards were getting off duty, responded to 77 medical incidents, and executed 12 water rescues. Needless to say, Galveston’s lifesaving team worked very, very hard to get everyone home safely, and we all feel both exhausted and grateful that we didn’t lose anyone.

The San Luis Pass was a hot spot. The police department worked hard to keep all the 4 wheelers and motorbikes under control while we struggled to get would-be swimmers to stay out of the dangerous waters in an area that has claimed many lives through the years. Our San Luis Pass patrol removed 1,324 people from the perilous waters of the pass over the three-day holiday.

Elbow grease wasn’t the only thing that caused things to go well. Fate smiled on our island. The sun was shining, the rain went elsewhere, and we had a really nice crowd on the beaches overall. We had few serious problems and, despite several hundred thousand visitors and locals on the beaches, no drownings.

As I drove the beach smelling the familiar BBQ, suntan lotion, and saltwater combination so unique to Galveston this time of year, I saw kids and parents, lovers, friends, and all kinds of people getting away from the daily grind and spending time together. All enjoying a place that enables them take time away from their daily stresses, honor our fallen heroes, and focus on what matters most for a little while.

Galveston and its beaches are a magic place.

 

MEMORIAL WEEKEND SAFETY!

Training, preparation of equipment, and all the little maneuverings needed to get this big bird off the ground are complete. All hands will be on deck and all 34 of our towers will be covered, all vehicles will be patrolling, and our 11 new candidates are graduated and ready to go.

This weekend we will see hundreds of thousands on the island, if the large spring crowds were any indication. As usual, your Beach Patrol will be ready for whatever madness this weekend brings, as will our entire safety network including Wave Watchers, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Galveston Marine Response Group, Citizens Emergency Response Teams, Beach Parks, Coastal Zone Management, Parking, and Beach Security teams. We all provide an extra layer of protection, support, and response that supplements the common sense we hope our visitors and residents will provide for themselves and their families. Maintain situational awareness, or in “Galveston-ese”, “Don’t check your brain at the causeway!”

It’s been a rough Spring on the Texas coast which means deeper holes and channels caused by currents, so play it safe and stay closer to shore. Here are a few of the more important safety tips:

Swim near a lifeguard – each tower will be staffed every day for a double shift. We’ll be out there from early morning till dark, so we shouldn’t be hard to find. The guard is an added layer of protection though, and you are still responsible for your own safety.

Stay away from the rocks and structures – where there is a chance you could be caught in a dangerous rip current.

Avoid swimming or wading at the ends of the island – The San Luis Pass and the Ship Channel have very strong tidal flow. The water there is not only very dangerous, but they are illegal areas for swimming.

Don’t swim alone – your buddy can call or wave for help if you can’t.

Designate a Water Watcher – who has the sole responsibility of keeping an eye on your group while they’re in the water.

Don’t dive in headfirst – to avoid the chance of a head or neck injury.

Observe warning signs and flags – ours are all bilingual and use icons.

Non-swimmers and children should use properly fitted Coast Guard approved lifejackets when in or around the water – and everyone should wear a lifejacket when boating.

Alcohol and water don’t mix – most of the beaches here are alcohol free, but if you choose to drink, no glass and try to remember that, even though you feel invincible, you’re not.

Take precautions from the heat and sun – such as loose-fitting clothing and a hat, sunscreen with a high SPF, good sunglasses, and drinking plenty of fluid.

Above all, remember the beach is a wonderful place. Go have fun, and focus on family, friends, recreation, and making memories this Memorial Day weekend. Remember the men and women of the armed forces who laid down their lives to make our way of life possible, while taking a well-earned break from the grind. Just do it safely!

More information about rip currents can be found at the following websites:
weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent/usla.org

San Luis Pass Drowning

It was that time that isn’t really day, and it really isn’t night. Breezy with pink tinged clouds scudding across the sky as the horizon changes from pink to purple to a faded blue. The water was a little choppy, but not rough with the wind blowing off the beach into the channel rippling water that was running against the wind and out to sea.

A group of young men all stood in waist to chest deep water with a bit of distance between them as they cast their lines and heard the splat, then after a bit reeled them back in. Seagulls and water and occasional comments were all they heard as the evening stretched on.

All but one went to shore, and the one guy stayed out fishing. The group was on shore for a short time and one of them looked out to check on their buddy and saw….. water.

A massive search ensued involving multiple public safety groups. The following day the search continued involving additional volunteer groups and scores of people. Survivor Support Network set up a tent and provided refreshments and councilors to the large family group that came down and held vigil. Later in the day the body was recovered not far from where he disappeared.

As we do when bad things happen, we want to know two things: “Why” and “How can this be prevented?” These can be hard questions, as there may not be concrete answers. We hate it when we’re frustrated and the answers to our question are ambiguous.

We may never know why on this one. Since no one saw him go under, we don’t know if it was a current, steep drop off, or even an underlying medical condition that chose the wrong time to present itself.

How to prevent it is even tougher. The area is dangerous. So much so that the city made it illegal to swim there and Beach Patrol spends significant resources maintaining warning signage that blanket the area. Where this group entered has two rows of signs currently that you have to get past to reach the water. We also run a weekend patrol in the summer that has the sole responsibility of keeping people out of the water. The message is put out constantly about the dangerous currents. And yet people continue to go in the water when there’s no one to stop them.

Galveston has an amazing and fairly unique way to fund its lifeguard service. We are funded entirely by hotel occupancy dollars, and don’t use any ad valorem tax dollars at all. Tourists pay for our service. We’ve reduced potential for drowning fatality significantly by public education efforts, partnerships, and strategically targeting high use areas and times with our available resources.  But we can’t be there all the time. I really believe that all of us spreading the word about how to stay safe and teaching our children is the way to keep our drowning numbers low despite ever-increasing beach visitation.

Beach Patrol and What’s Coming Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GIBP Headquarter Crisis

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

 

Our trusty old workhorse’s time is over. Concrete is spalling from salt air and water, the pilings are brittle, and it has become a hazard. We are eight years beyond the maximum lifespan, and despite Galveston’s harsh climate, we’ve protracted the “expiration date” with willpower and elbow-grease. It’s been a good home and it has permitted us, like our professional counterparts around the world, to best serve the public from the most demanding beach. Your Beach Patrol covers all 32 miles of beach 24/7/365, intervenes in a half-million potential accidents annually, and serves over seven million visitors and residents each year. Galveston boasts one of the busiest, challenging, and most visited shorelines in the nation, and the demand increases every year.

 

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

 

With more than 140 lifeguards and dispatchers, 120 Junior Lifeguards, and another 60+ volunteers, a safe, 24-hour, all-weather sand-base facility is critical for training, working space, and supervision. To mitigate risk for our children and adults, direct access to the beach and water must be accessible without the danger of crossing Seawall Boulevard while carrying rescue equipment. When covering assigned beachfront zones, rescue vehicles need to stay on the beachfront to relay information and deliver lifesaving equipment while continually protecting beach patrons and guards. An on-beach facility is also critical in providing an unobstructed view to handle weather and medical emergencies, lost children, and command and control of our most populated beach.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Perfect Storm & Non Fatal Drowning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October is the best month of the year in Galveston for the beach. If the weather was porridge in a Goldilocks story, we’d be the third bowl. Water is still nice and warm, but the air has cooled off just a bit, so you almost hate walking into a building and not spending every available minute outside. And, at least on the weekdays, the press of people has abated. So, when you go out to the beach you usually only share space with a handful of people.

Weekends will still be crowded for a couple of months, and our staff has been busy moving swimmers away from the deep holes and strong rip currents by the groins, making the occasional rescue, and have been getting quite a few after hours calls. Looking at crowd and climate trends we anticipate having some pretty decent weekend crowds to, and possibly into, December.

This is the last weekend for our seasonal lifeguards. We can only work them 7 months out of the year as “seasonal workers”. After this Sunday we’ll be covering the beach with mobile patrols each day. This means emergency response only on the west end, as we focus our efforts on the seawall areas with rock groins. From next Monday until the beach finally shuts down (aside from surfers, fishermen, and visiting Northern Europeans) we’ll be operating using just our year-round staff and will be able to run patrols of two or three trucks a day. These same staff members will rotate to cover “call”, meaning that someone will be available day or night all winter long for emergencies.

If you watch what one of our tower lifeguards does for a day on the seawall, you’ll see them watching swimmers and then getting down to move swimmers away from the rocks repeatedly. These preventative actions keep swimmers out of danger and keep our guards from having to make rescues that are extremely risky for both the victim and rescuer.

Working in a mobile vehicle is another story. We do the best we can to get to swimmers before they get too close, but we’re spread thin and covering a lot of ground, so end up making many more risky rescues.

We encourage you to get out and enjoy the best time of year in Galveston with friends and family. But when you do, remember the lifeguard presence is greatly diminished and the safety net is much smaller. This would be a good time to remind friends and family to stay far away from any structures in the water because they generate powerful rip currents. Know your limits and stay close to shore. Kids and non-swimmers should be in lifejackets. Designate a “water watcher” who is focused at all times on your group.

Lots of other safety information can be found at www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com and you’re welcome to get us on the phone or social media if you have questions. And, of course, for emergencies we’re only a 911 call away.