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Summer Time is Almost Here

With this cold weather it’s hard to believe that we’re on the verge of starting beach season. We’ve started our daily patrols and it’s only a month till our first lifeguard tryouts and academy, which will happen over Spring Break. Our full time crew has been working hard to get everything ready for the season. They just finished refurbishing all 32 of the lifeguard towers, we’re going live with a new and improved website, updated and revised the Hurricane and Tidal Threat Response Plan for the Park Board, and more. The next big project is to get all the missing and damaged signage up before people start swimming again in a few weeks. We’ve also started our Water Safety Outreach Program in the schools and are preparing to ramp up a number of community programs including Junior Lifeguards, The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, Wave Watchers, At Risk Kids Camp, Lifeguard Scholarship Program, etc.

The Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support Network (SSN) is in its 15th year and has helped around 50 families through the early stages of the coping and grieving process. They have done such a wonderful job though the years of working with hotels, restaurants, consulates, and volunteer clergy, translators, mental health workers, to provide and invaluable service when tragedy strikes. This week was a big step in taking this program to the next level.

I joined Lieutenant Kara Harrison from the Beach Patrol, David Mitchell from the Jesse Tree, and Iris Guererra who is a volunteer for Jesse Tree, Survivor Support Network, and the Beach Patrol Wave Watchers Program. The four of us attended a 3 day certification course for individual and group crisis intervention, which is provided by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. The course covers the basics on how to diffuse and debrief people who have been through traumatic events. It is designed to provide care for individuals and groups. It works for a range of people including everything from normal citizens to public safety professionals. There is, of course, quite a bit of current theory, but also a lot of practice sessions and role playing. That way when you get in the field you can more smoothly apply the principles of the class to normal life.

Another benefit of the course is that this is the same training foundation that our county critical response team has and will be a way to link with this great bunch of people. Having the Jesse Tree involved, along with other groups from the county, means we’re all talking the same language and can support each other when needed. A big part of the idea of critical stress intervention for public safety groups is that you try to have people outside of your normal rank structure conduct the sessions.

Of course Beach Patrol, with its 140 or so lifeguards has its own special needs since we deal with so many serious incidents annually. Building capacity for support of these brave men and women is invaluable in avoiding burnout and in keeping the workforce mentally healthy.

New Era of Rescue Services?

Recently some footage of what was reported to be the first real water rescue made by a drone at Lennox Head, New South Wales, Australia went viral. There were two swimmers just outside the surf line kind of floating around. The footage was from the drone itself as it dropped this package from maybe 100 feet up. Upon impact this big sausage looking thing inflated. Two swimmers swam over to it and floated on it back to shore. At one point it looked like a wave knocked one of them off it, but the guy swam easily back to it and rode it in. The announcer talked about how it was the first rescue by drones.

Drones have been used by lifeguard agencies for quite awhile now for surveillance. There are a couple of beaches that I know of that fly the on a set schedule as shark spotters. The operators have to be trained as pilots since they’re a governmental agency. Newport Beach, which is pretty cashed up, flies them three times a week for a 20 minute flight. If they see a shark bigger than a certain size they increase the schedule until it moves out of the area. There’s actually an Australian company that has gotten into them pretty heavily for mountain rescue that have been working up prototypes on the beach. The one I’ve seen is called the “Little Ripper”.  The mountain rescue ones have been shown to be pretty effective in spotting lost hikers and dropping survival packages to them as they wait for help to arrive on foot. But the ocean has been more of a challenge.

Most of the commonly available and affordable drones currently have a flight time of 20 minutes and can’t run in over 20 mile an hour winds. The Little Ripper is apparently a bit better in flight time and can fly in slightly higher winds. It also can be equipped with night vision. But even so, that’s not much good in search and recovery operations that typically take place during pretty extreme conditions over large areas, requiring much longer flight times.

This “rescue” was the byproduct of a $430,000 government funded program and it was on a test flight by a happy coincidence. It looks like the two swimmers were not actually in distress, but maybe they were tired. They were able to swim to the tube a couple of times. It looks like had they actually been drowning they couldn’t have made forward motion to grab the float.

I think the day will come where there will be drones available that may be able to augment beach lifesaving programs in very real and cost effective ways. Particularly in remote locations or for search and recovery operations. For now they’re a great way to get a camera in the air for short periods of time under the right conditions. It appears for a while longer we’ll be droning on about drones every time something like this goes viral.

Mind Over Matter

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

I hate the cold. I’d be happy if it never dipped below 80 degrees year round. I have a lot of friends through the International Lifesaving Federation from all over and I mentioned how cold it’s been here to  the head of the lifesaving federation of Norway and to the Executive Director of the Danish Lifesaving Federation. Big mistake. Telling northern Europeans it’s cold in Galveston, Texas is a little like telling someone from Cairo that the Strand is “really old”.

The reply from Norway was a picture showing a road dusted with snow with what looks like a couple of inches on the sides. It says, “In the USA- Close all the schools there’s no way we can go to school in this weather!” Then it’s followed by another picture of a snow covered road between what looks like huge ice cliffs on both sides. The caption for this one reads, “In Norway- Kids if you do well on this test I promise we can take a bath in the lake, your dad will break the ice for us.”

As if I wasn’t already feeling like a whiner, I then got my buddy’s reply from Denmark. Erik told me how they’d gotten to feeling pretty cooped up since the days only had about 7 hours of daylight and it had been snowing several feet, so they hadn’t seen the sun in a number of days. He and his fellow lifeguards decided to go out for some “training”. They went to a nearby lake, cut a hole in the ice with a chainsaw, then put on really thick wetsuits and dive gear. Dropping into the water with a soccer ball, they inflated their buoyancy compensators so they floated up like corks. Standing upside down on the bottom of the ice they played underwater soccer. He didn’t mention alcohol, but I can only imagine those big Vikings coming up periodically to down goblets of ale between points.

It’s all relative. Those replies remind me how good we have it here where we whine about weather that drops a little below freezing. But there’s a deeper level. A lot of things we experience as discomfort or as an inconvenience can be pretty enjoyable once you shift your mindset. With the right clothes almost any cold is comfortable. Or if you shift your mind further you can redefine what “comfortable” is. An older gentleman that many of you know runs every day on the seawall early in the morning. He is always wearing shorts no matter what the temperature. I passed him early one of those cold mornings. As I passed I thought to myself that he must be suffering. They he gave his usual smile and wave and continued his slow, steady pace down the wall looking the farthest thing from cold or uncomfortable as possible.

I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

Cold Winter Days

I had a suggestion from a friend this week to write about how we deal with the cold water and air while working in the beach environment. It’s an interesting topic since even when we’re building towers, working on signage, or even working in the office we have to be ready at a moment’s notice to enter the water, potentially for prolonged periods, if an emergency drops.

The water last week dropped into the 40’s, which is no joke. Water in the 40’s can kill you pretty quickly if you are not prepared and don’t know what you’re doing. For this reason, we buy our full time staff good wetsuits that they keep handy at all times. Few people could function for more than a few minutes in 48 degree water without a decent wetsuit.

There’s a misconception that all you have to do is pop on a wetsuit and you’re good in any temperature of water. This isn’t at all true and there are several variables that go into effect when you’re doing rescue work in cold water, such as body mass, how accustomed you are to the cold, etc. Even so, probably the most important thing is having the right wetsuit for both the air/water temperature, duration, and for the activity. But even with the right suit, the first thing that happens when you jump in is freezing cold water slips into the suit, taking your breath away. If you don’t know what happens next you may panic. Fortunately, after just a few minutes that water in your suit is heated by your body and forms a thin layer of water between your skin and the suit. This layer of water acts as insulation and actually keeps you warm despite the cold water outside the suit, and to a more limited extent against cold wind above the water.

For example if you’re going scuba diving in 50 degree water you will need a very thick wetsuit, maybe 6 millimeters thick with boots, gloves, and a hood. In that same water temperature, for a strenuous rescue or swim session taking 45 minutes or less you’d want more flexibility in your suit and you’d be generating a great deal more body heat, so you might be happy with something that is only 3 millimeters thick. Some suits are designed for swimming with flexible areas around the shoulders and others are better for surfing with areas around the hips that are more flexible. But all are way better than just jumping in!

Originally wetsuits were made of rubber and designed by a west coast aerospace engineer (who was a surfer) for the military. But soon after the use of neoprene with its flexibility and closed cells trapping air inside the material made it affordable and practical for surfers and lifeguards and later for all types of water sports enthusiasts.

As we continue to see more beach use during the cold months we’d be lost without wetsuits to help us protect increasing numbers of beach users.

Lyle Gun

It was a moonless bitter cold night as the hooded figure walked along the beachfront. His long coat swirled around him as the icy rain and wind whipped through his clothes despite his efforts to keep them wrapped around his thin body. He held his lantern to the side so as not to hamper his ability to scan the ocean for lights. He still had a few miles to walk before he reached the turnaround point, where he would meet another man in a small warming hut. They would spend some time chatting and exchange tokens, so each could show their station master proof that they’d made the grueling trek.

Suddenly he noticed the thing that every Lifesaver Man dreads and at the same time hopes for. He spotted a light offshore that moved back and forth. To the untrained eye it would look innocuous, but he recognized what it was immediately. A ship was grounded and getting pounded by waves. He ran to the area and saw the size of the ship, which gave him an idea of how many passengers there were. He signaled with his light, and then ran the whole way back to the station. The station master sounded the alarm and the crew scrambled a response. It was too rough and windy to think about launching the rescue boat, but the ship was close enough to shore to bring the “Lyle Gun”, which was essentially a small cannon. They hooked a team of donkeys to the cannon and went as fast as possible.

When the crew arrived, they went through a practiced procedure that involved firing the cannon at the ship with a weighted object tied to a light line. This line was used to connect a heavier line to a sand anchor. Using a simple but ingenious pulley system they were able to send a “Bosun’s” chair back and forth on the heavier line. Pulling one person at a time across the gap between the ship that was being battered to a pulp to the shore took hours for the team. Once they had everyone on shore, most of the survivors and a few of the rescuers could hardly function and had to be carried to the station by the team of donkeys on a cart. From there the families of the Lifesaver Men, who lived in a tiny settlement adjacent to the station cared for them until they recovered.

The first lifeguards in Galveston were men like these. The US Lifesaving Service had a station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875. Eventually, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and recreational swimming, it split into the Red Cross and the US Coast Guard.

I can’t imagine how hard a life these brave men led. They worked under the most extreme conditions and displayed incredible bravery. But the same spirit exists in the men and women that protect Galveston and our nation’s beaches today.

Cold Foggy Days

The water temperature on the beachfront dropped 12 degrees in 3 days last week. This is a pretty dramatic shift as only a degree or two makes a significant difference when you’re swimming. Because the water is so shallow here on the upper Texas coast the water temperature is constantly changing during the fall and spring. A few warm or cold days can have a big impact. Another factor is when fronts blow through and take the warm water, which sits close to the surface, out to sea which allows the deeper, cooler water to well up.

With recent water temps in the 50’s, 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 not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the 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’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

When the air is warm but the water is cold 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. Last week there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition as well as the Coast Guard are kept busy when kayakers and boaters get lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass areas. Some can be really close to shore, but have no idea where they are.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. 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 better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once when I was training on my surf ski a couple miles from shore and a fog bank rolled in.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting out there, and then plan accordingly. Remember that “Murphy’s Law” is twice as likely to apply when on the water!

10th Anniversary of the Biggest Storm

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 grimy 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 that I felt the tiny boy’s hand in mine as I held on to he and his sister while walking chest deep in the grime 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, and more recently through Hurricane Harvey, have memories like this ingrained into us that probably will never leave. It’s hard to believe that we’ve had another major event as we approach the 10th anniversary of the biggest storm that anyone alive remembers here.

A few years after Ike we had a city meeting to recap and use lessons learned to prepare for the next big event. As we went through the details it struck me how much better each group was prepared as a result of Ike and of what we’ve seen happen when other storms affected communities.  I also noticed how many new faces were in the room as opposed to the previous years. Charlie Kelly, who was the Director of the Emergency Operations for Galveston at the time, mentioned his fear that all the event memory would be lost as people who went through the storm moved on. I’m sure lots were thinking the same thing in that room. The nice thing is that each group’s emergency action plan is much more comprehensive than what we had before. Recently we went through the exercise of revamping our hurricane response plan for the Park Board. We’re trying to make it not only a document that is actually useful for all phases of a disaster, but something that will keep institutional memory alive for our successors.

In life guarding we train to eliminating variables that can mess you up during a rescue by practicing them until your body remembers even when 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. Rescues, like hurricanes, never go according to plan. Best to be as prepared as possible so less is left to do on the fly. What works for organizations works in each of our personal homes and lives as well.

Water Safety

This week has been a great example of why Galveston in the fall is such a great combination. The water still hovers just over 70 degrees and the days have been beautiful. We still run patrol vehicles and are scheduled to do that until December 1st, at which time we’ll focus on rebuilding lifeguard towers, repairing equipment, replacing signs and rescue boxes that need it, and a thousand other small things we need to do to prepare for the next season. Of course, if this type of weather comes back around, we’ll divert our resources back up to the beach front to make sure everyone is OK. We also continue to respond to emergency calls day or night just as we do the rest of the year, so if you need us for something urgent just dial 911.

We responded with our partners in the police, fire, and EMS to a pool incident earlier this week. That call reminded me that, although we specialize in beach and surf lifesaving, there is a broader world of water safety. At times we are so preoccupied with our primary concern of rip currents and other beach related issues that we neglect to stress the importance of some very basic safety advice.

As the president of the United States Lifesaving Organization, which specializes in open water lifeguarding, one of my duties is to sit on the board of a really wonderful group called “Water Safety USA” www.watersafetyusa.org . Water Safety USA is a roundtable of longstanding national nonprofit and governmental organizations with a strong record of providing drowning prevention and water safety programs, including public education. Part of our mission is to tease out commonalities in water safety messaging between the 14 members and encourage them to put out information the same way. That way the public will not receive so many similar messages that are presented different ways. Unified messaging is much more effective and hopefully more likely to stay in people’s minds.

At this point there are two main messages Water Safety USA promotes. The first is “Water Safety- Its Learning to Swim and So Much More”. The importance of learning to swim is fairly obvious, but the idea is part of a larger framework of skills and information that keep you safe when in or around the water. The second is “Designate a Water Watcher, Supervision Could Save a Life”. The idea here is that when kids are swimming there should be an older responsible person whose sole responsibility is to watch them and make sure they’re safe. The third message will be released in the spring and has to do with the use of life jackets when in or around the water.

Remember that backyard pools and other bodies of water claim many more lives each year than the beach. And winter does not mean that you can drop your guard. Supervision, barrier devices, learning to swim, etc. are key components to making sure water is what it should be- something to enjoy safely.

Highlights of 2017

Every year when the season slows down we review our season to see how we did. I enjoy the process because it helps show how the Beach Patrol is an entire safety and educational network, as opposed to merely the lifeguard service for the city of Galveston.  The process also helps target areas we can improve on next season. Awfully proud of our crew for all the work that went into these accomplishments! Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Maintained and posted annual statistics with the United States Lifesaving Association. We use these to target areas for improvement and to help show what we do. This year we performed 124,556 preventions, 123 rescues, 160 lost children reunited with families, 1,480 medical responses, and 2,842 enforcement actions
  • Maintained 32 lifeguard towers on beach for the 7 month season
  • Daily patrols vehicles scheduled on the west end from Memorial – Labor Day. We had staffing issues this year that were a challenge, but we hit this goal for the most part
  • Patrolled San Luis Pass with a UTV on weekends from Memorial – Labor Day weekends. They focused on enforcement of our “no swimming” ordinance in the dangerous areas
  • Revised Policy and Procedure manual, a task we do each season to keep us current, efficient, and focused
  • More than doubled last year’s goal by providing talks to 25,900 kids in our School Water Safety Outreach Program.
  • Facilitated the development, training and growth of Texas coastal lifeguarding programs by providing a train-the-trainer course to 12 Beach Patrol managers from South Padre, Cameron County, Corpus Christi, and Port Aransas Beach Patrols
  • At least Beach Patrol representative served the community on Galveston College L.E. Academy board, Better Parks of Galveston, Children’s Museum, and the Galveston Marine Response team.
  • Provided a Basic Water Rescue course for 12 surf instructors and all of the Galveston Fire Department.
  • Increase Social Media footprint. We increased followers from 4,568 to 6,167 from 2016 to 2017, a 26% increase
  • Added movie promo and mass text campaigns to our recruiting efforts
  • Included tourist ambassador training in all three of our Lifeguard Academies.
  • Maintained prominent positions in national and international organizations (Davis- President of United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), Secretary General Americas Region of International Lifesaving Association; Pryor- Chair of USLA Certification Committee, President of Gulf Region of USLA), Harrison on USLA Textbook Revision Committee and Vice Chair of Heroic Acts Committee
  • Conducted an annual review of Park Board Disaster Response Plan
  • Initiate a community based education program called “Wave Watchers”. 11 trained, over 600 hours service completed by volunteers
  • Helped facilitate “Senior Beach Walk” program. Seniors completed more than 20 walks averaging about 7 individuals per walk
  • Junior Lifeguard Program- Increased participants from 104 to 114, 8% inc
  • Emergency Response 24/7/365 and vehicle patrols 10 months out of the year
  • Sent Lifeguard and Jr Guard team of 22 to nationals. Juniors had 15 top 12 finishes. Lifeguard team had 15 top 10 finishes and won 10 medals.
  • Hurricane Harvey- 4 teams helped make 127 urban flood rescues

2017 Rescue Wrap Up

There are still plenty of swimmers and an occasional person blown offshore when these fronts come through. In fact, last Tuesday, Brandon Venegas and Micah Fowler made a rescue of a kite boarder that had some equipment problems and couldn’t make it back in.

The end of the season gives us a chance to assess how we did this year and to recognize those who performed heroic acts or performed outstanding community service. Last Tuesday, while the rescue was taking place, some of us were at the monthly Park Board meeting giving awards.

First the 54 lifeguards who worked during the storm were recognized. Since most couldn’t be there we will save their framed certificates for our next “All Staff” meeting so they can receive it in front of their peers. Then the guards who performed high water/urban flooding rescues were recognized. Their award is a framed certificate and a Beach Patrol “Challenge Coin” for meritorious acts of bravery. Those who worked the urban flooding were: Dain Buck, Joe Cerdas, Daniel Fleming, Micah Fowler, Michelle Gomez, Mason Healy, Austin Kirwin, Gave Macicek, Sam Toth, Alec Vaughn, Tyler Vaughn, Brandon Venegas, Tony Pryor, me, Park Board Coastal Zone Management department’s Larry Smith, and Joey Walker.

There were three rescues that really stood out this summer. The first was an incredible spot and rescue by Juan Figuerroa from 37th of a group of three in the rip current at 33rd. He rescued one that was actively submerging.

The second was a group of 3 way out by the Pleasure Pier T-head spotted by our Lieutenant of Administration on her way home from the office. She swam out through large, choppy surf and stabilized the group at the head of the rip current until Joe Cerdas made it out on a rescue board and brought them one by one through the surf. Few people could have made the spot of those little heads way out close to the west side of the pier as they drove east to west. Even fewer could have managed to power through that nasty, rough surf and brought people in without mishap through the same surf while navigating around the rip.

The final one also occurred as a very nice spot from the 37th street tower to the rip at 33rd early in the morning before all the guards were out. David Garcia called it in and ran down to find two groups of three. He kept one group afloat which included an unconscious man. I arrived first with Lifeguard Camilo Murillo. Camilo went to the second group and was later assisted by Hallie Pauling, to bring all three to safety. David passed the unconscious person to me, brought two to shore, returned to help me bring the last one in as I gave rescue breaths.

All in all this is one of the busiest seasons we’ve had with rough conditions and big crowds most of the summer. But, as always, our crew rose to the occasion.