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Opening Lifesaving Minds

The crew has been holding up well, although they’re taking a beating.  Brutal heat and persistent west wind make for hot, gritty conditions that are an assault on the senses, particularly for guards who are working long shifts in the towers day after day. Guards in trucks and towers are moving thousands of swimmers away from some serious rip currents by structures like piers and jetties. There have also been a number of significant rip currents appearing in the middle of the beach, which have kept Galveston’s guards working double-time.

Persistent wind means persistent lateral currents that run parallel to the shoreline. These, in turn, scour deep troughs, some of which are very close to shore. Additionally fat, powerful rip currents near structures take sand with them, leaving deep channels near the structure which in turn perpetuates stronger rip currents. A few days of semi-calm conditions can break this cycle and allow for the bottom to level out, but over a month of continuous wind hasn’t allowed for that.

Last weekend, we had our mid-season all staff open water swim race. The whole crew met at 7:30 a.m. for a staff picture followed by the swim. The water was rough and there was a lot of current, which makes for great training. Also, it was a great chance for our seasoned guards to show off their skills and beat some of the newer, sometimes faster, swimmers. We have new employees that are amazing swimmers but get beat in our training races by slower, but more experienced, guards. Once these new rookies get the hang of using these “tricks” they often come out on top. This time a big pack of people overcorrected for the current and missed the buoy, swimming past it. Some of our best swimmers were in this pack and finished behind some of the guards that were more strategic and “picked a better line”, meaning they used the current to the maximum advantage.

We also incorporate a lot of entries and exits from the water. Repetition is a proven way to get the guards to internalize the theory that they learn in the academy and in our daily skill training sessions so it’s automatic when making a rescue in stressful conditions

We use races as a means to improve and hone ocean swimming and paddling skills. Some people are naturally more intuitive than others in this respect, but there is a learned component when it comes to using current and waves instead of fighting against them.

For the complete mind/body/ rescue techniques tripod of lifeguarding, the final ingredient involves remaining centered under stress, opening your mind, and seeing a few moves ahead. Some have an innate predisposition for this, but experience helps. It’s critical for ocean rescue and for preventing accidents. In many ways this ability is more important than physical conditioning or technique when racing or rescuing. It separates a good lifeguard from a great one.

And it can mean the difference between life and death.

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.

Spring Break and Tri

Here we go! Another beautiful, busy weekend has passed. With no seaweed, perfect water and air temperature, and large well-behaved crowds, it’s no wonder our property values have risen so much! Technically, that should be the last big one of spring break, but I have a feeling that if the weather holds, we’ll be looking at busy weekends until the summer madness kicks in. We’ve been reviewing stats and staffing patterns and the reality has set in that Galveston’s beaches are busier earlier and later than they were just a few years back. Last weekend looked like a weekend in June. Again, our luck held with calm few incidents, even though we were busy with small stuff all weekend. Over Spring Break, we ended up with 5 rescues and a 4,153 actions where we moved people from dangerous areas.

The action is showing no sign of slowing. Sunday, April 3, is the Memorial Hermann 70.3 half Ironman event. We’re working with the Ironman staff, the Galveston Police Department Marine Division and Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue to provide water security. With around 3,000 registered participants it’s going to be a huge event and a big deal for Galveston. We work the watercourse with a modified version of how we guard the beach. Lifeguards work on rescue boards, so they can sit above the water to spot people and have floatation for all the swim assists and rescues we typically make during the event. Other guards work on “jet skis” to cover a zone of several guards and we call them Personal Watercraft Crew (PWC). Lifeguards communicate with PWC crews and each other using a combination of whistles and hand signals, which are the same ones we use on the beach front. The PWC operators have waterproof radio headsets so they can communicate with an “incident commander” on the shore. This capability affords the ability to triage patients in the water and quickly pass information to the incident commander, EMS, and the Ironman workers who know the racers’ numbers and vital patient information. Most of the people rescued are tired swimmers, but we can experience more serious cases that go directly to the EMS crews. At the end of the race, the lifeguards and police divers stay on the water until the Ironman staff confirms that all swimmers have been cleared of the water using the numbers we provide and electronic chips that register racer numbers as they run across a mat at the end of the swim.

Last Saturday, we held our first lifeguard tryouts of the season. The next one is in May. Out of all the applicants, four made it through the tryouts and demanding lifeguard academy. We also had a decent number of returning lifeguards requalify and, for those in leadership roles, go through their annual retraining in rescue techniques, report writing, advanced level CPR, and PWC rescue. The tower guards will renew their CPR qualifications along with those who return in May.

Another season is upon us and we’re all ready for another wild ride!

Lucero-Walker Rescue

Supervisors Joey Walker and Michael Lucero were working hard patrolling The Seawall last Saturday at 1:20pm when Lucero noticed something unusual in a rip current as they passed the area of 56th street, about midway between the two rock groynes. It was a beautiful day with packed beaches. It was a week from Spring Break and the start date for our seasonal lifeguards.

As they pulled onto the sand, beach patrons alerted them that “a kid was drowning in the water.” Without hesitation, Walker scanned the area and stayed with the radio, in case they needed backup. Lucero grabbed the rescue board and paddled sprinted through the waves to find a “sea noodle” float, about 25 yards from shore, with nobody on it. He scanned the area and spotted something about 25 yards to his east. Worried, he signaled to Walker to call EMS using an open hand and waving his arm over his head, in accordance with procedure. Sprinting across the chop, he found a small boy barely keeping his face above water and struggling for air.

With well-practiced moves, Lucero flipped the board, grabbed the boy’s arms across it, and flipped the board back over which placed the boy safely on top. Lucero climbed up on the board, quickly assessed the child, and observed that he was breathing without problems. Using the lifeguard hand and arm signal for “OK”, he held his arms over his head in an “O” and waited until Joey returned the signal. At that point, there was no apparent need for EMS or another lifeguard to enter the water in support.

Hand and arm signals are essential for communication during emergencies and our Lifeguards use many signals. After paddling to shore, guards began a more thorough assessment and learned that the boy couldn’t swim. Another beach patron then came up and reported that a man was laying along the shoreline nearby. Walker stayed with the boy and Michael ran down the beach to discover the boy’s father laying on the shoreline, breathing. He was lethargic because he’d attempted to rescue his son but got into trouble and came back to shore.

EMS soon arrived, assessed the father and son for water inhalation, and cleared them. The duo refused transport to the hospital and were given instructions about what to watch for if problems developed. They signed the refusal forms in accordance with procedure and went on with their day – Alive!

Michael and Joey dried off, put their equipment back in the patrol truck, and continued patrolling.

This a great of example of one of hundreds of rescues our team make annually, and thankfully it ended well. If you want to make a difference and be part of the Lifeguard team, come try out this Saturday (tomorrow) https://galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com/lifeguard/becoming-a-lifeguard-2-2/ . We can’t do it alone and many thanks go to observant beachgoers who were there to help. If you want to be part of our eyes and ears along the shore, please look at becoming a Wave Watcher https://galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com/wave-watchers  .

Australia and Surf Clubs

Australia is Mecca for Surf Lifeguards.

Lifesaving in Australia started around the same time as it did in the rest of the developed world. The old system of “Lifesaver Men” who stayed for weeks at a time in lighthouses looking for ships that wrecked along the shoreline began to transition to modern lifesaving with the advent of a leisure class around the turn of the century.

“Surf bathing” became popular in Europe, Australia, the US, and parts of Asia around the same time. The fad spread rapidly. At first this required the use of “surf bathing machines” that were rolled out into the water so people could change and take a dip without being seen by the crowd. By 1905 people were flocking to the ocean to take part in this new fad. Here in Galveston the beach was already really popular, but the difference was now thousands took to the water, despite little or no swimming ability. It was a time for rebellion against Victorian mores, with the woolen bathing “costumes” showing more and more skin.

The beaches around Sydney, Australia can have heavy surf and horrible rip currents. As people realized the danger of this new craze, there was a need for protection. The first volunteer surf lifesaving club was formed in 1907. As the beach and swimming fever grew and spread across the continent, so did the system of volunteer clubs.

The difference in Australian beaches vs. places like Galveston or other important US beach destinations was and is that 90% of the inhabitants of the continent live within a few miles of the coast. The surf club served many functions. It was a social club, gym, and a way to volunteer for the community. If you joined a surf club, you could stay there, eat there, and you had a readymade social set. The beach everywhere is a great social equalizer where social status in other parts of society doesn’t matter. After the wars, soldiers could find the type of discipline and structure they were accustomed to which helped many readjust to normal society. Above all, they provided a venue to serve in a positive and fun way.

Today the Australian surf club fills the niche of an American health club, and a large percentage of the population are members. Typically, you have a place to exercise and many offer food and drink to the public, with a requirement to take “lifesaving patrols” once or twice a month. Instead of lifting weights and going to spin aerobics, you may take a swim and go for a surf ski paddle. Competitions are a regular event with those who don’t race helping to officiate or support in other ways. Since practically the entire country is involved the depth of field ensures the highest level of performance. The Aussies almost always take gold in the international lifesaving competitions.

The Galveston Beach Patrol has a surf club modeled after the Australian model. If you are a swimmer you may be interested. Information is available on our website.

photo courtesy of ILS (Facebook)

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

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.

Charlotte Blacketer Rescue

A man entered the water with his son and two daughters around 13th street in the afternoon over the 4th of July weekend. It was a beautiful day with small, clean waves and green water. The beach was crowded.

The kids ranged from a very young daughter to a teenager. The little girl was in a lifejacket. They waded out to a sandbar that was about 30 yards from the shoreline and were in 3-4 feet of water. Even though they were well within the designated swimming limit of 50 yards and in a guarded area, a relaxing day at the beach took a turn for the worse.

Senior Lifeguard Charlotte Blacketer relieved the tower 13 lifeguard for his lunch break. Charlotte is an experienced guard who is one of the Junior Lifeguard Program instructors. Because she’s serious about lifeguarding and because she is constantly on the move with the Junior Guard program, Charlotte maintains a high level of fitness and keeps her lifeguard and medical response skills sharp. This was what tipped the scale on this particular day.

The small girl drifted a little farther than her family group. The two bigger kids stayed where they were while the dad walked toward her. Suddenly he stepped off the sandbar into water over his head. He didn’t know how to swim.

Charlotte heard screaming and saw people pointing in the direction of the man struggling in the water. Charlotte reacted quickly, grabbing buoy and fins, and sprinting into the water. She automatically used well-practiced techniques of high stepping, then dolphining, then rolling over to quickly put on her fins before powering out towards the man.

On the way she looked up periodically. Through the sunlight reflected on splashing water, she spotted the man’s head briefly. She caught a glimpse of a bystander swimming while pulling the little girl in the lifejacket towards shore. Looking up to try to see the man’s head again, she saw the two other kids in the safe and shallow area in her peripheral vision. As she neared the area where she’d spotted the head, she switched to breaststroke so she could get a good look around. She didn’t see anything. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as it hit her that she’d lost the man and he’d gone under right in front of his kids.

But then she spotted some bubbles breaking the surface about 10 feet in front of her. She sprinted to the bubbles, did a surface dive, and swam down while keeping her eyes open. She saw a body face down floating beneath her with its arms spread wide.

Charlotte remembers grabbing him and pulling him to the surface. She doesn’t remember how she got her rescue tube wrapped around him, but as she swam him in, he started moaning and coughing. Other guards came out to help pull him in and put him on Oxygen. He was semi-conscious by the time we loaded him in the ambulance and was reported to be stable later that day in the hospital.

 

Photo of Charlotte Blacketer