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Rescue Theory – Part 3 (conclusion)

The last two weeks we talked about the basics of rescue theory and how we use techniques to make as many parts of a rescue become automatic as we can. The key components of elimination of distracting variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness. That gives the guards the tools, but they still need to prepare themselves for the myriad of unexpected variables that inevitably are thrown at them while making rescues.

Cognitive flexibility under stress, the ability to demonstrate flexibility and creative problem-solving strategies under duress, is a little harder concept for the guards to grasp at first. Through repetition neural pathways become more “worn”, much like a foot path that has been traveled more often and therefore becomes easier to use. This is a good thing in that response to a given stimuli becomes automatic, but with the obvious benefits come inherent risks. The potential issue lies in the environment itself. The ocean and beach are in a constant state of flux, as are the beach patrons themselves.  No rescue is routine as there are a multitude of factors that can affect the process. When in a stressful situation we all have a tendency to default to what we know. That’s good if it means we perform CPR the way we were trained. But you also hear stories about police officers who, in the midst of a shootout, start collecting their empty magazines off of the street because that’s the way they did it when practicing at the range. The goal of teaching people to show “cognitive flexibility” during a rescue or crisis is for them to default to their training while at the same time being able to expand their awareness and come up with creative solutions to problems that pop up while dealing with a multitude of issues.

Understanding this principle helps in the teaching process. In ocean lifeguarding we teach from the top down. Our instructors focus on the overarching principles and teach to trouble shoot application of these principles to a variety of real life scenarios. For example, instead of teaching exactly how to make contact with a victim in the water, we focus on basic principles such as keeping floatation between the rescuer and victims’ bodies, pausing and assessing a safe distance from a victim. That way the concept works when you use other types of floatation and/or in a myriad of specific rescue techniques. Once these general concepts are internalized through training and repetition (muscle memory), the guards become more confident and comfortable in their ability to handle anything that is thrown at them.

These concepts and a respect for the power and variability of the ocean are the beginnings of forging competent and professional lifeguards.

Rescue Theory – Part 2

Last week we talked about the basics of rescue theory and how we use techniques to make as many parts of a rescue become automatic as we can. The key components of elimination of distracting variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness.

Level of fitness involves a great deal of physical training that is specific to the actual environment that rescues will be made in. Our guards work out every day they work in the beach so they’re intimately familiar with the bottom contour, waves, and currents of that particular day. We also use periodic competitions as a means to motivate the entire staff to be at their physical peak during the beach season and to normalize the physical stresses inherent in a rescue.

Rescue skills atrophy if not used regularly. Incorporated into our daily pre-shift workouts is a skill component. They may practice CPR, hand signals, components of a rescue, public relations, or handling a lost child. Sports enthusiasts and public safety professionals regularly use the term “muscle memory” to signify repeating something over and over again until you don’t have to consciously think about it. For example, you may practice a modification to your swim stroke so many times that you start doing it automatically when you swim. It’s almost like your body remembers how to do something without your brain having to tell it. If these skills are kept current through repeated training and practice, they happen almost subconsciously during the rescue process so the rescuers consciousness isn’t spread too thin and he/she can focus on the weird stuff that inevitably happens instead on things that need to happen for every rescue.

Equipment preparedness is integral in the process. There’s nothing worse when trying to save another person than equipment malfunction. A fairly routine rescue can go horribly wrong when a fin strap breaks or a buoy is wrapped up improperly so the strap doesn’t play out smoothly. One of the first things the lifeguards learn is how to properly wrap their rescue tube. Once this is committed to “muscle memory” it’s automatically done the same way each time. The same principle applies to oxygen units, personal watercraft, rescue vehicles, automatic external defibrillators, and any other piece of equipment. Fewer variables stand between the rescuer and successfully saving a life.

State of readiness is a general concept that basically means the lifeguards come to the job each day prepared mentally, physically, and psychologically. They are able to maintain a state of alertness for their entire shift because they are well rested, hydrated, and wearing the proper gear for sun protection or temperature control. It also implies that they aren’t distracted by personal issues. Finally, before a lifeguard is able to work a stand, they need to have developed a certain level of confidence in their ability to save someone. This is accomplished by instilling the belief that they can handle unusual situations on the fly because they are proficient in their ability think creatively under the gun.

Rescue Theory – Part 1

A swimmer’s head sits low in the water and his arms flap out to the sides while trying to keep his head up. The lifeguard sees the telltale signs of a swimmer in distress. She immediately kicks into a whole pre-determined plan as she radios for backup, grabs her fins and rescue tube, chooses the proper entry (from sand or rocks), dolphins through shallow water while unwrapping her tube. Swimming with her head intermittently up to keep sight of the victim, she pauses on the approach, and talks to him as she keeps her buoy between them while extending it. Upon contact, she moves to his rear and buckles the buoy around him, assesses him, signals to shore what his condition is and if she needs help, swims him to the beach while checking intermittently, re-checks him more thoroughly at the shore and renders whatever medical aid is needed. While doing this she prepares to pass all this info on to her supervisor or other first responders.

Making an ocean rescue is a complicated process which requires a great deal of preparation to effect safely. There are a lot of ways this could potentially go sideways, so we spend a large percentage of precious training time on this topic. Obviously, there is a lot of physical training required in advance so the body is prepared, but the real keys are the mental aspects. These we break into two general categories, elimination of variables and cognitive flexibility under stress.

Elimination of variables encompasses a whole range of physical, mental, and psychological components. The overarching concept is when you start the rescue process there are a lot of things that need to happen, so you want to make sure you take care of as many of these variables as you can in advance and have fewer unknowns as you enter the rescue scenario. In addition to the areas that are consistent between most rescues, each event is unique and so things will be encountered that that could not be planned for.

When you go into action your body instinctively kicks in a whole range of physiological responses so you can do things you wouldn’t normally be able to do. Time seems to slow down as chemicals are dumped into your blood stream. Depending on your training and history you can experience a diminished mental capacity while at the same time have an enhanced physical capability. Taking care of as many things as possible in advance is crucial since you may not be at your best mentally during the rescue process. The key components in the concept of elimination of variables are level of fitness, skills, equipment preparation, and state of readiness.

This is the first of a three-part series that is the basis of how we teach rescue theory. Next, we’ll go into each of the specifics of the elimination of variables. Stay tuned for the next installment and Happy Holidays from all of us at the Galveston Island Beach Patrol!

4 Things To Be Grateful For

Happy Holidays! We’re suddenly at the end of a tough year with increased tourists, warming climate, and ever-increasing crew  reduces patrols to one vehicle a day for a couple of months and turns attention to rebuilding lifeguard towers, working on administrative duties, responding to occasional emergencies, and completing special projects, there is time to reflect. The holidays are a time to take stock of where you are in life, focus on important things, and take time to appreciate what’s good about living on our bizarre, unique, and very special little island. Here are the four things I appreciate the most:

  1. Working as a Lifeguard– It’s an incredible privilege to serve, and to have that service built into your career. So often ex-lifeguards come back to visit and talk about how the time they worked for the Beach Patrol was the most fun, most significant, and most pure. Going to bed knowing that what you did that day directly impacted lives for the better is something of real value. Along with 14 other amazing full-time people, I am fortunate enough to do that all year, and to have done it for most of my life.
  2. Living in Galveston– An old friend and I were talking on the phone recently. He and I grew up on the beach together and worked together for decades. He moved away for a time and couldn’t wait to get back here. He said mostly he missed the people, who are not like anywhere else. He’s from a big local family that’s been here several generations and was also talking about how great it is to live in a place where you have deep roots. We reflected on whether or not you have roots here, how many times and how many ways you cross paths with people in a mall island community like this as you move through life.
  3. Guarding in Galveston– Galveston is a place where people value what a professional lifeguard service brings to the community. The Beach Patrol staff really appreciates the support the community gives us within the city structure, the Park Board, other first responder groups, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, CERT teams, and the citizens themselves. Getting over 7 million tourists home safely is a real team effort, and it takes all of us working together to make this happen. In return, repeat tourist business brings the revenue we all need to remain a vibrant city. Also, I can’t express what a privilege it is to work with the incredible staff of the Beach Patrol. They are a constant inspiration.
  4. The Water– As a 7th generation Galveston who comes from a long line of beach people, I was taught to love and respect the beach and ocean. Now after surfing for 48 years and guarding Galveston’s beach for 40, I still feel honored each day to have the privilege of seeing the sun rise and set over the Gulf.

Winter Precautions

There have been a few wake-up calls in the news about people who didn’t take proper precautions before heading out into the water.  Our year-round staff has been busy while patrolling keeping people away from rip currents near the groins and responding to a myriad of beach emergencies. Hopefully the water will stay cold enough to keep the casual beach visitors out for a couple of months so our crew can rebuild lifeguard towers and take care of all the projects we postponed until the two months we run light patrols. Of course, we’re still available for emergencies and provide rescue response 24/7.

In the winter 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 wear the right wetsuit for the specific 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’ll be able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming. Sometimes in the winter, and often in the spring, 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. When we see big difference between the air and water temperatures, they may put out a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition stay busy during these times when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay or San Luis Pass, while the Coast Guard typically handles the offshore area.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water, especially during the winter. 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 more accurate a starting point a rescuer has, the more likely they are to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. There are a number of apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on fancy electronics! Be sure you have a back up. A built-in watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once, and I personally never go out on the water without wearing it.

Winter on the beach and waterways in our county can be incredible, just be sure and take appropriate safety precautions. And have fun!

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!

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.

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!

Leadership Fridays

Sergeant Andy Moffett and Senior Lifeguard Gheffri Preciado stood in front of the room surveying the small groups of four or five that were having animated discussions as David Mitchel and Iris Guerrero sat off to the side watching intensely. David is our Ecumenical Support and Volunteer Coordinator specialist, and Iris is part of our Wave Watchers and Survivor Support Network Team. She often helps with translation and support for our Colombian guards.  Just as the discussions started to wane Moffett spoke up. “Ok I think you’ve all got some good ideas together. Let’s get each group to give the most important part of the different roles our teams have.”

Team by team they went through the list that included Command Staff, Supervisors/Senior Guards, Lifeguards, and Dispatch. By the time the 10 or so groups were finished, they had covered virtually every component of our operations. I was completely blown away by their comprehensive understanding and support of what people in all parts of our organization do.

For about three years we’ve been working towards a leadership program. Partnering with the Occupational Therapy team from UTMB, our Leadership Committee modified an existing program that was based on a program generated from a Navy Seal team. It’s been a great fit for our staff and incorporates the three key elements of leadership, resiliency, and intercultural competency, emphasizing “extreme ownership.”

Looking at our existing structure and understanding we don’t have much budgetary wiggle room, our team decided to integrate the training into something we already do. Each guard each day has about an hour of training at the beginning of their shifts. They typically go down to the beach and train for about 45 minutes using rescue boards, fins, and rescue tubes. This part is really physical, as it incorporates the elements of making rescues. Then, the last chunk of time is devoted to skills. So, in an average session they may practice repeated rescues using swim fins or rescue boards, then transition to practicing CPR, reviewing hand signals, or review rip current theory.

What our team decided is to turn Friday sessions into “Leadership Fridays.” So, Friday training is now done in our large training room and is mostly devoted to peer guided discussion about how to better guard, better protect yourself physically and psychologically, and to becoming better at seeing the point of view of people in different roles or from different cultures.

This sounds like something that is a good idea on paper but is met with a certain degree of skepticism and cynicism in the real world of teens and young adults. I thought it would take some time to integrate these concepts into our daily lived experience. But I was wrong.

They are all in, and approach it in the same positive and collaborative way they do for the technical side. They dive in just like they do in the ocean, training, or any other way they can pitch in to make us even better at protecting the millions that come to Galveston’s beaches.

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.