Texas Lifeguard Groups

About 8 years back I was contacted by the City Manager of the City of South Padre. A number of their citizens were concerned because they’d had a higher than normal drownings on their beaches. He was very interested in starting up a lifeguard service for their city. Several visits later, I wrote up an analysis of their beaches with the help of some colleagues in the United States Lifesaving Association which included recommendations for starting a professional lifeguard service.

For a time I made frequent presentations to every group imaginable. There was a bit of resistance from some who said they had less liability with signs than guards. Similar to what Galveston and much of the country has gone through at one time or another. Eventually, reason (and lots of politicking) prevailed, and they formed the first ever lifeguard service for their city under their fire department. A group of guards ended up going down with me, including Sean Migues and Kara Harrison, and we ran a United States Lifesaving Association ocean lifeguard academy.

They were off to a good start, but the problem is that most of their 27 or so miles of beaches fall under the jurisdiction of Cameron County, and that includes 3 areas with huge crowds. The city beaches are mostly in front of the beach front condos without much crowd density. So on a given weekend there were a handful of people in their area, but nearby at Isla Blanca Park there were several thousand people. The city lifeguards were running to the county beaches and making rescues and dealing with all kinds of emergencies. The bar had been raised and the county eventually stepped up and started their own program, again with our help. In fact, the guy they chose to be their Chief of Lifeguards has worked for both the Galveston Beach Patrol and the SPI Beach Patrol. The county program grew rapidly and they now have something like 40 seasonal lifeguards and three permanent staff members. Drownings have decreased dramatically.

That was great, but there was still a big gap in the central Texas Coast. There has been a guard presence of sorts for years there, but they haven’t had a consistent training program and used a pool certification for their guards instead of something appropriate for the surf environment, which leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of litigation.

That all changed recently. Some scandal hit their Parks Department a few months ago and a bunch of people were fired. Several new key staff positions were recently filled including a new Park Director and Lifeguard Chief, who was hired last Thursday. The guy they hired was the number two lifeguard for the City of SPI. He plans to use the Galveston Beach Patrol as a model.

Years ago we got a lot of help from different lifeguard agencies from all over the country to set up the system we have here in Galveston. Nice to have a chance to pass the favor on!

Veracruz Training Wrap-up

At 7:15 our little band stood in the lobby of the Hotel Louis rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and filing into the van of the “Proteccion Civil” (Mexican equivalent of Emergency Operations). By 7:45 we were in the auditorium provided to us as a classroom for the 60 students of the lifeguard academy.

It was the last full day in Veracruz. The culmination of 60 hours of training over a 6 day period. We were tired to the bone after all the teaching and mandatory extracurricular activities that were required of us by Mexican customs and the formalities required of a delegation from Veracruz’s sister city.

From the written test we went directly to the beach and the large group was quickly divided into a subset of 4. Smaller groups of around 15 participated in 4 separate scenarios on the beach. Two were simulated medical emergencies that were designed to happen on the shoreline and the other two were water emergencies, which were complicated by the 8 foot surf. By 11:30, thanks to the help from some additional volunteers, we’d run the scenarios and done a debriefing to talk about the good and bad responses to the simulated emergencies. After the daily mandatory group photo shots and autograph sessions protocol dictated, we ate a hasty meal that our host brought us. Then we and reunited with a couple of members of our group who were assigned the arduous task of grading the 60 exams and putting the scores in the course matrix alongside the swim, run, attendance, teamwork, and first aid/CPR course columns. To receive certification from the International Lifesaving Federation- Americas Region they had to pass all of the columns. 26 ended up passing and the others received an acknowledgement of participation in the course, and in some cases a certification in first aid and CPR.

The completion ceremony filled the municipal hall of Veracruz and there were high ranking officials present from the mayor to an admiral in the Navy to the heads of both tourism and civil protection for the state. The mayor is the son of the mayor that was there when Galveston and Veracruz formed their sister city relationship, and that relationship is clearly very important to the entire city. We were treated like royalty by everyone we came into contact with.

We actually got two glorious hours off to change, rest and prepare for the big celebration. At the celebration we distributed second had buoys, whistles, fins, lifeguard competition shirts, Galveston stickers and other things we brought to donate. Nothing goes to waste down there.

Hopefully the training will come in handy to the 14 groups from all over the state in the upcoming couple of weeks. Carnival starts today and they expect around 2 million people to visit the city alone in the next week. Semana Santa (Easter) follows shortly after and it just as big. They’ll definitely have their hands full.

Our crew returned Sunday exhausted but with renewed commitment. Our own challenges start shortly.

Learnings in Veracruz

Greetings from Veracruz, Mexico! Our sister city is booming and everyone from the Mayor to the taxi driver says to tell everyone in Galveston hello. When we started the relationship between the lifeguard programs and held the first Veracruz/Boca Del Rio academy in 1999, we never dreamed that the relationship would be as successful as its been.

Mexican politics have influenced the program quite a bit. Elections changed the political party and the lifeguard program was cut to 8 guards in Boca Del Rio and 8 in Veracruz. At one point they had 32 and 26 respectively so that’s quite a change. Numbers of drownings seem to fluctuate depending on you talk to but it sounds like there were actually 42 drownings in Boca Del Rio alone last year. That’s after a year and a half with no drownings before the program was reduced. I guess if we need evidence that properly trained lifeguards actually do keep people from dying in the beach this would demonstrate that pretty clearly.

Interesting story from the head of Civil Protection from the years with little or no drownings. A new mayor was elected and was getting some complaints from citizens who were annoyed that they went for a swim and the lifeguards whistled at them and told them to stay closer to the shore. He called the Civil Protection Director and said, “Why are you bothering the citizens? Let them have fun! Stop telling them what to do and just help them if they get in trouble” After some discussion, the mayor’s directive didn’t change, so the director called his troupes on the radio and told them to do what the mayor ordered. Literally 15 minutes later the first drowning occurred and there were many after that.

This story is known by pretty much anyone in Civil Protection or Lifesaving in the area. We used it to emphasize the most important principle of lifeguarding to the 60 lifeguard candidates in the course we’re teaching down here. Prevention is the most important concept for beach lifeguards. If you can prevent accidents before they happen, the potential victim and the lifeguard never have to risk their lives because the rescue never happens. With enough prevention and public education, places like Galveston and Veracruz can average 4-6 drowning deaths a year instead of 42.

Tomorrow we wrap this course up. We will have trained lifeguards and first responders from Veracruz, Boca Del Rio, Tuxpan, Cazones, Nautla, Alto Lucero, Ursulo Galvan, Alvarado, Coatzalcoalcos, San Andres Tuxtla, as well as the Federal Police, the Mexican Navy, and the state health department. We’ve worked really, really hard but have been rewarded with an experience that not only deepens our understanding of Latino culture, but helps us become better lifeguards and water safety educators.

Hopefully the course will re-invigorate their lifesaving programs and reduce the amount of preventable deaths in the beaches in the state. That’s up to them, but we return with sharpened skills and renewed dedication to keeping our own beach as safe as we can.

Veracruz Academy

22 years ago Vic Maceo and I joined a group from Galveston who went down to our sister city of Veracruz, Mexico in a delegation from Galveston. We went during Carnival, which in Veracruz is a really big deal. Veracruz is a huge tourist destination and during holidays it seems like all of Mexico City is there for the party. While there we noticed a lifeguard tower and went up to talk to the guard. That conversation sparked something that has been of great value for both Veracruz and Galveston.

At that time they had just started a lifeguard program in response to a rash of beachfront drownings. In its second year it hadn’t yet seen much success. Underfunding and understaffing issues were compounded by the fact that there is no lifeguarding program anywhere near Veracruz. There was no one to teach them how to be lifeguards or how to manage a lifeguarding program. Under the new management of a dynamic leader named Julian Flores Cabrera, who served as the Civil Protection Coordinator, they had made positive steps. Julian hired fishermen’s kids who had a good grasp of the water issues and could swim as opposed to the traditional method of putting the kids of local politicians in there. They also used information from a show that was popular at the time, “Guardianes de la Bahia”. That’s right- they used “Baywatch” to help train themselves to be lifeguards! Although they’d made a start, they still saw 27 to 30 drownings a year on their busy beaches.

We worked with Julian and within a couple of years we were co-teaching the classes and they were running regular lifeguard academies in our absence. We’ve now trained hundreds of guards including some military personnel that help out during the busy times. Once we even ran a surf rescue course for the Mexican equivalent of the Navy Seals. Most importantly the average drownings per year dropped from near 20 to about 4, which worked wonders for their ability to attract tourists and market the destination to a wider range of people.

Once they were self sustaining we stopped going down, although we stay in close contact with our sister agency. Apparently in recent years the program has deteriorated as a result of local politics and changing priorities. In Mexico it’s not uncommon after elections for a person from a new political party to takes office and fire everyone, making them reapply for their jobs. Last year there were almost 30 drownings which has caused a public outcry and the local politicians, public safety, and tourism officials are suddenly very concerned about the state of their lifeguarding program and the subsequent ability to market themselves as a beach destination. Once again the iron is hot.

So, as a result of a call from my old friend Julian, tomorrow morning I leave with a group of vacationing volunteer lifeguards using funding from Veracruz to run a week long lifeguard academy and meet with officials and community groups.


Brian Kyle Letter

Brian Kyle, who is the Lead Meteorologist for our local weather office, wrote the following:

Whistles were going nuts on the beach. Initially, I didn’t think much of it. I figured it was the Galveston Island Beach Patrol directing unknowing swimmers away from one of the many rock groins where deadly rip currents are frequently located.

But something was different on that afternoon. I was pushing my daughter into waves on her surfboard that day. The whistles kept going. And going. And going.

I glanced toward the beach and saw people pointing to the horizon. Near the end of the groin a 3-4 year old boy was thrashing & panicking as he was caught in a rip current. I pushed my daughter in on a wave and I swim over to help. As I got there the lifeguard was already arriving! The boy’s panicking mother nearby as well! The guard rescued the boy. I took off my rashguard and handed one end to the mother.

There are several things that stand out to me. First, I thought about how well trained, fit, and proactive the lifeguards are. They love what they do and are humble. (I’ve been told by multiple career lifeguards about rarely being thanked for saving lives!). I also think about the training I’ve learned from them – don’t become a victim yourself by trying to save someone – hence giving the woman my shirt instead of my hand.

Another thing is we both kind of knew this type of scenario would have a pretty good chance of happening that weekend. I work for the National Weather Service. Our office had been watching computer models indicating the potential for nice, warm weather but probably also above normal waves. Peter Davis and his crew at Galveston Island Beach Patrol knew that combination would be cause for concern. They knew favorable weekend weather early in the beach season would draw large crowds. But they also knew many visitors would be unprepared for the surf.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol has served as an exceptional partner to the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service Forecast Office since the 1990’s. During this time period, the lifeguards have served as hazardous weather observers and have reported timely beach conditions and rip current information to our weather forecast office on a routine basis (now daily).

This has made our job easier as coordinated information, statements, warnings from both agencies have played a critical role to the mission of safeguarding and protecting the lives of the five to seven million patrons that visit beaches along the upper Texas coast each year.

In addition, under the leadership of Chief Peter Davis, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol contributions have played key roles to the NWS research community, and have also helped shape the local and national rip current and lightning awareness programs.

In recognition for the exceptional service and contributions they provide, both locally and nationally, the National Weather Service presented Galveston Island Beach Patrol a Special Service Award on September 22nd for their much appreciated efforts!

Rolled G-Town

The large man crawled slowly out from under the bush where he’d been sheltering from the mid morning sun. As he emerged with considerable difficulty, using a crutch to support his weight, his swollen  and bruised face became visible under a bloody bandage wrapped around his head.

The man was in his early 60s and was traveling with two men and a woman who all appeared to be in their early 20s. They had come up to me and asked me to help their friend. They said they’d all come from a small town in Louisiana to spend Labor Day weekend in Galveston. The man had driven them and they’d been staying at a small motel while enjoying the sights and the beach.

On Tuesday morning very early, the man had gone out to stretch his legs while the younger crew slept. It was not unusual for him to be woken up by the pain caused by injuries sustained in the Marine Corps years ago. He was walking to the store to get a coffee when a young man approached him asking if he’d help his grandmother with something in the neighboring apartment complex. The man, being from a small town, took the request at face value and followed the young guy around a corner where two other guys rolled him. They took his car keys, wallet and even tried to take his pants off. When he resisted they beat him with a club and kicked him until he was unconscious.

Fortunately, someone saw it and called 911. The EMS came and took him to the hospital where they patched him up  and the police took a report. He somehow made it back to where his friends were but no one had any money. They left the hotel and went to a bank to try to get some help. He wanted to transfer money from his account in Louisiana so he could get a key made for his truck, buy food and gas, and get back home. He said the bank told him he needed an account or they couldn’t help him. He asked for a ride to the grocery store.

On the way to the store I gave him some money so he and his friends could eat and asked if he had any ID. Having none and thinking that they’d need it , I asked if he had a contact for his bank back home. He had the number so I let him use my phone. We ended up getting his bank to talk to our local Bank of America branch directly. They couldn’t have been nicer. I left him well on the way to receiving money with the bank staff being courteous and professional despite his rough appearance.

You never know where you will (or won’t) get help when you most need it, but many thanks to the staff at the Bank of America for doing what they could to make this horrible experience right for one of our guests.



Thank You SSN Groups

Sometimes it seems like we all scurry about for most of our lives. The politics, games, gluttony, maneuvering, manipulation and acquisition of things is a fantastic distraction. If not careful we can get so caught up that it completely disconnects us from what really matters.

There are times in all of our lives when critical things happen. Birth and death, tragedy and events that cause intense joy give us an opportunity to touch something real. One of the most important things we can tap into is the opportunity to be present and supportive when others are going through these critical junctures in their lives. There’s always a reason that we can’t be there, always something that seems more critical. But if we take a moment to weigh the options there are few things that truly take precedence in the big picture. Unfortunately, many people and organizations miss these opportunities because we are scurrying around dealing with whatever it is that we’re so busy doing all the time that we don’t really remember afterwards.

I would like to acknowledge a few groups that made it a point to be there when it was most needed. First is the Jesse Tree, with its wonderful group of volunteers and too few paid staff members. The Jesse Tree has worked against insurmountable odds to keep their doors open and continue to serve a variety of populations with no other recourse. It’s a true calling for them and it’s been an inspiration and honor to work alongside them. The Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support has been busy this year and responded to a number of tragic drowning deaths and aquatic accidents. But they haven’t had to go it alone.

Thank you to several Galveston businesses and volunteers for their commitment and support.

There were many hotels. The Red Roof Inn at 5914 Seawall Blvd were there with rooms and meeting spaces and more for multiple events. The Commodore on the Beach Hotel, 3618 Seawall Blvd., Four Points by Sheraton, 2300 Seawall Blvd., Gaido’s Seaside Inn, 3700 Seawall Blvd., Best Western Plus Seawall Inn & Suites by the Beach, 102 Seawall Blvd. all came forward when most needed at no benefit to themselves.

In several of these situations a gathering room was provided for large groups of family members so they could have a place to commune during a search which lasted days. Rooms were provided for sleeping as well. But when people are grieving its critical to make sure both body and spirit are nourished. Restaurants such as Tortuga’s at 6010 Seawall Blvd and The Float Pool and Patio Bar at 2828 Seawall Blvd volunteered food, as did the Lighthouse Charity Cooking Team.

Support also came from the Galveston County Emergency Response Team, who searched tirelessly, and from EZ Bike Rental at 4712 Seawall Blvd and Galveston Real Estate Resource.

Anyone interested in supporting and/or participating with The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, please call Sheila Savage at 409-771-2545.

All of these groups honor our community and represent the best in and of us.

Elbow Grease

“I take care of my kids m*****..! Don’t tell me how to raise my boy!” the man yelled.

Veins bulged from his tatted neck, his hands were shaking, and a little spittle was running down  the side of his mouth. A large group of men in their early 20s looked on seeing which way it was going to go.

It was right before dark on the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. We were on Boddecker drive behind several rows of cars. Backup would take a long time to get to me if it was even available.

I held my hands out in front of me palms open. I tried to sound calm. “Look, no one is telling you how to take care of your kid. I’m sure you’re a great dad. It’s just that we’ve warned this group of people your with more than 10 times to stay out of the water in the ship channel and your 4 year old was out to his neck really near where that water runs out. Its deep there. We had 6 children drown there in one year a while back. All I’m saying is not to let him in the water from now on.”

The moment passed. He stayed mad but got himself in check. I got the feeling his kid wouldn’t go back in. I reminded myself what we tell the rookie guards. “You don’t have to win the argument. You just have to get them to comply.” Kind of like the key to a happy marriage is based on the question, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”. I moved on to the next group and started with the same opener, “Hi! Has anyone been by to explain the rules and about how dangerous the water is yet?…”

The last thing my crew and I wanted to be doing as darkness fell last Sunday was going on foot to group after group explaining why they couldn’t keep going back in the water in the ship channel after we made announcements. We really wanted to drive away as night fell and hope for the best. But there were several hundred people that would be there well into the night, and many of them were… argumentative. Most of the groups had small children with them that they kept letting back in the water right after the announcements and directly in front of the bilingual, iconic no swimming/wading signs.

I’m convinced if the city hadn’t had the foresight to prohibit parking on the road and, instead to require them to park in designated areas that are a ways away from the most dangerous areas, we would have lost someone. I’m also sure if we hadn’t talked to each group directly last Sunday we’d be dealing with a drowning death, most likely of a small child.

Having the right system out there is vital. But sometimes good lifeguarding requires elbow grease and  comes down to one on one communication.

Pre-Labor Day

The week leading up to Labor Day Weekend has been an interesting one. School started and the beaches are suddenly pretty empty on the weekdays with the exception of some of the seawall areas and Stewart Beach. Last weekend, however, was really busy. We had pretty normal days with good crowds but the nights got wild.

Last weekend our on call unit responded to a total of 7 after hour calls between the time our last guards left around 9pm and before the first patrol unit hits the beach at 7:30. Most were boating emergencies that we worked in conjunction with the Coast Guard, Galveston Police Department, Galveston Fire Department, and Galveston EMS. Everyone ended up OK but the calm water and good fishing had everyone out in their boats in the middle of the night.

Another unusual thing that happened this week involved the water. We had a gentle current from the east for a few days, which was a change from most of the summer. A current from the west brings silt from the Brazos and Colorado rivers so we get that chocolaty rich colored water that we all know and love. But this easterly current cleared it up. Normally when we have these conditions we get a greenish colored water with a 4-5 foot visibility near the shoreline. But in this case the water looked like it does offshore. Saturday you could see all three sandbars from shore. Standing on a groin you could see all the submerged rocks and the sand on the bottom. And the water was a emerald blue green color. It was breathtaking and was even a little cooler than it’s been with no jellyfish, sea lice, or any other critters that would put a damper on things.

As we head into the last major weekend of the summer the conditions look really good. The rain isn’t supposed to be an issue, temperature should be mild, and we’re not expecting any unusually rough water or strong rip currents. Let’s hope this continues and we have one more really great weekend before everyone settles into their fall routine. The guards and equipment are ready on our end.

So remember to be that first and most important layer of protection for you and your family, but swim near a lifeguard so you have that extra layer if something goes wrong. Don’t swim alone and be sure to enter the water with children. Don’t forget to obey warning signs and flags, shuffle your feet to scare away marine critters, and that alcohol and water don’t mix. Also be sure to wear a lifejacket if you’re a non-swimmer or if you’re boating and make your children wear them when in or around the water.

Above all, stay away from the rock groins where there are always rip currents and don’t swim at the ends of the island where there may be strong tidal currents.

And have a great time, you deserve it! We’ll see you out there.

C-Sick Rescues

Brian Jarvis, of C-Sick Surfing, and his crew of surf instructors are a fixture at the 43rd street groin. They were teaching lessons early on a Sunday morning when they heard screaming off the end of the jetty. Looking up they saw 5 people in distress. They raced out to help, reaching them just as the first couple went under.

Keeping the boards between them and the victims they stabilized the group and brought them to shore safely. On shore they realized the two men and three women were wearing long shorts and some even had on beach shoes. Definitely not swimming attire.

The group had been completely unprepared for the drop off they stepped into when they got close to the rip current and drop off on the west side of the groin. They stepped into the hole and the current pushed them out to the end of the rocks as they struggled to stay afloat. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking and heroic actions of Brian and his group we’d have definitely been looking at least a couple of drownings.

And this is not the first time that C-Sick has done this. Nor are they an exception as other surf instructors save multiple people each year. In fact, surfers probably save at least as many people each year as the Beach Patrol does.

Not that we’re not working hard to prevent drownings, but surfers are in the water on the rough days when the rip currents are strongest and they’re out there very early, before the lifeguards get on duty. The same applies to fisher folk and people out walking the groin who rescue an estimated 45 people a year using the ring buoys that are in the rescue boxes that Beach Patrol maintains on the end of each groin.

The nature of Lifeguarding is different than other emergency services in several ways, but the most distinctive is that it is the most proactive. We try hard NOT to make rescues. We only make between 100 and 250 a year. Sounds weird, but for every rescue that happens both the rescuer and victims are put at considerable risk. It’s easy to die in the water if things go wrong. Instead of making rescues we annually make around 55,000 of what we call “preventative actions”, where we move people away from areas that could be potentially hazardous. Most of these preventative actions are moving people away from the 15 rock groins along the seawall, but we also move a considerable amount closer to shore, out of the water at ends of the island, or away from other hazards.

Overall, Galveston has a whole network that keeps people safe in the water including the lifeguards, community groups that make rescues and prevent drownings, other emergency response groups, and a whole bunch of public education done by guards, hoteliers, media, community and governmental groups, and you. Spread the word on how to be safe in the ocean to those close to you!