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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!

African American Lifeguard Monument Committee

After a full day, I climbed down a metal ladder from a flat, wooden platform with a thatched roof at 28th. It was a community beach back in ’84, and I knew most of the beach patrons by sight, if not by name. At that time, it was also still mostly an African American beach, as it had been designated either culturally or since the ‘20s.

As I made my way up to the seawall with my bicycle, I stopped to chat with 4 guys around my age or a bit older, one of which had recently graduated from Ball High with me. They were the “evening watch”, and I was never clear if they assigned themselves that role or the neighborhood leaders did. I let them know about things to watch for. As I rode home, I knew the beach was in safe hands, and that at least one of them would stop by the next day and update me on whatever happened after I left.

Years later, I ran down to stop a group of teens from getting caught in a rip current at the same location. An older African American man was already there when I arrived, yelling at them to get away from the rocks. Although he looked strong and fit from a distance, when I approached him, I could see that he was much older than he appeared. Well into his ‘80’s then OC Brown, as he introduced himself, was still full of that fire that lifeguards for life have. He told me he’d worked that beach for years and scolded me that I was a bit slow in responding. He was so impressive, and that event emphasized for me the layers of untold history, much of it involving African Americans, that is woven into our beaches and our island.

To that end, we’ve pulled together a committee that has been working on some really cool stuff, chaired by David Mitchell. The Beach Patrol, NIA Cultural Center, Old Central Cultural  Center, Visit Galveston, The Historical Foundation, Galveston Lifeguarding Inc., and others have been working on a multi staged project. Phase 1 was submission of an application for an “Undertold Story” marker on the same spot of the seawall that the “Evening Watch” sat, with the help of the County, City, and a myriad of groups that have thrown in support. The marker will honor the African American Beach and the black lifeguards that worked it.

Phase two will be a data base that profiles African American Lifeguards and black beach history. We’re looking for families and friends who can record stories of these heroes. We are also exploring the possibility of a large, sculptural monument to these lifeguards. The idea is that there will be a way to point your phone at either project and access the data base, and this will be part of a larger cultural tour of the island.

If you or anyone you know would be interesting in recording you or your family’s experience with an African American guard, please contact Alex Thomas at [email protected] or 409-797-5155.

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!

Off Shore Winds

If there’s one thing lifeguards hate on an offshore wind day is an emergency where a person is being blown out to sea. When the wind blows offshore, it creates a unique set of circumstances that can be lethal. This is mostly a danger during the spring and fall when repeated frontal systems pass across the Texas coast. When someone is blown offshore on a floating object, they can quickly realize that it gets rougher the farther from the shoreline you drift. Short period, choppy surf pushing away from the beach is almost impossible to swim or paddle against. We don’t permit inflatable objects, which act like sails, in the water when wind blows from the north for this reason.

Dusk is the absolute worst time to get into a situation like this. The wind and waves can carry a person beyond the field of vision of a rescuer really quickly. Looking out to sea while standing at sea level only enables a person to see 3 miles or so before a floating object disappears beyond the curvature of the earth. If there are waves or chop this distance is lessened and once a person disappears over the horizon the chances of finding them drop. Add low light to the equation and the chances drop even more. In this scenario, finding someone using a boat is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We move quickly on these calls and try to keep an eye on the victim, or the “last seen point”, until we can launch a jet ski. Fortunately, we’ve saved a number of people by making an educated guess based on wind, current, and a last seen point.

A few years ago, a couple of lifeguards were out training in our surf boat on a strong offshore wind day. A surf boat is essentially a two-person rowboat with a closed bottom and big holes in the sides that allow wave water to run out. They were only about 50 yards from shore when one lost an oar and decided to swim in and get help. The other couldn’t maintain solo against the wind and as he got farther offshore the water got choppier, and the wind increased. By the time we got a jet ski into the water, we could no longer see him. It took an hour search following the direction of the wind to find him five miles offshore and another half hour to make it back to shore. We had just decided to call for a Coast Guard helicopter when we spotted the boat on the horizon. We were lucky on that one, but it shows how quickly things can go bad on those days, even for professionals.

Now that we are getting frontal systems regularly, always swim with a friend and be sure to keep a close eye on the wind direction. Stay really close to shore when the north wind blows and be extra careful about paddling out on anything that floats.

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.

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.