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Kayak Rescue

The wind was blasting from the west. The sand pelted the lone figure as he dragged his kayak to the water’s edge at Sunny Beach. Wearing waders and a lifejacket, he paddled his kayak from shore into the frothy water.

It was about one o’clock in the afternoon last Sunday as the man’s wife watched him paddle out. She quickly lost sight of him as he attempted to paddle into 30 mile per hour wind and 2-3 foot chop. By three she was completely panicked as she gazed at the empty beach and seemingly empty water. Someone noticed her, asked what was wrong, and called 911.

Beach Patrol and other members of the Galveston Marine Response group responded quickly. Working together, they quickly mounted a search. Because the wind and waves were moving from west, they searched to the east. Nothing. But they found a bystander who had snapped a picture of the man in his kayak off the west end of the seawall as he man was blown out and to the east.

Supervisor Mary Stewart and Sergeant Kris Pompa worked with a couple of officers from the Galveston Police Department to check the area, re-interview the man’s wife in Spanish, and extend the search area all the way to the east end of the island. Still nothing.

As evening approached, they knew that they would be almost ineffective just shining lights out into the water. As each minute went by the chance of a rescue diminished. Mary called the Coast Guard and asked for a helicopter.

As light faded the helicopter ran search patterns while coordinating with the Galveston group who searched near shore. Everyone was starting to give up hope. The water was 62 and the air temperature was dropping which put the wind chill in the 50’s. Someone blown offshore wouldn’t stand much of a chance once their core temperature dropped. The farther offshore you go the bigger the waves and more likely they’d tip a kayak over. It’s a big ocean in the daytime, but at night it’s virtually impossible to find something so small. The rescuers searched into the night.

But our team made the right call when they requested the helicopter. The Coast Guard pilots are almost always very experienced. This one put himself in the right spot and, almost an hour after it was fully dark, his crew spotted the victim using a thermal imager, which detects differences in temperature.

They lowered a walkie-talkie down and the man called up that he was OK. They lifted him with a rescue basket and watched his kayak drift out rapidly. They let our crew know to meet them at the Galveston airport.

The man spent a full 6 hours lost at sea. This is one of the longest searches I remember that resulted in a successful recovery. This guy is alive because of how well the whole team worked together and because they didn’t give up. Kudos to the Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and our crew!

Wave Watchers

Saturday afternoon I got a phone call from my friend Mark Porretto. He told me there were two kids close to the rip current on the west side of the Pleasure Pier. He added that they weren’t in immediate danger, but that we should check on them. I immediately radioed our “on call” unit and they were on scene within a couple of minutes. The kids were removed from the water just as they got to the edge of a strong rip current next to the posts.

Mark and I grew upon the beach together. We both surfed. We both rode bikes up and down the seawall in Jr. High and High School. We both worked and spent all of our spare time on the beach and in the water. He has a good lifeguard eye and calls me periodically to let me know when he sees problems developing on the beach. Those calls through the years have resulted in many accidents prevented and, no doubt, several lives saved. When Mark calls I know he knows what he’s talking about and I make sure one of us responds quickly.

Mark isn’t the only one that makes these calls. I have a number of beach people that help by keeping an eye out when they drive down the seawall or visit the beach. And the lifeguards I work with each have their own network that does the same thing. Add all of the people without direct connection to one of our staff who call the Beach Patrol or the city dispatch non-emergency number to let us know when there is some kind of problem on the beach and you have a serious force multiplier. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people out there who help us do the difficult job of keeping millions safe each year.

This year we will be formalizing this process with a new program called “Wave Watchers”. Designed by our very own year-round Supervisor Dain Buck, our goal is to essentially train volunteers to do the same thing that Mark Porretto does. We’ll teach them to identify rip currents and other hazards on the beach, recognize swimmers who are in distress, spot dangerous environmental conditions. They’ll also be trained in CPR, First Aid, and Beach Patrol operational procedures. If they wish they can volunteer on busy weekends to manage first aid and lost child stations and to keep an eye out along the entire beach front.

Keeping all 33 miles of beach safe is more than any one group can do. We are lucky to have partners in the other public safety groups on the island and in the community who help. It definitely takes a village.

Very soon we will be putting out information on how to join our team of Wave Watchers. If you or someone you know is interested, send your contact information to Supervisor Dain Buck at dbuck@galvestonparkboard.org and he’ll make sure you get program and registration information as soon as he makes it public.

Crabbing Trip Gone Wrong

The late afternoon sun danced across the water of the East End Lagoon. A six year old boy was crabbing in the shallow pool on the side of the road. As he walked back and forth his family fished, hung out, and enjoyed the beautiful Saturday afternoon. An occasional car crossed the bridge above the pool, temporarily drowning out the sounds of birds, lapping water, and the light breeze caressing the marsh grasses.

A gently current caused by an outgoing tide flowed through the pool. The lagoon emptied slowly into the pool through a large pipe under the bridge and exited into the ship channel through a set of 5 smaller pipes. The boy wandered close to one of these smaller pipes.

All that water has to get through pipes only about 3 feet in diameter. Near the pipes the gentle current turned into a jet of unrelenting force. The boy was sucked in.

The boy’s mother screamed as she saw him pulled under the water and into the dark pipe.

Though water has a life of its own, it follows set rules. It shows neither malice nor mercy. It can have a tremendous effect on its environment. Where it leaves this particular pipe it scours out the sand bottom leaving an area that is deep and dangerous with strong currents. A number of people, many of them children, have lost their lives through the years at this exact spot.

The woman saw her son’s little body as it spat from the tunnel on the other side. With superhuman quickness she jumped in where the current flowed out and managed to swim over and grab him before he succumbed to the force of the water, like so many before him. She towed him around the source of the current to the rock wall. Pushing him to safety she slipped back onto the rocks, breaking her ankle and sustaining a number of cuts and abrasions. But she didn’t stop until he was safely on the ledge with other family members.

This is a story of heroism and more than a little bit of luck. We are so relieved for this family that they all returned home with only minor injuries and a story that will no doubt be told and retold for years to come. But it’s also a story of personal responsibility.

In a developed country like the USA, we are fortunate to have layers of protection, even to a certain extent in the natural environment. Because of the history of this area, the Beach Patrol maintains quite a number of safety signs warning of the dangers. We make frequent passes enforcing the rules that prevent swimming in the ship channel and in this pool. But with the resources we have and 33 miles of beach to protect we can’t be everywhere all the time. Nor can our public safety partners.

Guards and signs are critical, but you are the most important and effective layer of protection.

 

 

Fin Cut and Night Swim

Last Tuesday evening a call came out that there was a shark bite at 42nd and sand with heavy bleeding, and unconscious person, and CPR in progress. Beach Patrol, EMS, Fire Department, and the Police Department were all dispatched to the scene.

When everyone got there they expected something pretty dramatic. The first call on the radio was the lifeguard truck, who called in that there was no CPR in progress and only minor bleeding. They added that the cut was from a fin. A surfboard fin.

It’s not abnormal for calls for service to come in as one thing and in actuality be something else. Usually the reality is much less severe than the call, but it can be the other way around. Other times our hardworking dispatchers field multiple calls about the same thing, and each has a completely different take on what they saw. First Responders all react assuming the worst case scenario but arrive ready to re-evaluate once they see with their own eyes.

In this particular case the “shark bite with CPR in progress” was a 4inch cut to the thigh of a 15 year old girl that was caused by the fin of her surfboard. We treat many surfboard fin cuts each year and rarely see a shark bite. But surfboard fin cuts can be severe. A fin that is connected to a big surfboard getting pushed around by a wave has a lot of force. It can slice to the bone easily, and at times can cut more than just fat and muscle. The good thing is its usually a fairly clean cut that can be sewn up easily. File the sharp edges of your fins down when you buy them to minimize the risk. Also, for beginners who are not yet aware of how to get away from their board when they fall, they make flexible fins that are way safer. We use them along with foam boards for our Junior Lifeguard Program.

Speaking of Junior Lifeguards we are accepting applications now. This year we have new partnerships in place in the form of “complimentary camps”. Martial Arts America, The Kitchen Chick, and Clay Cup Studios all offer camps that are compatible with the times of each age group of our Junior Guard Camp. So, for example if you have a 10 year old, they’d go to Junior Guards from 8-12 and then could go to one of the other camps in the afternoon. They’d be doing these fun, educational activities most of the day. Information on these complimentary camps is available on our website.

Next Wednesday around 5pm we’d like to invite you to 29th and Seawall for our annual “Night Swim” event. All of our lifeguard candidates will attempt their final physical challenge and will be joined by our veteran lifeguards. They’ll swim, paddle, climb, crawl, and suffer in unimaginable ways for your viewing pleasure. Come cheer us on and help us welcome our new recruits to the team!

Summer Event Kick-off

At the time most of you are reading this about 30 Beach Patrol Senior Lifeguards and Supervisors are running along the shoreline of Stewart Beach. It’s an annual timed re-qualification trial required to secure or maintain positions. Following that are mock rescues and medical scenarios, a report writing seminar, and updates/testing on policy and procedure.

While the tower lifeguards go through well over 130 hours of training during their first season,  more demanding higher level positions require an even more elevated skill level. In fact, in addition to what’s listed above and depending on rank, these men and women potentially also complete annual training for EMT, SCUBA, law enforcement, dispatching, tourism ambassadorship, National Incident Management System (NIMS), and critical incident stress management counseling. All that is in addition to the daily training sessions we each do before our daily shifts to keep rescue and medical skills razor sharp.

One of our most daunting challenges each year is that the majority of our 130 or so employees are seasonal workers, many of whom are students. Rescue skills atrophy quickly when not used, so it puts a great deal of pressure on our staff to get all the returning guards trained and retrained to adequate levels before the busiest weekend of the summer- the Memorial Holiday. The next two weeks are a crucible we all have to get though so we can handle the estimated 6 million people we protect annually. The list of events is intimidating.

Our second lifeguard academy starts tomorrow after lifeguard tryouts. If you or someone you know is interested, we will start with a swim trial tomorrow morning, followed by an interview, drug test, and run-swim-run. The 100 hour lifeguard academy starts immediately afterwards and lasts two weeks. Application information regarding Lifeguard and Junior Guard programs is on our website.

Next week we will hold Junior Lifeguard Instructor Training for the elite staff that works with the 10-15 year olds that attend our 6 week long day camp that mirrors our Lifeguard Academy; even to the extent that we train them in CPR, First Aid, and Water Rescue. Of course we make it fun with field trips, marine ecology seminars, sports, games, surfing/boogie boarding, and friendly Lifeguard Sport competition. They even get to spend some time in the lifeguard towers “working” alongside real lifeguards.

On Tuesday, May 17 we’ll be participating in the Hurricane Awareness Tour at Scholes International Field. Public tour period is from 2:30-5:00pm.

Thursday the 19th we’ll join our partners in the Galveston Marine Response to sharpen our rescue and coordination skills in a large mass casualty exercise in Offats Bayou.

The following week we’ll also be involved in our Supervisor Training Academy, Dispatch Training Academy, all staff “Night Swim”, all staff orientation/meeting session, Beach Safety/Rip Current Awareness Week proclamation at City Hall. We’re also going to send a small team down to the Corpus Christi area to help them with some very needed training.

All this set to the backdrop of normal May beach madness!

Mass Rescue

The report of the incident starts out, “15:04 Unit 290,Supervisor Buck & Stewart, dispatched by headquarters for swimmers out to far at TWR 25.  Unit 290 rolls from 28 and sand.

15:05 Unit 290 gets on location.  From the beach we can see 5 swimmers about 50 yards off shore  …  My partner, Supervisor Stewart immediately heads into the water to check the swimmers…”

As most of you are probably aware, the rescue of five people at 26th street a couple of weeks ago received quite a bit of media attention. Our full time Lifeguard Supervisor/EMT Mary Stewart was credited with these rescues. Mary is a fantastic lifeguard, wonderful employee, and deserves every bit of this attention. The scary thing is that she almost drowned during the process, as one of the two victims she was attempting to bring to shore panicked and climbed on top of her and pushed her under water, as she tried to simultaneously fight him off and keep a small child afloat.

Not to take anything away from Mary, but there was more to the story than most of the media outlets reported. Despite Mary continually praising her co-rescuers during interviews, the public story cut that part out.

Meanwhile the report tells a more complete picture:

“Once my partner gets to the swimmers I receive the “ok” signal and return to shore and my radio to relay the “ok” signal.  Immediately after radioing everything is ok I see my partner signal for help.  15:07 I radio HQ to send back up and that I will be in the water to assist.  294 begins to roll from 18th and wall.   The guard from TWR 25,Dornak,  had brought 3 swimmers closer to shore where I met them with the rescue board.  Dornak then headed back to Supervisor Stewart to assist with the two swimmers she was bringing to shore.

15:09 Unit 294, Supervisor Garcia & Sr. Guard Letnich, arrive on scene.  Myself and my three victims are now in waist deep water, I instruct Sr.  Guard Letnich to go see if Stewart or Dornak need any more assistance.  I take my three victims to Unit 294 with Supervisor Garcia to get further checked out.”

Obviously there is quite a bit more going on. Jared Dornak stabilized the situation, brought three victims to Supervisor Dain Buck, then helped Mary bring the two she was wrestling with to shore, which may have saved her life. Dain watched everyone’s safety while still effecting three rescues himself and making sure backup was on the way so we could keep the ratio of rescuers to victims at an acceptable level.

There are layers of protection built into our system, which makes a dangerous job less so because we can provide all our guards with quick backup. These layers are there because we are provided enough resources to do lifesaving the right way. This event demonstrates clearly that we would have lost at least a couple of lives if this were not the case. And that we have many heroes in our ranks.

 

Winter Dangers

For those who have not heard, there was a terrible accident last weekend involving a couple of kayakers in West Bay. The Galveston Daily News did a comprehensive story on it, but in a nutshell two kayakers were capsized by strong currents and one managed to make it to a channel marker post where he hung on until a boat arrived. At the time of writing this, one of the men is still missing. This incident is only part of a larger safety picture, and hopefully can be used to prevent similar incidents.

With recent water temps in the low 50’s and even high 40’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

Each spring when the air starts to warm but the water is still cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. Last weekend there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition were kept busy when several kayakers and boaters got lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass area over the weekend. Some were really close to shore. In fact, at the San Luis Pass, a fast acting Galveston Fire Department crew was smart enough to go to the area that a kayaker entered the water and blast their siren continuously until the kayaker paddled back in following the sound.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting on the water, then plan accordingly.

 

 

Tri Swim Tips

This Sunday the 21st is the big triathlon day at Moody Gardens. The Lone Star Spring and the Ironman are great events 5150 kick off early in the morning. There’s info at http://5150.com/race/5150galveston if you want to register or find out the details. Great event if you’re able to go watch.

The longer race has a swim of 1.5 Kilometers, or just under a mile. The short race has a swim of about 500 meters, which is the equivalent of 10 laps/20 lengths in a 25 meter pool. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol provides the water security for the two races each year and it’s a big undertaking making sure everyone gets through the course safely.

Part of the challenge is how popular the sport of Triathlon has gotten and thus how many people are new to it. This means that a huge percentage of the swimmers are swimming in open water for the first time and don’t know if they can make it all the way through the course. People who can barely complete the distance in a pool, or aren’t even sure if they can make that distance at all, jump in with hundreds of others and go for it. We’ll rescue scores of people, who panic, have cramps, get exhausted, etc. on Sunday. But it’s easy to prevent it with a few simple tips about open water swimming.

First of all, you should be able to swim at least double the distance in a pool that you plan on swimming in open water. Second, if the water is cold enough to wear a wetsuit you should. Not only is it faster, but a layer of neoprene adds a lot of flotation which means you essentially are bringing a lifejacket with you. Third, in open water you don’t usually get to touch bottom so you want to go a little slower than you might try to go in a pool. Conserving a little air and strength gives you a margin for error that makes it easier to recover if you hit some chop or get smacked by someone’s foot by accident. The extra buoyancy of salt water will help as well. Another good trick is that if you’re not a strong swimmer it’s not a bad idea to line up on the side of your swim wave so you don’t get knocked around when everyone is starting off and not yet spread out. You’ll actually do better as a strong swimmer by lining up in the middle of the pack because if you get behind a group of slightly faster swimmers you can benefit from getting sucked along in their draft. Finally a great tip is to look up every few strokes as you breathe (eyes first, breath second). Even if this slows you a little you’ll be faster overall because you’ll swim a straighter course.

Most importantly we have a great bunch of guards. If you get in trouble stay calm and hold up your hand. We’ll be there.

 

 

Institutional Memory

Galveston city and county have a history of resilience. Despite our mercurial weather and politics we somehow manage to pull together when we need to. Many of those of us living here now have ancestors that rebuilt the city after the 1900 storm and erected the physical embodiment of that resilience and willingness to take on seemingly insurmountable tasks together when needed.

Only a few years back we once again proved that those qualities are still just as strong when we worked together to rebuild our communities after Hurricane Ike. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have so quickly without governmental help, but much of that recovery happened by neighbors helping neighbors.

The wounds left by Hurricane Ike are diminishing, although we have a long way still to go before the physical and psychological damage is healed. Enough time, however, has passed that we’re already losing some of the institutional memory that our decision makers from that time had. How do we, as a community, keep the myriad of lessons learned despite the changes in city leadership and as people in key roles from that experience cycle out?

In a very forward thinking move, many of our city and county leaders attended an emergency management course at the FEMA training center in Emmetsburg, Maryland last week. It says a lot about the current leadership that they realized the importance of taking all of these busy, important people away from their duties for an entire week with the purpose of preparing them for how to deal with all stages of a catastrophic event, from emergency response all the way through debris management, restoring infrastructure and financial and psychological recovery.

The course itself was intense and even included three “table top” exercises that lasted several hours where we had to work together to address different problems that arose. A central theme that was repeatedly stressed was the importance of relationships and communication in getting a jump on both the response and recovery phase. It helped that we were locked into a compound in the middle of a blizzard! What little time was spent out of class was spent together continuing course discussions.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a group of Beach Patrol supervisors were taking their own course in disaster response. Kara Harrison, Josh Hale, Mary Stewart, and Kris Pompa went through a grueling swift water/urban flooding course in San Marcos. They spend 4 long days and one night in wetsuits learning swift water rescue techniques, search and recovery, and how to respond during a flood. This meets a goal we’ve been working on for some time on the Beach Patrol. We now have every full time member certified as a “Swift Water Rescue Technician”, which will prove invaluable to our community when we have our next flooding incident.

We don’t know when but we all know there will be another big one. The challenge is to keep the skills and institutional knowledge ready for that eventuality. Being prepared takes work, commitment, resources, and community buy in, but it’s essential.

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Tommy Lee of GEMS and Peter Davis of GIBP at FEMA training camp in Maryland, 2014.

Platform Fire

The 911 dispatcher came up on the Beach Patrol main channel last Monday evening with a request from the Galveston Fire Department to help with a fire on an oil platform fire on Pelican Island.

Three of our full time superstars responded, all of whom are surf guards, EMTs, and peace officers. As per our protocol Josh Hale went directly to the scene of the fire to assess what was needed from our end and to join the unified command. Kris Pompa and Austin Kirwin brought our rescue boat from Stewart Beach to the Yacht Basin, launched, and drove quickly to Pelican Island.

When Kris and Austin got there they realized that the Fire Department had a pretty intense situation going on. The fire was in one of the legs of an old oil platform that was dry docked. The fire fighters had been shuttled out to a barge. A crane lifted two of the fire fighters 50-60 feet up in the air so they could shoot water down into the leg.

The Battalion Chief called us in case one of the fire fighters fell in the water. Falling in the water from such a high place could be a big deal, but doing it in full bunker gear could be disastrous.

Fortunately, everything turned out fine. Our team’s role of sitting and watching was uneventful. The fire department put out the fire without any one getting hurt and without significant loss of property. Our guys got back to headquarters with even more respect for the amazing job our fire department does than they already had. For us watching how they handled it so smoothly was a real privilege. For them it was another day at the office. As the Battalion Chief put it, “If there weren’t accidents, none of us would have jobs.”

Situations where the different response agencies in Galveston smoothly help each other have become more and more common, thanks to the formation of the Galveston Marine Response group. Galveston Fire, Police, and Beach Patrol routinely assist each other, along with the Sheriff Office Marine Division, Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue, State Park Rangers, Schlitterbahn Lifeguards, and the Jesse Tree. When Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a cohesive response group for major disasters we didn’t realize how in the process we would drastically improve our response to localized events. Enhanced communication, joint training, and shared resources are common occurrences which is better for everyone, especially the public who depends on us.

The nice thing about this particular incident is that it was a good chance return all the favors we receive from the Galveston Fire Department on the beach each year. When those 6 million people hit the island’s beaches, no one group can handle it alone. We’re really thankful for all the good work Fire, Police, and EMS does each year and all the help they give us on the beach. Nice have the opportunity to repay them how and when we can.