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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.

Sicilio Adventures

Supervisor Matt Sicilio was patrolling the stretch between Stewart and East Beach last weekend when he was dispatched to check on a woman with burns on her feet. When he arrived, he realized that she had serious burns on her foot soles because her shoes had come off in the middle of some deep, dry sunbeaten sand on her way to the moist, cooler sand. This heatwave and sun rays are no joke. We’ve been called to several heat exhaustion cases and a couple of burned feet situations in the past week alone. And this is June!

Burns to extremities can be a big deal, so she needed to go to the hospital. Normally this would be a pretty straightforward thing, but its easy for things to get complicated on the beach. Because of the dry, fluffy sand, much of the beach is inaccessible unless you have 4WD, and even then, you have to know how to drive in these conditions. That means no EMS or Fire can come to the scene, so Matt had to coordinate with EMS with an improvised plan. They walked through a hotel lobby out to the beach and met him. Then together they packaged her and drove her in the back of the lifeguard truck a mile down the beach and around to the parking lot of the hotel to load her in the ambulance.

Matt has been a supervisor for a fairly short time, and he’s already shown that he’s a natural fit who can figure out how to improvise and adapt to most situations. In fact, later the same day he was tested again.

Another call came in that afternoon about a stranded jet ski on the west end. The craft was so far offshore that it was impossible to spot. Fortunately, the operator had a fully charged cell. Matt and his partner were able to talk with them directly and told them how to pull their GPS coordinates off the phone. Then Matt was able to plug them into an app he has on his phone and navigate over 5 miles from shore to locate them where they were tied off to an offshore platform. The two men were making the most of “their time at sea” fishing while waiting for help to arrive. The US Coast Guard ended bringing the two men aboard and towing the jet ski all the way to the Coast Guard base some 20 miles away. All told, Matt and his partner were out of their patrol zone for a little over two hours. This is a lot for us on a busy weekend, as it leaves coverage thin, but before cell phones the same thing could have taken hours or even days. Technology definitely saves lives.

Many of these potentially serious emergencies can be avoided by basic preparation. Having the right gear, making a plan, and making sure you have shared your intentions can make a huge difference in getting home safe.

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

Close Call

Lifeguard Rafael Diaz was working the early shift at tower 59 when he noticed a large school group pull up in two busses over by the 53rd Street groin. It wasn’t his area, but the guard for 53 wasn’t due to arrive for a few minutes more. Diaz, being a very proactive guard, noticed a big group of high school kids entering the water.

The current was running hard from west to east and there were really strong rip currents by the rocks. Diaz called in what he saw and started running towards the group. He yelled and whistled and was able to catch the attention of most of the large group and get about 15 of them to return to shore before they were pushed to the drop off where the rip current was.

Two young men were too far gone and got sucked quickly towards the end of the rock pier before we could make it to them. The 53rd Street guard arrived the same time that I pulled up. He followed Diaz into the water, and I ran out on the rocks.  The two young men were competent swimmers and kept their wits about them. They climbed up onto the rocks at the head of the jetty emerging with shallow cuts all over their legs and feet, but otherwise OK. I met them on top of the jetty and saw that Diaz gave the OK signal indication that there were no other swimmers in danger.

Diaz likely prevented multiple drownings by his quick actions in alerting the group to return to shore before they all got caught in the current like the two guys had done. But this is a big lesson for all of us.

Beach season is here, and the beaches are busy and crowded. With warm water and the usual rough spring conditions, its critical that we all remember the basics of swimming near a lifeguard, staying away from the rocks, and observing warning signage, because things can happen fast.  With 32 miles of beach there are many times and places where you will not have lifeguard coverage, so it’s a really good idea to remember these and other safety tips before you get to the beach.

Another thing to consider is getting to and from the beach safely. Driving responsibly, not drinking and driving (or swimming), and being very careful crossing the roadway to get to the sand are all things to consider. Basically, remember to keep your eyes open and don’t assume just because you are on vacation that its OK to forget to bring your most important safety weapon- your brain!

We are in the last push for the big Memorial weekend. We have a group of lifeguards graduating from a lifeguard academy and another is planned for June 15th. We got the go ahead to increase the pay to up to 18 an hour for new guards and are looking for anyone interested to join us. We’re also excited to kick off Beach Safety Week, which starts Sunday.

Beach Patrol and What’s Coming Up

This Sunday, May 1st, we are expecting 70 or so lifeguard candidates to show up for lifeguard tryouts. The following Saturday we’ll have another tryout and academy as well. We need them all!

I thought it would be fun to walk you through a sample of a summer day with us to illustrate all the things that are happening behind the scenes.

Starting at 7:30am the first patrol truck hits the beach, puts out flags, gets an overall feel for conditions, and updates the warning system. Our 1st dispatcher arrives and preps for the shifts to arrive. Three shifts of guards arrive starting at 7:45, followed by 10:30, and the main shift comes on just after noon. All shifts go to the beach for physical training, followed by short sessions that rotate between topics related to lifeguarding, medical response, resiliency, leadership, tourist relations or intercultural competency. For every 3 towers we ideally have 4 guards scheduled per day, to allow for breaks. Dispatchers work in a similar way.

We stagger our shifts to best use our resources and aren’t at full strength until after noon. To help fill the gap, many of our Wave Watcher volunteer program are out early checking various areas of the beach. They are a huge help in spotting potential issues before they escalate.

Meanwhile, we are also working administrative staff 9-5 and running our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp, with kids between 10 and 15. The first session of the day runs from 8-12 and the second from 1-5. They typically bounce back and forth from the headquarters to the water. They recover from exercises, games, and skills sessions while having lessons on similar topics as the guards. Then they go back to the ocean for swimming, paddling, rescue techniques, etc. We choose instructors carefully, so they’re learning from the best.

Guards get off around 8:30pm and supervisors and dispatchers continue for another hour. Then, some lucky soul gets to be “on call” and be ready to respond throughout the night to all kinds of emergencies.

Afternoons are our busiest time and can be filled with emergencies, or just the steady work of keeping people from danger. We work a zone system, where each truck takes care of a zone having 5-9 towers in it. We work a zone system, and are always ready to backfill, so we’re able to maintain uninterrupted coverage.

To accomplish all of this, we have approximately 125 lifeguards- most of whom are teenagers, 10 dispatchers, and 15 year-round employees. We cover 9 miles with 34 towers, provide patrol for 33 miles, and respond 24/7/365 to emergencies that happen in about 70 miles of waterfront. We also maintain our police department, support 15 or so Survivor Support Network Volunteers, and about 60 Wave Watchers. And our JG day camp program has 120 kids ranging in age from 10-15.

This all works because we have layers of supervision and coaching, both in our facility and on the beach, where the adults are in constant contact with the teenagers and children.

Clean Beaches

It takes a village to keep our beaches clean.

As Chief of Beach Patrol, I often write this column about our dedicated lifeguards and the volunteers in the Wave Watches and Survivor Support Network, Junior Lifeguards, and community groups that save lives, protect the beach, and raise awareness about water safety.

This week, I was reminded of the big beach cleanup event tomorrow, Saturday 10th, and recalled the front-line guardians, workers, and volunteers that keep our shores clean, green and pristine. While the official stewards of Galveston’s coastal environment are the Park Board’s Coastal Zone Management (CZM) and the Beach Parks Management teams, they are fortified with thousands of resolute volunteers. ​

While sharing the vision of a new environmentally sustainable Beach Patrol headquarters facility last week with our all-volunteer citizen-led Beach Maintenance Advisory Committee, I saw great work being done. This committee, made up of research and science professionals and engaged citizens, are dedicated ambassadors that talk to residents, share best practices, and make recommendations about keeping our beaches clean.  ​

While beach visitation is ramping up, our amazing overnight CZM crews picked up 36 canopies and miscellaneous beach gear items left on the beach overnight in March; last March the crew picked up sixty-two. Last year they collected 477 compared to 1,458 in 2020. Numbers are trending down, and it could be a direct result of the “Leave No Trace” ordinance enacted in 2018. Many people are doing their part by adhering to the ordinance and not abandoning items that often turn into environmental and safety hazards. Our city, the Park Board, and our residents can be proud that their collaboration and direct efforts in confronting the problem is making a big difference. ​Roundtable discussions and townhalls found creative solutions and promoted individual environmental stewardship.​ So keep reminding your friends, family, and visitors to “leave no trace” and never leave anything overnight.

Education and enforcement are finding new ways to diminish trash on the beaches and freeing up CZM crews to focus on other challenges like driftwood on the beaches. The crews relocated wood every day this week and our environmental experts surmise that it’s coming from the Brazos and Colorado Rivers convergence at the Gulf – a result of the storms that hit central Texas in mid-March.

Portuguese Man-O-War have been washing up on the beaches too. The blue balloon-like organisms are easy to spot. While beautiful, nematocysts on their tentacles can still deliver a painful sting when beached so be careful not to touch, especially when cleaning the beaches this weekend.

Hundreds of volunteers will be part of the Clean Galveston Adopt-A-Beach Coastwide Spring Cleanup this Saturday (April 9) and you can register online at https://www.cleangalveston.org to take the opportunity to be part of a great team.

This column is limited to 500 words and I can’t recognize all the great groups that are part of making our beaches so beautiful, but if you know a group that deserves a cheer, make a comment or post at www.visitgalveston.com.

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.

 

 

Spring Break and Tri

Here we go! Another beautiful, busy weekend has passed. With no seaweed, perfect water and air temperature, and large well-behaved crowds, it’s no wonder our property values have risen so much! Technically, that should be the last big one of spring break, but I have a feeling that if the weather holds, we’ll be looking at busy weekends until the summer madness kicks in. We’ve been reviewing stats and staffing patterns and the reality has set in that Galveston’s beaches are busier earlier and later than they were just a few years back. Last weekend looked like a weekend in June. Again, our luck held with calm few incidents, even though we were busy with small stuff all weekend. Over Spring Break, we ended up with 5 rescues and a 4,153 actions where we moved people from dangerous areas.

The action is showing no sign of slowing. Sunday, April 3, is the Memorial Hermann 70.3 half Ironman event. We’re working with the Ironman staff, the Galveston Police Department Marine Division and Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue to provide water security. With around 3,000 registered participants it’s going to be a huge event and a big deal for Galveston. We work the watercourse with a modified version of how we guard the beach. Lifeguards work on rescue boards, so they can sit above the water to spot people and have floatation for all the swim assists and rescues we typically make during the event. Other guards work on “jet skis” to cover a zone of several guards and we call them Personal Watercraft Crew (PWC). Lifeguards communicate with PWC crews and each other using a combination of whistles and hand signals, which are the same ones we use on the beach front. The PWC operators have waterproof radio headsets so they can communicate with an “incident commander” on the shore. This capability affords the ability to triage patients in the water and quickly pass information to the incident commander, EMS, and the Ironman workers who know the racers’ numbers and vital patient information. Most of the people rescued are tired swimmers, but we can experience more serious cases that go directly to the EMS crews. At the end of the race, the lifeguards and police divers stay on the water until the Ironman staff confirms that all swimmers have been cleared of the water using the numbers we provide and electronic chips that register racer numbers as they run across a mat at the end of the swim.

Last Saturday, we held our first lifeguard tryouts of the season. The next one is in May. Out of all the applicants, four made it through the tryouts and demanding lifeguard academy. We also had a decent number of returning lifeguards requalify and, for those in leadership roles, go through their annual retraining in rescue techniques, report writing, advanced level CPR, and PWC rescue. The tower guards will renew their CPR qualifications along with those who return in May.

Another season is upon us and we’re all ready for another wild ride!