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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.

Storm Response

Coming off the Labor Day weekend we all jumped straight into a hurricane. If we needed a reminder that Mother Nature is completely random and impartial with respect to our needs and wants, we’ve just gotten yet another one. I’m impressed with how quickly we bounce back. Things were opening the very next day and city, county, and Park Board crews jumped right out there and started fixing things like it was, well, a normal occurrence.

Even for us on Beach Patrol, we’ve got “normal” storm prep, response, and recovery down to a science. Coastal Zone crews got our towers off the beach the same day we made the call to pull everything off. It really helps that our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service Office is so responsive and proactive. The information we need is always at our fingertips. Once they forecasted tides over 4 feet, we decided to pull the towers off the beach. And when we saw that the wind was going to be over the tropical storm threshold, we decided to go to the additional trouble to get them down to the safe area that we store them in the winter. Coastal Zone Management and the Park Board Parks staff got the zillions of trashcans in the parks and all the way down the entire beachfront off the beach and out of harm’s way as well. That taken care of, we were able to divert our full attention to keeping people safe by making sure they were out of or in very shallow water, stayed far from structures that could cause rip currents, and off rocks once the waves started breaking on top of them. For the most part people were responsive and helpful for this one.

Once the storm passed, we immediately went out and started assessing how many of the 600 or so safety signs we maintain along the beachfront were lost. The next couple of days we had lifeguard crews out there picking signs off the beachfront, jetting stumps out, and re-installing signs that were down. All in all, we had 56 “No Swimming/Wading” signs, 35 “No Swimming” signs, 16 “No Swimming” icon signs, and 9 rescue buoy boxes go down. Many of these we were able to re-use by picking them up and re-installing them. Still, many were damaged or lost completely and had to be replaced with new ones. We’re still tallying but looks like it will be a bit over $20,000 worth of damage. The good thing is that we keep a roughly 30% reserve for just this occasion, so we have signs ready to pop back up there as we’re having new ones made to replace the reserve. We want to shorten the time the signs are down as much as possible for obvious reasons. In this case looks like we are able to get everything fully operational, including getting towers back out on the beach, in time for this weekend. We want to make sure all is good to go by the time the beach goers arrive.

 

 

Courtesy of Twitter
Justin Michaels (@JMichaelsNews) | Twitter
and The Weather Channel

Drowning at 61st

Last Tuesday morning a man got to the beach at 61st early, walked around a bit, left his things just east of the pier, and went into the water. The time that elapsed at that point is unclear, but when the lifeguard arrived on location, all he saw was calm, clear, water with a tiny hint of clean waves rolling onto the beach. Unlike most mornings this season, there were only a handful of people on the beach.

As the lifeguard prepared for the day, he opened the tower, raised the appropriate flags, arranged his things, and left tracks to and from the water when he checked the conditions. He looked for unusually strong currents or drop offs, and felt which way the current was going, so he’d have an idea how far to keep people from the groin and what hazards he would protect them from. After his usual routine, he settled in for his shift.

A short time later, he spotted a body floating in about chest deep water, maybe 50 yards from the rocks on the east side. He notified dispatch and ran into the water. The guard at 59th reported he had no swimmers near his groin and was cleared to run down and help. A supervisor arrived a very short time later as they dragged the man from the water onto the sand. The three of them did CPR, intubated the man, and hooked him up to the AED (Automatic External Defibrillator). The machine did not advise a shock. They continued CPR with the help of the Fire Department and EMS when they arrived. The man was quickly loaded into the ambulance, and they drove away. A short time after arriving at the hospital he was pronounced dead.

Once the ambulance, police vehicles, fire truck, and Beach Patrol rescue trucks left the area, the beach returned to the quiet, apparently innocuous, day it started as with the exception of our tire tracks and prints from walking, dragging and kneeling.

There was more. We interviewed people to try to figure out what happened. Gathered his things off the beach and let city officials, other public safety groups, and the media know what happened. Wrote up a report that contained everything we could figure out and sent it to the Medical Examiner’s office. Talked to the man’s two sisters and met with one to give her his things. Reviewed the event internally to determine if we did everything we could have and what we can do to prevent a similar occurrence. One of the most critical things is that we contacted our partners at the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network to contact the family to see if they could offer any type of psychological or spiritual support, and to set up a critical incident counselling session with the guards who responded, to make sure they were ok and will continue to be ok.

The marks we made on the sand were washed away with the next high tide.

Lightning Policy

WHACK! I didn’t remember seeing a flash or hearing thunder, but my ears were ringing. I looked around and it felt like I’d just woken up. My heart was beating pretty quickly, and my hands were shaking, but I didn’t know why. Suddenly, I noticed a volleyball court pole about 15 yards away was split in half and shards of wood were scattered in a radius of 20 feet or so from the pole.

Suddenly it was if a fog cleared, and I remembered dispatch had radioed with a warning about a storm cell moving in the area and realized two guards were on a metal 4 wheeler 3 miles down the beach in the direction the storm was moving. We were helping set up for a footrace on Stewart Beach. On the way there, two more bolts hit close enough that I couldn’t tell a time difference between the bang and the flash, but I never saw where they hit. When I got there, the three of us huddled in my truck, windows up, without touching the sides or radios.  We canceled the event.

The United States Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org) and the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov) years back formed a task force that I was on to establish procedures to notify the public on our nation’s beaches when lightning poses a threat. I learned a great deal, but the main points were that the general public should seek shelter in a closed building that’s grounded or a vehicle when they hear thunder. Open buildings, non-grounded shelters, or just getting out of the water and on the beach does not protect you or your family. Armed with that information we in the United States Lifesaving Association came up with a template and guidelines for beach lifeguard agencies to use to establish policies for protecting both the public and their staff from lightening strikes.

Our Supervisors have been revisiting this policy recently to try to tighten up some of the cracks. They’re really committed to protecting people and it’s been a good discussion which was facilitated by Supervisor Micah Fowler. As is recommended, we pull the guards from most of the towers and notify the beachgoing public via PA systems to seek shelter in a vehicle or building when lightning strikes within 10 miles of where they are. We have two fancy towers that are grounded that we’re able to leave guards in, but the other 29 towers we clear. Sounds good on paper, but we’re talking about 33 miles of beach and potentially as many as 150,000 people. And often we aren’t able to get back to the same area quickly enough when we put the guards back up and its safe to get back out there.

So, the consensus is that the best approach is to have the guards drop their flags to show the area isn’t’ guarded and include in the announcements that when the guards return the lightning is no longer a threat.

Tommy Leigh

 

 

 

I noticed, as if from a distance, that my hands trembled slightly as I fitted the airway device into the man’s mouth. Once it was in, I repositioned the head, tilting it slightly back, and tried again to get oxygen into the lungs. This time the chest rose. As my partner did a round of compressions, I waited for my turn to ventilate again.

West beach was crazy back then. Once the traffic piled up and the beach filled there was no backup by land.

As I waited, I panned the area quickly. We were surrounded by hundreds of people who were yelling insults, threats, or encouragement. It smelled like a sickly mix of sweat, sunscreen, seaweed, and beer. We were ringed with a small group of cops that barely held the crowd at bay. Nearby, another group of lifeguards, firefighters, and helpful bystanders carved an area out of the crowded beach big enough to land a helicopter in.

EMS Supervisor Tommy Leigh found his way in there somehow by entering down the beach and driving his ambulance down the surf line into the maelstrom. He waded through the crowd as if taking a Sunday stroll. He smiled and said something just smart alecky enough to relax us. He knew all the first responders by name as he joked, instructed, and calmed. Within a couple of minutes, we had a line in the victim, had shocked his heart into a regular rhythm, and Tommy had quickly and efficiently intubated him. While this was going on he somehow also redirected the landing zone to account for wind direction, so cars weren’t sandblasted, had us humming like a well-oiled rescue machine, and had a plan for moving the body safely to the helicopter without the crowd jumping on top of us. He was supportive and calm while maintaining complete situational awareness.

As the helicopter lifted off, he came up to me and clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Not a bad medical response… for a lifeguard”.

Tommy was part of an amazing team that worked EMS in the 80’s and 90’s that was so inclusive and proactive that it had an impact that resonates to this day. They helped Beach Patrol into the formal pre-hospital care chain and are largely responsible for us having EMTs in every truck and being registered as a “first responder organization” with the health district. They were getting hammered with minor beach calls and we took a lot of the burden from them, while stepping up our medical response game considerably. Now we respond to almost 2,000 medical calls a year that Fire or EMS doesn’t have to deal with at all.  For over three decades he was there with advice, training, encouragement, and most importantly, friendship.

35 years later, last Friday night, I sat across from Tommy at his retirement party trading stories and having a beer. After saving thousands of lives and mentoring many of us, he’s finally getting a well-earned “rest” that will involve all kinds of national and international travel.

Thank you, Tommy Leigh!

 

 

Picture courtesy of Frazer, Ltd. on Twitter @frazerbilt

 

The Madness

It’s hard to keep up. Summer hit hard. Crowds come early for the weekend and stay late. Friday and Monday look like weekend days and on Saturday and Sunday all 33 miles of beach are blanketed with people. Police, Fire, EMS, and Beach Patrol have all been scrambling to stay on top of all the calls for service. Our statistics show an incredible volume of work performed by lifeguards who are constantly moving people away from danger day after day.

Last weekend we had two drowning fatalities, one Friday morning and another Sunday midday. The total is up to 6 for the island this year. Two in the bay related to a boating accident, one by a jetty that was rip current related, one in a small pond, one was found early morning on the beach, and another appears to have collapsed in shallow, calm water.

In the middle of all this, we’ve run almost continual lifeguard academies. I think we’re on our 6th or 7th academy but have lost track at this point. But we’ve got to keep those towers full to handle all the rough water and crowds. We also ran a jet ski rescue course, dispatch certification course, and have provided training for surf camp instructors and the fire department.

We’ve also been holding our Junior Lifeguard Program for a couple of weeks now. There’s nothing I like more than going out for my morning training sessions and seeing a small group training for the national competition, the guards out there training for the daily training sessions at the start of their shift, the Junior Guards out practicing swimming and rescue board techniques, a jet ski rescue course practicing victim pick up techniques, and a Lifeguard Candidate course out practicing rescue techniques. All at the same time, like a synchronized, frenetic, clock.

Every circus needs a ringmaster and, for us, its our Captain of Operations, Tony Pryor. Captain Pryor does the scheduling, assignments, oversees the Junior Guard Program, and takes care of the thousands of little things that have to happen to make this circus work. But there are many, many other people here that continually amaze me with their dedication and energy. Angie Barton, our Office Coordinator, somehow manages to keep everyone’s time tracked, the computers and office all working, and is usually working on 4-10 pretty significant projects simultaneously, while guards pop in and out of her office asking for one thing or another. Sgt Dain Buck is out in the field making sure all the zones are covered and everyone gets their jobs done. Lt. Mike Reardon, whose been here since the ‘70s, technically works patrol part time, but still finds time to review and perfect the many, many reports we generate. And our Supervisors, Senior Guards, Junior Guard Instructors, Dispatchers, and of course Lifeguards seem to be tireless, infinitely patient, and willing to work themselves into a stupor when needed.

The level of teamwork our staff shows is not easily described, but without it the beach would be a very different place.