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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.

 

Lifesaving and the Future of Drones

Drones are a hot topic right now in a lot of areas, but the international lifesaving community is becoming more and more interested in them as we look to see the newest developments. It is however hard to separate fact from fiction in a world where a YouTube video can go viral and become “fact” simply because there are so many people that see it and it takes on a sort of critical mass.

Over the past few years there have been a number of internet hoaxes related to lifesaving and drones. Usually the story is that a drone manufacturing company is testing a drone in an area working with the national lifeguard program. These drones reportedly can drop some type of floatation device, such as an inflatable ring buoy to a person in distress in the water. In the videos a person is in the process of drowning and, just as they submerge the flat falls magically within their reach. Then, even more magically, the person has the presence of mind to swim a couple of strokes and grab the buoy. Through the work I do with the International Lifesaving Federation, some of these stories come across my desk to look into. So far, when I’ve followed up with the national lifesaving groups in Brazil or Venezuela or wherever else, they’ve turned out to be clever marketing ploys with no basis. But that may change soon.

Drones are being used already in some beaches for overhead surveillance. They fly regularly at a couple of beaches in California for shark spotting. They’re used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. But actual rescue or search and rescue activities appear to still be a little out of reach. The drones that are within the range of most lifeguard programs budgets typically have a flight time of 20-30 minutes, can’t carry much payload, and don’t operate in winds over 20 miles per hour. My guess is that when the cost goes down a bit and agencies can get their hands on drones that have an hour or more of flight time in rougher conditions this may change and they’ll be helpful when looking for missing people.

There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, then grab them and tow them to shore. Even that they could initiate CPR and maintain until first responders arrive. Still seems a bit like science fiction, but we’re probably not too far away from some real developments. Real enough that the International Lifesaving Federation is starting the conversation about how this type of technology could augment some of the more progressive and resource rich lifesaving services around the world. Even now, larger drones that look like mini airplanes are being used for mountain rescue and are able to drop survival packages to people. In places like Australia they are being used as a way to keep an eye on remote beach locations that lifeguards don’t regularly cover.

Night Rescue

Supervisors Dain Buck and Thomas “TK” Mills made their way carefully through the dark night to the other side of the Ship Channel to the North Jetty. They squinted through the spray kicked up by big, rolling swells as the powerful watercraft motor churned them along. The water was still rough but was a bit calmer near the jetty, although big swells came through and across the rocks. They headed seaward, hugging the rocks and used big, waterproof dive lights to scan for the boat reported to be in distress.

The jetty is two miles long and they located the wrecked boat pretty far offshore. The boat had run up on the rocks and still had three people on board. Another couple of boats had seen them and were nearby, but could not get close enough to help because of the large swells and waves crashing over from the other side. Coast Guard did not have a helicopter available, and were really busy so response by boat was delayed. In this type of situation there are basically only two ways to get people off the rocks. The Coast Guard can lower a rescue swimmer who puts each person in a harness to be air lifted. The other option is for a swimming rescue, meaning Beach Patrol swims from the water, climbs up the rocks and figures out how to get the people off safely.

Dain maneuvered the rescue craft as close as he could to the rocks and they called out to the passengers. They were unharmed, although shaken up, and were all in lifejackets. One of the nearby boats volunteered to transport them to safety if the Beach Patrol rescue crew could get them to the boat.

Dain backed the craft towards the rocks as TK balanced on the rescue sled. The waves rising and falling made it difficult as the boat and sled moved up and down, in danger of being crushed. TK slid off the back and swam to the rocks. He pulled himself up on the rocks and passed a helmet up to the first of three passengers. Once the helmet was secure and they checked to make sure her lifejacket was snug, she leaned over the side of the boat into TK’s outstretched arms. He held onto her as Dain backed up even further, allowing the rescue sled to hover over the rocks right where TK and the victim stood. They had to time it perfectly, with TK laying the victim down on the sled and climbing on top before the trough between waves stranded them high and dry. As soon as they were in position, Dain gunned the craft, pulling them to deeper water- and to safety.

The second and third rescues were just as tough, but at least they had the system down, so went fairly smoothly. Once they were all loaded in the “Good Samaritan’s” boat everyone finally relaxed.

Beach Patrol and our partner agencies make a number of these types of rescues all around the island each year.

Tech and Harvey

As Beach Patrol Supervisor Austin Kirwin navigated his jet ski to the side of the highway to drop off another group of rescued people, his partner helped them dismount the rescue sled attached to the ski and walked them to shore. Meanwhile, Austin pulled out his phone in its waterproof case and squinted through the rain and wind as he checked his messages. He had several new addresses that had been sent to him by someone who was combing social media platforms looking for people stranded in the Dickinson area. He chose one and directed the other three Beach Patrol rescue crews to other addresses.

It’s amazing what a role technology played during Harvey in comparison to just a few years earlier with Katrina, Rita, Sandy, and Ike. In Austin’s case, while power was down in many of the areas where people were stranded, they still had cell service and a charge on their phone. While waiting for rescue on roofs, in attics, or in the second stories of houses, many people were actively communicating via social media, text, and by making calls. While our emergency management structures were getting a handle on the immense scope of the problem, some of our more tech savvy responders were getting information through other methods. Later, when we were getting addresses directly though emergency management the process was much more efficient. But during the early stages, new technology was pretty useful.

There’s a web based program that emergency management centers use to coordinate aid and requests for aid now. If you are leading a city, county, or emergency response group you can request what you need via this program. It will be assessed and compared to other groups offering all kinds of aid. There was also an app created during Harvey to coordinate first responders in Houston. And there are several apps you can go to for requesting everything from donations of clothing or household items to volunteers who are willing to come help you rip the sheetrock out of your walls.

My crew used cell phones more than their radios to keep track of each other by sending maps with pins in them to indicate an address they need to evacuate people from to showing each other what their location is.  I was pretty impressed with my team. Most are young and tech savvy and did an amazing job of combining their grasp of newer technology with a strong base of rescue skills. But even as this played out a little voice in my head was saying not to become dependent on this. One thing those who have gone through a few disasters learns is that each crisis is very different and you can’t count on anything. Just because cell phones worked during Harvey doesn’t mean that we can count on that for the next one.

Modern responders are using new tools and technology to the best advantage, but should remain flexible and build redundant systems into any preparation or response.

Galveston Marine Response Group Assists with Harvey Rescues

Michelle Gomez slid off of the rescue sled and into the water. She half swam, half waded to the door of the house. Calling out to let anyone who might be in there, she entered the dark cavern of the downstairs. She thought about how glad she was that she was wearing her full wetsuit as she brushed a couple of spiders off of her arm. Carefully making her way past a floating couch cushion and the debris floating everywhere, she climbed a staircase to find a family with their dog huddled upstairs. She led them out to the waiting Beach Patrol jet ski and the Galveston Police Department’s boat.

Almost a decade ago, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked us to come up with a plan to better respond to major disasters. The result was the Galveston Marine Response group, which was activated during Harvey. Rescue teams made up of lifeguards, police, and firefighters were staged at fire stations, having a combined skill set to respond to any type of emergency and act independently if communication was cut off. Separate Beach Patrol jet ski rescue crews were staged, lifeguards were assigned to augment firefighter crews that couldn’t make it into work, help was summoned from the state, and teams were sent out all over the county during times the demand wasn’t so great on the island. Beach Patrol alone sent 4 teams all over the county and made over 127 rescues and even saved over 20 pets. All told, teams from the Galveston Police, Fire, and Beach Patrol along with Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue and the Sheriff Office responded to hundreds of requests and made over 300 high water rescues like the one Michelle and her team performed. And that doesn’t include all the welfare checks made by boat, vehicle, or on foot. But they didn’t do it alone.

Since 9/11 the United States has seen a real change in how we respond to big events. Most of the responders in the agencies mentioned have had some level of training from the National Incident Management System (NIMS). They know how to fall into the command structure that is housed under our city, county, state, and national Emergency Management System. City, State, and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC) work with the National Weather Service and coordinate aid in a way that is more efficient and strategic than ever before. Of course, something as all encompassing as Harvey starts as complete bedlam, but after a while the structure starts to bring order to chaos.

Because so many selfless people jumped in their boats and vehicles and helped each other, countless lives were saved. The human capacity to reach out to others during times of true crisis, when all but the essential human qualities are stripped away, is utterly breathtaking. We are capable of such magnificence. But the structure that brought order to the initial chaos got the evacuees sheltered, fed, clothed, and will eventually get them back to a point where they can once again be self sufficient.

 

Pleasure Pier Rescue

The waves weren’t that big but there was a steady current running from east to west. After clearing the Pleasure Pier, it made a wide long loop to shore and, on the inside, pushed west to east. The new sand with its steeper drop off caused the waves and current to pile up and push offshore and towards the pier.

The three people shared two inner tubes between them as they entered the water between the Pleasure Pier and the groin at 27th street. They floated along and were unknowingly pulled towards the Pleasure Pier and out in a strong rip current. Waves and current mixed about half way out causing really choppy conditions. They tried to paddle towards shore but it was a hopeless battle. As they neared the end of the pier they really started getting scared and began to panic.

Lieutenant Kara Harrison runs the administrative arm of the Beach Patrol. Although not required to by her job description, she chooses to maintain her training, swimming , and skills each year. She re-qualified her lifeguard skills earlier this year and maintains them.

Kara was on her way home at the end of her shift from her office at Stewart Beach. As she passed the Pleasure Pier, her experienced eye caught a glimpse of three heads way, way out near the “T Head”. She called in that she was going in on three swimmers in distress.

Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas and Supervisor Gabe Macicek were at 10th street when the call dropped. They flipped on their lights and sirens and headed quickly to the area. Gabe maintained radio communications and Joe grabbed a rescue board and headed out to help. What followed was nothing short of amazing.

Joe is a full time Supervisor and a gifted “waterman”. He is our top paddler and stands out as a top athlete in an organization of incredibly gifted athletes. His rescue board cut through the chop and current like a hot knife through butter. One of the group had drifted off on an inner tube while Kara struggled to maintain her ground with the other two. He brought the first victim to shore and looked back out.

Meanwhile Kara was using her rescue tube and one of the inner tubes to keep the victims stable. She swam hard to keep them from drifting into the waves that piled up near the pier. They were ok for the moment but were unable to make progress towards shore.

Joe powered back out and took another victim in. Kara, with her lightened load, was able to make progress into the rip current and was about half way in when Joe relieved her and took the third victim back to shore.

Back on shore they heard the rare words lifeguards love to hear from a person they saved:

“If it wasn’t for you guys we would never have made it back in. You saved our lives”.

Kudos to Kara and Joe for an amazing rescue!

Easter Tragedy

Easter was a beautiful day on the beach. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze with moderate surf. All the beaches were packed and the guards were busy moving them away from the rock groins and other dangerous areas.

A 31 year old man and his 12 year old son walked down to the beach on 35th street. They waded into the cool water and went out to the first sandbar, which is about 20 yards from shore.

I heard a call on the radio from the lifeguard at 37th street that there was a possible drowning. Two of our trucks beat me there during the 5 minutes it took me to reach the area. When I arrived, Beach Patrol Captain Tony Pryor had assumed the role of “Incident Commander”. We had a jet ski team in the water and several guards were diving in the last seen point. A fire fighter had assumed the role of “Safety Officer” and was keeping track of all the people assigned to the various roles, especially the ones in the water. Other firefighters were on the adjacent groins and scanning. Police officers were controlling access to the area and taking information from witnesses and family members. We called the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network team to provide support for the family while we searched.

As I pulled up to the scene and started getting the details from Captain Pryor he spotted something that looked like a shirt in the water. I saw it as well and, upon closer inspection, you could tell it was a body. I ran into the water as Captain Pryor called the Jet Ski team and waved to the swimmers in the area. We converged on it and the crew had the body on the back of the rescue sled and was starting CPR before they even hit the beach. The man was transferred to the back of the Beach Patrol truck as CPR was continued seamlessly. He was again transferred to the waiting EMS unit on the seawall and taken to John Sealy Emergency Room. Jesse Tree re-routed to John Sealy and provided support to the family as they were informed that the man could not be saved. They stayed with them for three full hours counseling, translating, and just being there.

Back on the beach the story that unfolded from witnesses was both heroic and unbearably tragic. The 12 year old son watched his father slip under the water, but survived because a young man that was renting umbrellas in the area spotted him having trouble and rushed out to him, risking his own life so that this 12 year old boy could live. The boy had barely remained afloat after he and his dad separated. The young man got to him just in time and was able to make the rescue.

7 busy hours later, at the end of the day, the Jesse Tree crew met the affected guards at our office for a critical incident stress diffusion.