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Triple Rescue

Recently, two young men and a woman were making an Uber Eats delivery to Galveston and decided to go to the beach. Walking down to the sand at 26th, they saw a ton of surfers and several people out swimming in the warm water. They decided to hit the water.

As they got out to chest deep, the feeder current pulled them towards the Pleasure Pier, gently causing their feet to bounce along the bottom. A fairly strong east to west longshore current ran along the beach. As it hit the jetties and piers, most had significant rip currents on the leeward sides (west side in this scenario). These rip currents had been running for a couple of days and had scoured out pretty deep troughs on the west side of all the structures.

The trio quickly went from bouncing in the shallow waters of the feeder to getting sucked away from shore in the deep waters of the rip current. All three started panicking and went vertical in the water, struggling for each breath.

Someone spotted what was happening, and called the 911 dispatcher, who quickly notified Beach Patrol, then the Galveston Marine Response partners of Police, Fire, and EMS. The call came in that there were 5 people in distress. A minute or so later, the first Beach Patrol truck arrived, and the two Supervisors hit the water.

It was a bit chaotic as they sorted out what was what, but eventually it turned out there were three victims, and the other people were surfers who were helping the victims. This isn’t unusual, surfers probably make at least as many rescues as lifeguards, although this can come at a cost, since most don’t have formal rescue training. Two of the victims were being brought in by surfers and Beach Patrol, Fire, and EMS went to help one that collapsed. One of the lifeguards helped with this while the other, Michael Lucero, went for the third victim on a rescue board.

Michael spotted her being assisted by a surfer, who was reaching across his SUP board and holding her steady about 60 yards from shore. The rip current had spat her out about halfway out the Pleasure Pier, and they were floating quickly to the 27th street jetty. Michael approached and made contact with them about the time they rounded the end of the 27th street jetty. He attempted to get her on the rescue board, and she fell off. Then it got interesting.

The surfer got her up on his board and said, “You ever surf? No? OK 1,2,3!”, and he pushed her into a wave. She made it part way in as Michael paddled after her as fast as he could. She then fell off the board and started to struggle and go under. Michael arrived just in time, grabbed her, wrapped her in his rescue tube, and took her the rest of the way to safety.

This would have gone a different way, were it not for the surfers, and those who make it possible for us to work guards all year!

Drones

Drones have become commonplace over the past few years and are being integrated increasingly   into public safety. It is, however, hard to separate fact from fiction in a world where a YouTube video can go viral and become “fact” simply because there are so many people that see it and it takes on critical mass.

Over the past few years there have been a number of internet hoaxes related to lifesaving and drones. Usually, the story is that a drone manufacturing company is testing a drone with a national lifeguarding association. These drones appear to drop some type of floatation device, such as an inflatable ring buoy to a person in distress in the water. In the videos a person is drowning and, just as they submerge the float falls magically within their reach. Then, even more magically, the person has the presence of mind to swim a couple of strokes and grab the buoy. Through the work I do with the International Lifesaving Federation, some of these stories come across my desk to look into. So far, when I’ve followed up with the national lifesaving groups in Brazil or Venezuela or wherever else, they’ve turned out to be clever marketing ploys with no basis. But that may change soon.

Drones are already deployed in some beaches for overhead surveillance of remote locations or to add an additional layer of protection. They fly regularly at beaches in California and New England for shark spotting. They’re also used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. And, although actual rescue is still a little out of reach, search and recovery has improved because of them.

When used for public safety purposes, drones can get a bit expensive and complicated. For example, there is a requirement for a type of pilot’s license and flight planning especially near airports. Fortunately, there are local organizations that have drone programs. Proactive law enforcement agencies, like the Galveston Police Department, have introduced internal drone programs. And we rely more and more on our Galveston Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to help. This summer CERT responded to a missing drowning victim several times to help search inaccessible wetland areas. It was amazing to see how efficiently they covered tough terrain, and could even see beneath the surface of the water when the light was right.

There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, grab them, and tow them to shore. They even predict that they could initiate CPR and maintain care until first responders arrive. It still seems a bit like science fiction, but we’re probably not too far away from some real developments. Real enough that the International Lifesaving Federation is having serious conversations about how this type of technology could augment lifesaving services around the world.

So, the next time you hear someone “droning on about drones,” it might be worth a listen.

Off Shore Winds

If there’s one thing lifeguards hate on an offshore wind day is an emergency where a person is being blown out to sea. When the wind blows offshore, it creates a unique set of circumstances that can be lethal. This is mostly a danger during the spring and fall when repeated frontal systems pass across the Texas coast. When someone is blown offshore on a floating object, they can quickly realize that it gets rougher the farther from the shoreline you drift. Short period, choppy surf pushing away from the beach is almost impossible to swim or paddle against. We don’t permit inflatable objects, which act like sails, in the water when wind blows from the north for this reason.

Dusk is the absolute worst time to get into a situation like this. The wind and waves can carry a person beyond the field of vision of a rescuer really quickly. Looking out to sea while standing at sea level only enables a person to see 3 miles or so before a floating object disappears beyond the curvature of the earth. If there are waves or chop this distance is lessened and once a person disappears over the horizon the chances of finding them drop. Add low light to the equation and the chances drop even more. In this scenario, finding someone using a boat is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We move quickly on these calls and try to keep an eye on the victim, or the “last seen point”, until we can launch a jet ski. Fortunately, we’ve saved a number of people by making an educated guess based on wind, current, and a last seen point.

A few years ago, a couple of lifeguards were out training in our surf boat on a strong offshore wind day. A surf boat is essentially a two-person rowboat with a closed bottom and big holes in the sides that allow wave water to run out. They were only about 50 yards from shore when one lost an oar and decided to swim in and get help. The other couldn’t maintain solo against the wind and as he got farther offshore the water got choppier, and the wind increased. By the time we got a jet ski into the water, we could no longer see him. It took an hour search following the direction of the wind to find him five miles offshore and another half hour to make it back to shore. We had just decided to call for a Coast Guard helicopter when we spotted the boat on the horizon. We were lucky on that one, but it shows how quickly things can go bad on those days, even for professionals.

Now that we are getting frontal systems regularly, always swim with a friend and be sure to keep a close eye on the wind direction. Stay really close to shore when the north wind blows and be extra careful about paddling out on anything that floats.

Drowning, Rescue, and Beach Event

Last weekend was the end of tower guarding for the season. A few towers covered with the seasonal lifeguards able and willing to give up their weekend between school or another job and work the beaches. But even with that help and our trucks patrolling up and down the beachfront, we had a drowning of a 60-year-old man at an unguarded area around 31st street. There didn’t appear to be a rip current in the area. Response was quick and a beach vendor reportedly was there to make first contact until our truck arrived. But even with a quick rescue and early CPR intervention he didn’t survive. Many thanks as always to our Galveston Marine Response partners with Fire, EMS, and Police as well as the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Program who provided a much-appreciated diffusion within a couple hours of the event itself.

Our staff went through a lot this past week. And I must hand it to them, they performed admirably under very tough circumstances. In addition to the fatality, we had a number of night call outs. One in particular was pretty impressive. Supervisor Stephen Limones made a rescue of a father and son who were caught by a rising tide way out on the south jetty. The call dropped at 2am and Stephen used a rescue board to ferry them one at a time across a cut in the rocks over to a couple of brave Galveston Police Department officers who made their way out on the barnacle and algae covered rocks to grab the pair. Stephen is a long-time guard who started with us many years ago as a Junior Lifeguard. He’s a surfer and great all-around waterman who allow works in the medical field. Good guy to have your back!

Whether or not people acknowledge it, these events take a huge emotional toll on our emergency response crews and others involved. But knowing you’re not the only group that cares means a lot. There is definitely a great team here in this county from the Emergency Operation Centers, dispatchers, first responders, and groups that provide emotional support.

Special kudos to the organizers of the annual Alzheimer’s Walk last Saturday! This is a wonderful annual event held at Stewart Beach. This year they really stepped it up with an amazing sounds system, a ton of participants, and a whole lot of vendors.

Our hard-working Coastal Zone Management Crews are in the process of picking up our lifeguard towards for the season. So, if you go out to the beach to enjoy some of this amazing October Galveston weather, please remember we are spread incredibly thin this time of year. Stay away from any structures like rock jetties to avoid rip currents and swim well within your limits. And if you see anything that looks questionable out there feel free to call our direct number 409-763-4769 so we can go check it out. And, as always, call 911 for any water related or other type of emergency.

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.

Labor Day Advice

A big part of what makes America such an incredible place is all the work of the American labor movement and the work and contributions of so many laborers to the development and achievements of our country. Many Americans have a tradition of celebrating the special holiday that honors that by spending time with loved ones at the beach.

With Labor Day upon us, we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. Fortunately we have a lot of help from other groups. The Coastal Zone Management team has cleared paths to the water at the San Luis Pass and at the beach parks to allow for first responders to access the beachfront. Our partners in the Galveston Marine Response have trained and prepared and are staffing extra help. The County Emergency Response Teams (C.E.R.T.) will provide valuable support at the San Luis Pass and Boddecker drive to augment our lifeguard patrol keeping people from entering those dangerous tidal areas. And, of course, our dedicated group of “Wave Watchers” will provide an extra layer of surveillance, help with lost children, and be there in many other ways.

All of us get in a different mindset when we’re away from our routine and when we do something fun. We throw caution to the wind and immerse ourselves in the sea and sand and fun. This is good to a point- and that point is the shoreline. Water is not our natural environment. Things can go wrong quickly in the water so it only takes a momentary lapse of judgment, or seconds of inattention, for things to break bad.

Taking a moment to observe your surroundings and think about potential risks at the beach or any other body of water does a lot. Asking someone who is knowledgeable, like a lifeguard, what to watch for before getting wet means that you greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, designating a “Water Watcher”, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, non-swimmers and children should wear properly fitted lifejackets, and take precautions for the heat and sun. At the beach, it’s very important to avoid swimming in areas where rip currents are likely, like near piers and jetties. These are protected by lifeguards and clearly marked with bilingual, iconic signage. Also avoid areas with strong tides like the ends of the island. Both the San Luis Pass and Boddecker Drive areas are illegal to swim in.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association agencies, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million. In fact the Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” agency.

But above all, YOU are responsible for the safety of both yourself and your family. Lifeguards provide an extra layer of protection in case your safety net lapses temporarily.

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend. You deserve it.

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.

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.