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Ready for Memorial

It’s hard to believe that we’re already to Memorial Weekend! With all the strange weather this spring it seems like summer just pounced on us.

If you’re one of the several hundred thousand we’ll see on the beach this weekend remember to be safe while you’re out having fun. Specifically, swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, obey warning signs and flags, take precautions for the heat and sun, remember alcohol and water don’t mix, watch your kids closely, and for non- swimmers and children especially- wear a lifejacket when in or around the water. Our friends at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office are predicting some rough water and strong rip currents over the weekend so be extra careful. If you’re not sure about anything check with the lifeguard. All hands will be on deck so we’ll have really good coverage at all the parks, groins, and even on the west end including the San Luis Pass. We’re also getting some help from the Emergency Operation Center for extra patrols at the San Luis Pass and hopefully some flashing signs on the side of the highway coming on to the island. We have a new crew of lifeguards that complete their over 100 hours of training today that will be out working with the more experienced guards.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the Lifeguard Academy going on, all the re-training of recurrent seasonal lifeguards, dispatch training, jet ski rescue recertification, taking care of all the last minute details on the beach, bringing water safety material to the hotels, final checks on equipment, and making sure all our personnel are good to go. We also had two major events this week.

Last Tuesday we had representatives from the Fire and Police departments, EMS, Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, and others participate in a mass casualty exercise at Stewart Beach to practice our skills, communication, and ability to work together during a crisis. We simulated a water accident with 15 victims. They were rescued, triaged, treated, searched for, and counseled. This is a great event for our lifeguard candidates to see how what they do is a small part of a whole system of emergency response. It also sharpens all of our skills right before the big weekend and summer season.

The final physical exercise was the next day where our entire staff (minus the ones that guarded and facilitated) competed in the dreaded “Night Swim”. This includes all kinds of challenges including runs, swims, rescue board paddles, calisthenics, a wall climb, knowledge checks, and ended in a long slip and slide at the finish line. Once our rookie lifeguards finish this they know they face any kind of physical challenge, which translates to a more effective lifeguard force.

Happy holidays from all of us here at the Beach Patrol and hope you and yours get a chance to take some time over the holiday to celebrate in whatever way that’s best for you.

Winter Dangers

For those who have not heard, there was a terrible accident last weekend involving a couple of kayakers in West Bay. The Galveston Daily News did a comprehensive story on it, but in a nutshell two kayakers were capsized by strong currents and one managed to make it to a channel marker post where he hung on until a boat arrived. At the time of writing this, one of the men is still missing. This incident is only part of a larger safety picture, and hopefully can be used to prevent similar incidents.

With recent water temps in the low 50’s and even high 40’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.

Each spring when the air starts to warm but the water is still 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 weekend there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition were kept busy when several kayakers and boaters got lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass area over the weekend. Some were really close to shore. In fact, at the San Luis Pass, a fast acting Galveston Fire Department crew was smart enough to go to the area that a kayaker entered the water and blast their siren continuously until the kayaker paddled back in following the sound.

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.

Most importantly, take a moment to think of all the things that could go wrong before getting on the water, then plan accordingly.

 

 

Labor Day Advisory

With Labor Day upon us we’re expecting several hundred thousand people to be on the island this weekend. That’s a lot of chances to have something go wrong.

Over the past couple of weeks there have been several rescues that we’ve had to make by the rock jetties despite our best efforts to keep people far enough away to avoid trouble. There have also been a couple of incidents involving young children in area pools that nearly drowned and two men drowned in the San Luis Pass area while boating from the Brazoria County side. Most or all of these incidents happened at least partly due to momentary lapses in judgment.

People do things when on vacation or out recreating that they would never do in their normal life. Parents who no doubt are very attentive to their children lose them repeatedly at our large beach parks. We can have up to 60 lost kids in a single day at Stewart Beach alone. People who are not generally risk takers swim far from shore and/or pay no attention to warning signs, flags, or lifeguard instructions. Are the parents bad parents? Are the people ignoring safety messages intentionally? Not in my opinion.

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 sometimes the shoreline. Water is not our natural element. 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.

But is doesn’t have to be that way. Taking a moment to observe your surroundings at the beach or pool 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.

When you go out this weekend to enjoy any type of water remember to take a minute to be aware of your surroundings and potential risk. You also want to remember the basics like not swimming alone, staying hydrated, protecting yourself from the sun, observing signs and flags, feet first first time, alcohol and water don’t mix, and non-swimmers  and children should wear lifejackets. At the beach, you should also 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.

Choose to swim in areas protected by lifeguards. In beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards, like Galveston, your chances of drowning are 1 in 18 million.

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. See you on the beach!

4th of July Tips

If you’re like several hundred thousand others, you’ll be heading to the beaches on or near Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula this weekend. For many, the beach is a perfect place to spend time with your friends and family while you enjoy some Texas or Tejano style BBQ, surf, and sand. Some 3-500 thousand people will likely be on the island this weekend and we would all really like to see all of them get home safely. There are several ways to do that.

The main thing is to swim near a lifeguard. You chances of drowning in an area protected by guards trained to the minimum standards set by the United States Lifesaving Association are 1 in 18 million. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is certified as an “Advanced” agency by this group, which is their highest level. You are responsible for your own safety but guards provide a valuable additional layer of protection.

Rip currents are the cause of 80% of rescues made in the surf. In Texas the strongest rip currents are found near structures like rock groins and piers. That’s why on the seawall the guard towers are near the groin and why we put signs and ropes in the area. Stay away from the rocks and while swimming check the shoreline to make sure you’re not drifting near them without realizing it.

The ends of the island are very dangerous with strong periodic tidal flows. You should not swim or wade in the areas of the San Luis Pass and the Houston Ship Channel. Both ends of the island have a long history of drownings. Both ends are now heavily patrolled but it only takes a few seconds for tragedy to strike.

Now that the Texas heat is on us be sure and take extra precautions for the heat and sun. Use sunscreen with a high SPF, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay hydrated. If you start feeling nauseous, weak, or dizzy you could be feeling the effects of the sun and should rehydrate and seek shade.

Be sure you keep your kids in sight and get in the water with small kids or kids that are poor swimmers. Stay close to shore. Strong currents all week mean there are deep troughs near the shore so be extra careful.

In case you haven’t heard, most of the Caribbean and Gulf has been heavily impacted by Sargassum. The Park Board maintenance department has been working unbelievable hours to keep the beaches looking nice. Stewart Beach, East Beach, and the Seawall are the most clear. Over the weekend the Galveston Park Board is sponsoring beach “Bucket Brigades” where kids can join a tour led by marine biologists to learn about the environmental benefits of seaweed and how it is a habitat for marine life.   Look for our beach volunteers wearing bright orange t-shirts while out on the beach or visit www.galvestonbeachinfo.com.

Well be out in force, so check with the guard when you arrive for specific information and have fun!

Memorial Magic

Somehow it all came together for Memorial Weekend.

The beach cleaning crews worked from midnight until people started crowding the beaches in the morning to remove the Sargassum from the shoreline. By first light the beaches looked pretty good. We finished the last little part of the new lifeguard training Friday night and the rookie lifeguards hit the beaches early Saturday morning for their first shift. They were joined half way through by the returning guards who used their experience to take the more difficult afternoon and evening shift. The beach security detail was heavily staffed and did an admirable job of dealing with the thousands that visited the parks. Lost child details were at designated sites, dispatchers trained and in place, beach vendors had all their equipment out, and park staff was hired, trained, and ready to go. EMS, Fire, and Police were fully staffed and out in force. All the pieces were in place and we needed every one of them.

From the time we started on Saturday morning until we crawled home late Monday night it was non-stop. Sunday was the peak and there seemed to be so many people on the island that their combined weight would make it sink. On Sunday alone we had over 40 lost children. Over the weekend we made almost 3,000 preventative actions where people were moved from dangerous areas. The Park Board park security detail did an admirable job of clearing well over 20,000 people from the two largest beach parks at the end of the day before they left. This kept us from getting called back in for drownings, fights, or other problems throughout the night.

The San Luis Pass was a hot spot. The police department worked hard to keep all the 4 wheelers and motorbikes under control while we struggled to get hundreds of would be swimmers to stay out of the dangerous waters that claimed four lives this time last year. Our new detail worked really, really hard and removed just short of a thousand people from the waters of the pass over the three day holiday. The also spoke with around 1,500 tourists about the dangers of the area, where it is safe to swim out there, and offered information about the island attractions.

Elbow grease wasn’t the only thing that caused things to go well. Fate smiled on our island by somehow halting the seemingly relentless flow of seaweed we’ve gotten lately during the weekend. The sun shown, the rain went elsewhere, and we had a refreshing breeze. We had few serious problems and, despite the half million visitors, no drownings.

As I drove the beach smelling the familiar BBQ, suntan lotion, and saltwater combination so unique to Galveston this time of year, I saw kids and parents, lovers, friends, and people seeking solitude. All enjoying a place that enables them take time away from their daily stresses and focus on more important things for a little while. It’s a magic place.

San Luis Pass Patrol

Spring break got off to a slow, cold start this year. But we all know how fickle the weather can be in March and it pays to be prepared. Sure enough, each time the wind slowed down or the sun even hinted that it might come out people started appearing all over the beach.

Fortunately, we had lifeguard re-qualifications last Saturday. After swimming 1,000 meters (40 lengths of the pool) in 18 minutes are less, the returning guards proved they stayed in good enough shape over the winter to still have what it takes to make rescues in the surf. After swimming, filling out paperwork, and drug testing they were back out on the beach for another season. The good thing is that once they meet the minimum requirements and go back to guarding, our daily workouts and training will keep them in great condition throughout the season.

Putting the entire Beach Patrol system back in place for the summer is a complicated process with a lot of moving parts, but we’re getting there. The towers are re-furbished, all 220 signs are up along the entire beachfront, the buoy rescue boxes on the jetties and elsewhere are in good order and stocked, new vehicles are getting outfitted, and winter training is complete. We still have training of new lifeguards and our annual supervisor academy to go but we have to wait until May when the entire seasonal staff is here for that. One big piece of the puzzle was put in place last Tuesday at the Park Board meeting. We decided what the plan will be this summer for the San Luis Pass.

You recall that there were several drownings at the beginning of the summer at the San Luis Pass last year. As a result, we re-directed some funds and increased the number of warning signs about the dangerous currents in and around the pass. We have maintained those signs as they’ve fallen or been vandalized and are committed to continuing that. Signage is good, but there’s nothing like hands on intervention.

Funds have been tight for the past few years and we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to do more at the pass. The board decided to put several projects in a prioritized contingency line item to hold off on until we see how the hotel tax, which comprises the lion’s share of our budget, tracked before committing those resources.

Good news! The hotel tax is above predicted levels and the board felt comfortable releasing additional funding for a weekend patrol at the San Luis Pass. Starting Memorial weekend we’ll schedule a roving vehicle to keep people from swimming in the Pass.

I have to hand it to the board. They have consistently tried to make a difference while keeping expenditures to a minimum. Our money is tight, but ultimately it came down to focusing on what’s best for tourism, Galveston, and our beach visitors.

They found a way to make it happen and accidents will be prevented because of this.

 

 

Breaking the Rules

Four heavy duty water barricades were interlocked and stretched across Boddecker Drive just before the entrance to East Beach. Captain Tony Pryor sat in his Beach Patrol truck working security. His job was to keep cars from entering East Beach.

In years past we’ve had problems in the beach parks after the Strand area was swept clean of the late night party crowd. There have been tons of litter and glass bottles, occasional fights, and damage to the beach pavilion. Better to just keep everyone out.

As Tony sat just inside the entrance a Lexis came blasting down the road until it stopped at the barricade. Revving its engine, it picked up speed as it quickly turned and shot up the sand dune landing inside of the park. Tony hit the overhead lights and the car came to a stop, rolling down the window. “What?!!” shouted the driver. “The park is closed,” Said Tony, “You’re not allowed to be in here”.

The driver looked at him for a long minute. Then he said, “How am I supposed to get out”?

A day earlier, Officer Kris Pompa led a work crew to get all the signs that had fallen over along the entire beach front back in place before Spring Break hit. Beach Patrol maintains some 230 signs along the entire 32 miles of Galveston Beach as well as along the ship channel and San Luis Pass. As you would imagine it requires a great deal of effort and resources to keep them all up. Friday afternoon he came back from working all day tired but seemed happy. “All the signs are up Chief”, he said as he drove off.

Monday Kris was assigned to a patrol shift. During the month of February this means that he and another person patrol the entire beach front. They mostly work the seawall, Stewart and Apffel Beach Parks, but at least once they patrol the entire beach along the west end from the San Luis Pass all the way to the western tip of the Seawall. As they made it back to Stewart Beach I saw Kris in the parking lot. He shook his head and laughed when he told me that two of the new signs and posts that his crew had painstakingly erected and used a water jet to sink 6 feet into the sand had been ripped out and burned for firewood. These signs warn people about how dangerous the waters are in the Pass and are critical in our attempt to keep people from drowning there.

It’s hard at times to maintain the energy, patience, and positive attitude to do the job that Tony and Kris do. Dealing with the public can be frustrating because you often have more interaction with the people that don’t show others respect. Most of our staff, especially Tony and Kris, are good at finding humor in the tough parts and focus on the millions that enjoy the beach in a positive way each year.