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Umbrellagedon

I followed my routine of getting up early, driving the entire beachfront, then if things seem calm, meeting whoever is interested for a workout before the beach action heats up. Getting that exercise in first thing helps to maintain balance, perspective, and focus when things get a little crazy later in the day. Little did I know the nuttiness would start early!

On this particular morning I met a small group of guards and we did a run-swim-run-paddle-run. As we started the first run we noticed a little dust devil stirring up some sand to the east of us. This is pretty common in the late summer when we get these unstable, hot air masses, so we thought nothing of it. As we continued our run we were suddenly blinded by sand and buffeted by wind as another one crossed our path. It lasted only a few seconds and we kept running, laughing about it and saying, “What are the odds?!!” We were half way through the swim leg when we started getting tossed around. For those who have had the pleasure of swimming right beneath a helicopter you’ll be familiar with the sensation. It was so windy we dove underwater and just came up when we needed air. Fortunately, this passed quickly, and we finished the swim, had an uneventful paddle on rescue boards, and were just starting the last run leg when something very unusual happened.

We heard screaming and looked up to see what seemed to be a wall of umbrellas coming at us, twirling in the wind. Some were as high as 30 feet in the air and others somersaulted along the ground.   The Beach Service crew are pros at setting them in the sand, so we knew this had to be something powerful. Squinting through a sudden driving sandstorm we sought cover behind my rescue truck as large beach umbrellas bounced off the truck and careened by us. “Let’s go!” someone yelled and we sprinted into the melee, tackling umbrellas rapidly and closing them so they wouldn’t hit anyone. The Beach Service did the same and the stationed lifeguard called for backup and then joined in. It ended as quickly as it started. Over 100 umbrellas were scattered all over the beach in the wake of a large dust devil. Some people were calming crying children while others laughed hysterically. Others ran around aimlessly. In the chaos we culled through people looking to see if anyone was injured. Miraculously, there were only a handful of bumps of bruises.

This summer there was a death up on the east coast in Garden City, South Carolina when a Beach Patron was impaled by an umbrella. Thinking about this, I realized how rare events like this one are here on our beach. I’m especially appreciative for all the seasoned Umbrella Vendors who take such care to set the poles deep and at the right angle to avoid this kind of thing and are so responsive when emergencies pop up.

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.

Non Compliance Strategies

“Good Morning. Sir, do you mind removing your vehicle from the beachfront and parking it in the parking lot?”

“Why?”

“Cars aren’t allowed on the beachfront in this area for safety reasons.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“There’s a sign at the entrance you drove through that says no vehicles allowed past this point. There is also a law that says vehicles aren’t allowed to drive on this part of the beach.”

“Well, I’m not driving on the beach, I’m just dropping my stuff off.”

Late in the summer it seems that people just get frayed. There are more complaints, arguments, fights, and weird things happening than earlier in the season. It’s like the veneer of civility gets burned away by the heat and sun, and all the raw emotions people usually have tamped down come boiling to the surface. And it seems like this year all the stress of covid, economy, politics, etc. exacerbated it.

For those who work the beach it can be a challenge, but if you get in the right head space it can be wildly entertaining. I especially like it when people seem to feel that they have their own little bubble of rules that differ from everyone else. The moon follows me as well, so totally get it.

“Excuse me sir, do you mind putting your dog on a leash?”

“Why?”

“Galveston has a city ordinance requiring dogs to wear leashes. Also, there have been instances where dogs have been off a leash and…..” (you get the idea)

Then the conversation goes into a whole list of reasons for not needing to use a leash that all generally have the same theme- in my case there should be an exemption from the rules. Some of the best ones are:

“He’s really friendly”, “She just likes chasing birds and hardly ever bites anyone”, “I have him for comfort”, or (my personal all-time favorite), “My dog is on a verbal leash”.

The other common technique that can be interesting is the “stall technique”. We open with something along the lines of, “Hey, I’m sorry but you can’t use a tent or tarp in this area. You can, however, use it on the other side of those blue poles” And from there it goes a little something like this:

“What?”

“Can you please move your tarp to the other side of those blue poles?”

“I have to move my tarp?”

“Yes”

“Where?”

“To the other side of the blue poles on the side that is designated by signs”

“So…. I can’t have my tarp here?”

It may cycle a few times like that. Then they realize that even if they keep asking the response is the same. At that point they might move it. Or, if you’re lucky, they might go into the previous technique and point out that they need shade in that area more than other people because…

I will say I’m so impressed with my staff, CERT, park staff, and other first responder groups for all their patience, and understanding that 99% of people are really nice to deal with.

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.

Competition Results

From Supervisor Jeff Mullin, Team Captain for the team that recently competed in the United States Lifesaving Association National Lifeguard Competition, to staff of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol:

“Good afternoon, folks! Team Galveston is back from USLA Nationals and boy did the squad bring back some serious hardware and results!

To start, our very own Jacqueline Emmert got 4th overall in age group points (all ages combined outside of open events) and brought back a gold in the surf swim and 2k, silver in run swim run, international ironwomen (run-swim-board paddle-surf ski) and surf ski, and bronze medals in beach flags and board race. Way to show up and show out Jacque! Especially at your second Nationals appearance!

Next up with medal performances was Chief Davis, as usual coming back with hardware including bronze medals in his age group for American Ironman (run-swim-board paddle-surf boat row) and surf ski, and top 5 finishes in board race, run swim run, and international iron man, and barely missing out on making the open finals for surf ski by literally a foot and a half.

The landline team of Jacque Emmert, Jeff Mullin, Charlotte Blacketer, and Caleb Tiffin missed semi-finals by a mere few seconds.

Tiffin came to continue his winning beach flags performance in a stacked field of speedsters to make it to semi-finals in beach flags. Blacketer, even with an ankle injury, managed to get one spot away from making the finals in the pit! She even had the baton in her hand for a microsecond before it got snatched away!

Not to be forgotten, Mac Livanec and Axle Denner were one spot away from making the semi-finals in the open board rescue, with Livanec also making the semi-finals in the open surf ski.

Finally, with a combined team for the open women’s Taplin relay that consisted of Emmert from Galveston, Padre Beach Rescue, Monmouth County, and Virginia Beach, we were able to place for points which moved us up to tie with Hollywood Beach (Florida) and beat out Capitola Beach Lifeguard Association (California) and take 14th place out of 27 teams, many of whom had scores of competitors.

Our junior guards also had a great showing with Brendon Lusk placing 5th and Landon Morris scoring 7th in Beach Flags, Maddy Scott getting a 4th in the 2k and 8th in the Iron Guard, and Ryan Pryor with a 4th place finish in the swim relay. Not to mention 3 more top ten finishes in beach flags and iron guard!

Congrats everyone and “good on yas”. It was a fun one! Everyone come on out next year to Sunday comps so we can send an even better and faster team to Virginia Beach for Nationals 2023!”

In a profession where every rescue is a race, and every guard is an athlete, competition is our primary tool for maintaining the high levels of fitness required. I’m proud of both the competition team and the guards who trained and competed all summer to be rescue ready.

 

National Championships

The early morning light glimmered across the water, bathing the line of figures in a coppery glow. Each of them carried a narrow, sleek racing board under their arm. They were coiled and vibrating, until the whistle blew. In a blur, they exploded as they raced out into the water. First, they high stepped until they were in deeper water then they hopped on the boards either prone or on their knees. Waves knocked a few back, but the front pack shot through the surf line in a tight clump and headed out to a line of flags and buoys.

The leader sliced through the water with the others drafting in his wake. They jockeyed for position as they neared the first turn, knowing even a small error would be critical at this point. Only a few would advance to the next round.

One of the competitors who was towards the middle of the front pack nabbed a nice wave on the outside, joined shortly after by a clump of others. Having been able to rest on the wave, he jumped up in knee deep water and sprinted in through a funnel finish.

Welcome to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) national lifeguard championships. This year Hermosa Beach, California will host several hundred competitors and their support crews on August 10th-13th. The best of the best ocean lifeguards and junior lifeguards in the country will compete in a multitude of Lifesaving Sport events which simulate the skills needed to rescue people in trouble.

More than any other of the emergency services, ocean lifeguards rely very heavily on their skill and fitness in the water to effect rescues. All the inter and intra agency competitions lead to regional competitions and eventually the best duke it out at the “Nationals”. Competition is the key motivator for thousands of beach lifeguards to maintain the incredibly high levels of physical fitness required to do the job. This is critical in a profession where every lifeguard is an athlete, and every rescue is potentially a race against time.

Los Angeles County takes the championships almost every year. Their depth of field ensures a pipeline of great athletes, and the percentage of year-round professional lifeguards brings a lot of master’s level competitors to the event. When the event is held is LA County it gets really competitive. Additionally, the colder water and larger surf can be a challenge for Junior Guards and less experienced athletes from Florida, Texas, and much of the East Coast. Hard to train in 88-degree water and compete in 65 degrees! But both our guard and junior guard teams have been training really hard and you shouldn’t underestimate Texas spirit!

Currents and Bottom Memory

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, occasionally, we’ve had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter was body surfing with me a while ago, and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.

Rescue Tube Prep

Young men and women stand in a circle on the shoreline. Sandy and sweating, they’ve just finished a surf swim, followed by calisthenics. Each one holds onto their rescue tube awkwardly; a stark contrast with the seasoned confidence that working lifeguards exude. Today is the first day of the lifeguard academy.

The training officer for the Beach Patrol commands the candidates’ attention and lays down the “rules” for how to care for, maintain, and use rescue tubes, or buoys as we call them informally. “Before we talk about how to rescue someone with this piece of equipment, you need to know that it will keep you alive. You should have it with you AT ALL TIMES. This buoy is your best friend, and it WILL save your life each time you make a rescue. You should sleep with it, eat with it, and NEVER be without it during the academy. It should be prepared the same way for each of you, each time it’s used. Without floatation, you are putting yourself at EXTREME RISK and have a good chance of drowning while trying to save someone.”

The Lifeguard Candidates are required to have the rescue tubes with them everywhere they go. If someone is caught without it, they have to do a prescribed number of pushups. To show solidarity and build a sense of teamwork, the entire group joins that person. This tough love not only increases the strength needed to control panicky victims but teaches that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, so a mistake made by one person has a profound effect on the entire group. Protecting seven million swimmers annually is nothing to take lightly and it can’t be done without a huge amount of teamwork. A lifeguard’s safety is dependent on the guards they work with and vice versa. By the end of their 100-hour course they form strong bonds and are part of the team.

Each guard wraps his/her tube the same way. They wind the rope around one end of it and tuck the strap into the wrapped-up rope with an end sticking out to form a sort of quick release. That way, each rescue tube of each guard is wrapped the same way each time it’s used.

Preparation of the rescue tube is a metaphor for an underlying philosophy for all rescue work. The unexpected will occur during an attempted save. The rescuers have to prepare themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally beforehand. They practice the skills and prepare the equipment. They are rested and clearheaded. Something as small as a tangled buoy rope can be a big deal when adrenaline is flowing, and lives are at stake. If that can be prevented with proper preparation, its one less thing that can go wrong.  If as many variables that could lead to problems are handled beforehand, when the unexpected ones inevitably come up, the rescuer will not be overwhelmed, will deal with it on the fly, and will make the save.

4th Wrap Up

The early morning yellow light angled sideways highlighting a young mother and her two young children giggling and laying in the shallows. A lifeguard raced across the slippery rocks as another dove into the water, both racing to stop a group of teens from getting sucked out by a rip current. A jacked-up pickup spun in the sand and slammed on the brakes, ex-military crew leapt out and almost jumped on an umbrella beach service worker before we diffused it. An older couple sat in the midst of the crowd, leaning into each other with the comfort of life partnership, and watched everyone playing in the sand and sea around them. A tiny girl sobbed as the lifeguard that found her wandering down the beach handed her gently to her mother. Rescuers from 5 different agencies resorted, in the dark, to coordinating the search for a small child that was reported as a drowning on foot during the drone show because the dense crowd made it impossible to get the rescue trucks down on the sand. The sun set as Beach Patrol trucks, with overhead lights flashing, removed every last person from the 9 mile stretch of guarded water before leaving for the day. A group of guards sitting in the tower after work finally relaxed and watched the drone show, while joking with the easy comradery that sharing a tough, fulfilling job together brings.

I once spent a week or so in Calcutta. I walked in long loops. Miles each day. At night I lay in bed looking up at a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and tried to process everything I’d seen. So much life, so many stories, caught in glimpses. I told my brother that there was so much stimulation, and so much I didn’t understand, that I was probably only absorbing 15 percent of what my eyes actually saw. This last weekend was like that. Slow to fast, easy contentment to nail biting stress, and the press of so many radio channels chattering, so many people, so many stories and lives all around for hours and hours each day. I was so impressed with how our lifeguard and dispatch crew kept focused and how they tirelessly powered through.

This was the busiest 4th of July we’ve seen in a long while. Not only were the crowds thick, but until Monday we had some pretty rough water and strong rip currents. We reunited 25 lost kids, effected 101 enforcement actions, 38 medical responses, and made 4 rescues. The 46,025 people moved from danger alone equaled 1/6 of our traditional annual average.

There are no words to express the pride and gratitude I feel for my dispatch and lifeguard staff and our partners with the Galveston County and Houston Precinct 1 CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams), our GPD managed security detail, park staff, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, and Coastal Zone Management. Also, can’t thank Police, Fire, and EMS enough for the extraordinary work they did over the weekend!