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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!

Moving Into Winter

As the season changes, we shift to winter mode. “Winter mode” isn’t what it used to be, when we would pull everyone off the beach for maintenance and administrative work. Today, we have more patrol responsibilities with increased water and beach visitation and have more professional trainings and certifications to maintain.

The first priority is, obviously the lifeguard towers. Our staff rotates through the patrol and maintenance positions. Each full-time staff member has a couple of areas of specialty such as towers, signs, vehicles, facility management, website oversight, Junior Lifeguards, museum project, public education, administration, etc. However, at times all staff that are not actively patrolling may work together to get something done. Signage and tower refurbishment are the first priority, and everyone helps out. For example, we maintain some 600 signs along the beachfront, so they are often in need of replacing a portion of them after high tide or weather events. Others are more specific. For example, Supervisor/Officer Jeff Mullin handles the bulk of our water safety education talks at schools and community group. Others handle, dispatch, website, medical supplies, rescue equipment, and more.

There is also important training that happens in the wintertime that we wouldn’t be able to do in the summer. New officers train with the Galvestion Police Department, mostly in the Patrol Division. That way, they get some good experience from the Island’s primary law enforcement entity and learn how to coordinate and assist GPD which is good for everyone. Each year we send a couple to be certified as Swift Water Rescue Technicians, so our team can better respond to natural disasters and more fully support the Galveston Marine Response Team. And there is always online training to sync with the Park Board, maintain EMT status, etc.

Each of the full-time employees has areas they are responsible for, but the goal is to get everyone’s projects done and it takes the entire team working together to make this happen.

It’s easier than you’d think to get all of our full-time crew to work together. They’ve mostly all been in our program since they were young. Most of them came up through our Junior Lifeguard program, starting at age 10. Their instructors taught them the importance of teamwork and the concept that we all work together for the good of the millions that visit our beaches.  As they matured, they became guards and put that idea into practice, trusting their lives to each other to make rescues and prevent accidents. They understand the value of our new leadership/resiliency/intercultural competency training that’s been integrated throughout our staff’s daily and periodic training. They recognize the importance of a harmonious work environment and the direct impact that it has on our ability to serve and protect beachgoers. They know we are only as strong as our weakest link, and they know it to their core.

Now they are the leaders and are teaching the younger guards and Junior Guards the values they were taught and live out daily. You can be very proud of your lifeguards.

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.

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.

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 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

GIBP Headquarter Crisis

39 years ago, I stood in the sand with 16 other lifeguards as radios were issued from our “Headquarters.” I studied the old run-down trailer parked outside a small beach pavilion on the sand and thought, “This is the Headquarters?” In 1983, Hurricane Alicia wiped all that away. The following season, we moved into a brand-new space, which was situated in a large, modern, beach pavilion. The effect of a professional facility sparked a fire which increased coverage, professionalism, partnerships, and outreach, and we eventually became a premier lifesaving force of 140 strong. Thirty years later, we have expanded inside that existing pavilion into a space that was once a night club, but it barely serves our ever-growing operations.

 

Our trusty old workhorse’s time is over. Concrete is spalling from salt air and water, the pilings are brittle, and it has become a hazard. We are eight years beyond the maximum lifespan, and despite Galveston’s harsh climate, we’ve protracted the “expiration date” with willpower and elbow-grease. It’s been a good home and it has permitted us, like our professional counterparts around the world, to best serve the public from the most demanding beach. Your Beach Patrol covers all 32 miles of beach 24/7/365, intervenes in a half-million potential accidents annually, and serves over seven million visitors and residents each year. Galveston boasts one of the busiest, challenging, and most visited shorelines in the nation, and the demand increases every year.

 

Lately, the urgent need for a replacement Beach Patrol headquarters facility has been debated. Ideas of including it in a public/private partnership with Stewart Beach amenities were considered, but the two concepts are completely separate issues. Each effort serves different needs, and each financed independently. It is crucial that something happens soon for the Beach Patrol headquarters, as it increasingly costs more to keep it safe enough to occupy, and lifesaving operations are impacted. This summer our Junior Lifeguard Program, a critical feeder for lifeguard staffing, will operate out of a tent to ensure the campers’ safety.

 

With more than 140 lifeguards and dispatchers, 120 Junior Lifeguards, and another 60+ volunteers, a safe, 24-hour, all-weather sand-base facility is critical for training, working space, and supervision. To mitigate risk for our children and adults, direct access to the beach and water must be accessible without the danger of crossing Seawall Boulevard while carrying rescue equipment. When covering assigned beachfront zones, rescue vehicles need to stay on the beachfront to relay information and deliver lifesaving equipment while continually protecting beach patrons and guards. An on-beach facility is also critical in providing an unobstructed view to handle weather and medical emergencies, lost children, and command and control of our most populated beach.

 

Our Park Board is committed to finding a timely, cost-effective solution to meet the needs of the Beach Patrol because Galveston’s beach patrol is one of the largest, most professional, and in-demand lifeguard services in the world. They need your support because Galveston deserves and demands a first-class, professional facility for its world-renowned patrol to work, train, and deploy from.

 

We urgently need a new home, and the clock is ticking.

 

 

Training

Happy Mardi Gras! When this big annual party rolls around that is a signal for us that beach season is just around the corner. This year, because of increased tourism and great weather, it feels like we never really left. These intermittent cold snaps are the only time the beaches don’t have people on them. Granted, with water in the low to mid 50’s, swimmers are few, but our patrols have moved a surprising number of people from the rocks for it being the “wintertime.” In just a few short weeks we will “Laissez le bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll) again and it will be “summer go time.”

One nice thing the past couple of months is the amount of training we’ve been able to get squared away. Our seasonal lifeguards, of course, have one hundred hours of training just to get going, and train consistently each day to maintain their readiness level. As they move up in the organization, there are more requirements. In fact, professional lifeguards wear so many hats that it feels like we’re always doing some kind of training or another. For some of our staff they’re maintaining an EMT certification, personal rescue watercraft certification, peace officer licensing, or Red Cross instructor accreditation (medical and lifeguarding). They also have certifications in swift water rescue, boat handling and SCUBA. On top of that they do training in leadership, workplace relations, cultural competency, tourist relations and more. I firmly believe that there is a direct correlation between the amount of quality training we can fit into their busy schedules and a high level of competence achieved to better serve the public.

One of the training courses that helps me stay current is Texas Police Chief Leadership training. I’m not always excited to attend and leave the island, but I find it useful, stimulating and re-energizing once I’m actually in the course. Texas has some of the best police training in the country and this course is no exception. I try to always take it in the winter, so I can be here during our busy season.

This year the course was even better than usual. The content was partly what you’d expect with fitness, use of force, legislative updates, employment law and emergent issues in law enforcement training. But there were some surprises such as strategic decision making in ambiguous environments, tools for conflict management and building financial strength in first responder families. There were even some like “training for life” which included meditation techniques, diet information and other strategies to mitigate stress. For a group that has one of the most stressful jobs and lifestyles out there, it really hit home.

There seems to be a groundswell of recognition among public safety, academics, and hopefully the general public that these types of jobs are abnormally stressful and its critical to reduce health and suicide. I’m glad we recognize that now and are preparing our first responders so we can keep supporting our residents and visitors and “let the good times roll” safely together.

Bikes and Training

Whether you’re hunkering down with the groceries you bought before the crowds descended or out in the mix reveling in one of the largest events of this type anywhere, its hard not to notice its Biker Rally Weekend. I personally am a fan despite the inconvenience when moving around. I grew up riding as a kid on motocross style bikes, and rediscovered road bikes later as an adult. And as a professional people watcher I love all the different subcultures of the biker world out there.  Plus, the biker rally crowd typically don’t spend a lot of time in the water or driving their expensive bikes on the sand itself. We assist EMS and Fire with medical calls and help GPD a bit with the crowds, but it’s not a 4th of July kind of thing.

This week we started reducing our beach coverage somewhat and diverted some of our staff each day to the big job of tower refurbishment and repair. Considering weather and training breaks, this is scheduled to be a two-month job. We’ll also be focusing some training time on our typical operational winter training which includes medical, law enforcement, boat operations, and SCUBA training.

This winter is unique in that we’re going to focus our energy not only on external operational skills, but also internal training. We’re a hybrid organization in so many ways. We’re a public safety group that specializes primarily in ocean rescue and medical response, but also do a fair amount of code enforcement through both our peace officers and non-sworn staff. Most importantly, we have a lot of seasonal workers that aren’t part of the traditional public safety culture, have employees with over 50 years difference in ages, and a good mix of gender and ethnicities. Its critical that all these people work in a supportive environment in relative harmony, so that we can put maximum effort into protecting swimmers and responding to emergencies. And we all need to be able to communicate in a way that is respectful and isn’t misinterpreted. So, we are integrating training in intercultural competency, alcohol awareness, and in a program we started last year targeting resiliency for first responders. We’re also stepping up the training we’ve traditionally provided in leadership, workplace harassment, and other areas, and have formed a diverse committee to monitor culture throughout the organization.

In our lifeguard academy we stress the importance of a strong body, mental preparation through a well-developed and practiced skill set, and strength of spirit. With the first two we’re pretty adept at teaching and enforcing the practice necessary. But, although we allude to the importance of a strong spirit, we didn’t really have the tools to teach it effectively. But this new training will help us teach our staff to better support and take care of themselves and each other, so we can better take care of the public.

And despite our differences, our staff is incredibly united in the desire to be the best we can be to keep people safe.

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