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GIBP HQ Update

Thirty-nine years ago, as a second-year lifeguard, I watched the current pavilion at Stewart Beach being built. Now we are inside a space that was once a night club, and barely serves our ever-growing operations. The building is almost a decade past its intended lifespan. We’ve thoughtfully considered relocation, but the most cost-effective option is to remain in the existing building until we construct a building that can adequately accommodate our day-to-day operations.  But each year we incur significant costs to maintain a building that is no longer functional and has become a safety hazard as well as an eyesore.  Galveston deserves better.

Galveston’s Beach Patrol covers all 32 miles of beach 24/7/365, intervenes in a half-million potential accidents annually, and serves over seven million visitors and residents each year. We serve more people than beaches in California and Florida with a fraction of the budgets of those agencies.  We also filter between 4 and 5 thousand calls for both EMS and police annually by first responding to medical emergencies and crowd problems, most of which we’re able to “catch and release” without tasking our already overburdened public safety partners. Galveston boasts one of the busiest, challenging, and most visited shorelines in the nation, and the demand increases every year. We will need to keep up.

With more than 140 lifeguards and dispatchers, 120 Junior Lifeguards, and another 60+ volunteers, a safe, 24-hour, all-weather sand-base facility is critical for training, working space, and supervision. To mitigate risk for our children and adults, direct access to the beach and water must be accessible without the danger of crossing Seawall Boulevard while carrying rescue equipment. When covering assigned beachfront zones, rescue vehicles need to stay on the beachfront to relay information and deliver lifesaving equipment while continually protecting beach patrons and guards. An on-beach facility is also critical in providing an unobstructed view to handle weather and medical emergencies, lost children, and command and control of our most populated beach.

The current Park Board trustees have been very responsive to the urgent need for a facility that supports and maintains one of our nation’s most professional lifeguard services. Under their direction we worked with an architecture firm to come up with the schematic design of an incredible professional home for our array of programs that would last 70 years and would include capacity for growth to match the ever-increasing demands placed upon us.  Designed to use natural breezes to provide climate control for sections of it, we can both save building costs now, and operational costs for years to come. Potential for resiliency using even more cost saving renewable energy and repurposed water will be built into the design, which could make this a tourist attraction and educational center for the public in its own right.

We’ve been squirrelling away money in our reserve fund for decades to kick this off. I’m so excited to share this design with our board, the city, and the community of Galveston next week! We trust that, despite everything else going on, we can all move forward quickly together on this critical and historical project. For Galveston.

 

 

 

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.

Umbrellagedon

I followed my routine of getting up early, driving the entire beachfront, then if things seem calm, meeting whoever is interested for a workout before the beach action heats up. Getting that exercise in first thing helps to maintain balance, perspective, and focus when things get a little crazy later in the day. Little did I know the nuttiness would start early!

On this particular morning I met a small group of guards and we did a run-swim-run-paddle-run. As we started the first run we noticed a little dust devil stirring up some sand to the east of us. This is pretty common in the late summer when we get these unstable, hot air masses, so we thought nothing of it. As we continued our run we were suddenly blinded by sand and buffeted by wind as another one crossed our path. It lasted only a few seconds and we kept running, laughing about it and saying, “What are the odds?!!” We were half way through the swim leg when we started getting tossed around. For those who have had the pleasure of swimming right beneath a helicopter you’ll be familiar with the sensation. It was so windy we dove underwater and just came up when we needed air. Fortunately, this passed quickly, and we finished the swim, had an uneventful paddle on rescue boards, and were just starting the last run leg when something very unusual happened.

We heard screaming and looked up to see what seemed to be a wall of umbrellas coming at us, twirling in the wind. Some were as high as 30 feet in the air and others somersaulted along the ground.   The Beach Service crew are pros at setting them in the sand, so we knew this had to be something powerful. Squinting through a sudden driving sandstorm we sought cover behind my rescue truck as large beach umbrellas bounced off the truck and careened by us. “Let’s go!” someone yelled and we sprinted into the melee, tackling umbrellas rapidly and closing them so they wouldn’t hit anyone. The Beach Service did the same and the stationed lifeguard called for backup and then joined in. It ended as quickly as it started. Over 100 umbrellas were scattered all over the beach in the wake of a large dust devil. Some people were calming crying children while others laughed hysterically. Others ran around aimlessly. In the chaos we culled through people looking to see if anyone was injured. Miraculously, there were only a handful of bumps of bruises.

This summer there was a death up on the east coast in Garden City, South Carolina when a Beach Patron was impaled by an umbrella. Thinking about this, I realized how rare events like this one are here on our beach. I’m especially appreciative for all the seasoned Umbrella Vendors who take such care to set the poles deep and at the right angle to avoid this kind of thing and are so responsive when emergencies pop up.

Non Compliance Strategies

“Good Morning. Sir, do you mind removing your vehicle from the beachfront and parking it in the parking lot?”

“Why?”

“Cars aren’t allowed on the beachfront in this area for safety reasons.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“There’s a sign at the entrance you drove through that says no vehicles allowed past this point. There is also a law that says vehicles aren’t allowed to drive on this part of the beach.”

“Well, I’m not driving on the beach, I’m just dropping my stuff off.”

Late in the summer it seems that people just get frayed. There are more complaints, arguments, fights, and weird things happening than earlier in the season. It’s like the veneer of civility gets burned away by the heat and sun, and all the raw emotions people usually have tamped down come boiling to the surface. And it seems like this year all the stress of covid, economy, politics, etc. exacerbated it.

For those who work the beach it can be a challenge, but if you get in the right head space it can be wildly entertaining. I especially like it when people seem to feel that they have their own little bubble of rules that differ from everyone else. The moon follows me as well, so totally get it.

“Excuse me sir, do you mind putting your dog on a leash?”

“Why?”

“Galveston has a city ordinance requiring dogs to wear leashes. Also, there have been instances where dogs have been off a leash and…..” (you get the idea)

Then the conversation goes into a whole list of reasons for not needing to use a leash that all generally have the same theme- in my case there should be an exemption from the rules. Some of the best ones are:

“He’s really friendly”, “She just likes chasing birds and hardly ever bites anyone”, “I have him for comfort”, or (my personal all-time favorite), “My dog is on a verbal leash”.

The other common technique that can be interesting is the “stall technique”. We open with something along the lines of, “Hey, I’m sorry but you can’t use a tent or tarp in this area. You can, however, use it on the other side of those blue poles” And from there it goes a little something like this:

“What?”

“Can you please move your tarp to the other side of those blue poles?”

“I have to move my tarp?”

“Yes”

“Where?”

“To the other side of the blue poles on the side that is designated by signs”

“So…. I can’t have my tarp here?”

It may cycle a few times like that. Then they realize that even if they keep asking the response is the same. At that point they might move it. Or, if you’re lucky, they might go into the previous technique and point out that they need shade in that area more than other people because…

I will say I’m so impressed with my staff, CERT, park staff, and other first responder groups for all their patience, and understanding that 99% of people are really nice to deal with.

Leadership Fridays

Sergeant Andy Moffett and Senior Lifeguard Gheffri Preciado stood in front of the room surveying the small groups of four or five that were having animated discussions as David Mitchel and Iris Guerrero sat off to the side watching intensely. David is our Ecumenical Support and Volunteer Coordinator specialist, and Iris is part of our Wave Watchers and Survivor Support Network Team. She often helps with translation and support for our Colombian guards.  Just as the discussions started to wane Moffett spoke up. “Ok I think you’ve all got some good ideas together. Let’s get each group to give the most important part of the different roles our teams have.”

Team by team they went through the list that included Command Staff, Supervisors/Senior Guards, Lifeguards, and Dispatch. By the time the 10 or so groups were finished, they had covered virtually every component of our operations. I was completely blown away by their comprehensive understanding and support of what people in all parts of our organization do.

For about three years we’ve been working towards a leadership program. Partnering with the Occupational Therapy team from UTMB, our Leadership Committee modified an existing program that was based on a program generated from a Navy Seal team. It’s been a great fit for our staff and incorporates the three key elements of leadership, resiliency, and intercultural competency, emphasizing “extreme ownership.”

Looking at our existing structure and understanding we don’t have much budgetary wiggle room, our team decided to integrate the training into something we already do. Each guard each day has about an hour of training at the beginning of their shifts. They typically go down to the beach and train for about 45 minutes using rescue boards, fins, and rescue tubes. This part is really physical, as it incorporates the elements of making rescues. Then, the last chunk of time is devoted to skills. So, in an average session they may practice repeated rescues using swim fins or rescue boards, then transition to practicing CPR, reviewing hand signals, or review rip current theory.

What our team decided is to turn Friday sessions into “Leadership Fridays.” So, Friday training is now done in our large training room and is mostly devoted to peer guided discussion about how to better guard, better protect yourself physically and psychologically, and to becoming better at seeing the point of view of people in different roles or from different cultures.

This sounds like something that is a good idea on paper but is met with a certain degree of skepticism and cynicism in the real world of teens and young adults. I thought it would take some time to integrate these concepts into our daily lived experience. But I was wrong.

They are all in, and approach it in the same positive and collaborative way they do for the technical side. They dive in just like they do in the ocean, training, or any other way they can pitch in to make us even better at protecting the millions that come to Galveston’s beaches.

Currents and Bottom Memory

If you’ve been on the beach anytime in the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had day after day of wind running parallel down the beach. And then, occasionally, we’ve had extreme conditions over the weekend. This does some pretty interesting things to the bottom, which affect the safety of people that swim or wade in the water for quite a while.

The bottom within the surf zone has a memory. When current runs it picks up sand and moves it, causing a trench or trough, which is also known in “Galvestonese” as a “hole”. These are found consistently near structures like groins or piers and between the sand bars along the beachfront. These troughs can last hours to days, even after the conditions change significantly.

An example would be when wind blows parallel with the shoreline, causing a “littoral” or “longshore” current. This cuts deeper spots that run parallel to shore, forming our sandbar and trough system. This system is always there, but after a few days of strong current the difference between the sandbars and troughs is more pronounced. Deep troughs can be scoured out pretty close to shore. So, in extreme cases you can find water 5-6 feet deep only 15 yards from shore. Imagine the dangers for small children on these days. To make matters worse, when this is coupled with high surf, water from the waves can be pushed up to the shoreline and will have to find a way back out. If it breaks through a sandbar on the way out, more water follows, and it causes a trench perpendicular to shore that is a conduit for even more water to head back offshore. This causes a type of rip current called a “fixed rip”, which can last several hours.

Another example is that the groins and piers cause the water flowing parallel to head out away from the shore. This causes rip currents which are always there, called “permanent rips”. The deep spots near the rocks caused by all that water flowing out are responsible for water flowing out, maintaining the troughs, and causing danger, even on calm days. Water is lazy. It always seeks the path of least resistance.

A final danger imprinted in the “memory” of the bottom is “inshore holes” formed when larger/stronger waves break close enough to shore that they spill over, cut through the water, and smash into the bottom. These holes can be fairly deep. My daughter was body surfing with me a while ago, and we were laughing because I was up to my neck and she, while standing right next to me, was about waist deep.

As conditions calm, we’ll start seeing more normal bottom conditions after the sand jiggles back into place. For now, be extra careful.

The beach is a dynamic environment. This is why the guards are required to physically get in twice a day to check their area. That way they’re better able to spot trouble before it actually happens.

4th Wrap Up

The early morning yellow light angled sideways highlighting a young mother and her two young children giggling and laying in the shallows. A lifeguard raced across the slippery rocks as another dove into the water, both racing to stop a group of teens from getting sucked out by a rip current. A jacked-up pickup spun in the sand and slammed on the brakes, ex-military crew leapt out and almost jumped on an umbrella beach service worker before we diffused it. An older couple sat in the midst of the crowd, leaning into each other with the comfort of life partnership, and watched everyone playing in the sand and sea around them. A tiny girl sobbed as the lifeguard that found her wandering down the beach handed her gently to her mother. Rescuers from 5 different agencies resorted, in the dark, to coordinating the search for a small child that was reported as a drowning on foot during the drone show because the dense crowd made it impossible to get the rescue trucks down on the sand. The sun set as Beach Patrol trucks, with overhead lights flashing, removed every last person from the 9 mile stretch of guarded water before leaving for the day. A group of guards sitting in the tower after work finally relaxed and watched the drone show, while joking with the easy comradery that sharing a tough, fulfilling job together brings.

I once spent a week or so in Calcutta. I walked in long loops. Miles each day. At night I lay in bed looking up at a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and tried to process everything I’d seen. So much life, so many stories, caught in glimpses. I told my brother that there was so much stimulation, and so much I didn’t understand, that I was probably only absorbing 15 percent of what my eyes actually saw. This last weekend was like that. Slow to fast, easy contentment to nail biting stress, and the press of so many radio channels chattering, so many people, so many stories and lives all around for hours and hours each day. I was so impressed with how our lifeguard and dispatch crew kept focused and how they tirelessly powered through.

This was the busiest 4th of July we’ve seen in a long while. Not only were the crowds thick, but until Monday we had some pretty rough water and strong rip currents. We reunited 25 lost kids, effected 101 enforcement actions, 38 medical responses, and made 4 rescues. The 46,025 people moved from danger alone equaled 1/6 of our traditional annual average.

There are no words to express the pride and gratitude I feel for my dispatch and lifeguard staff and our partners with the Galveston County and Houston Precinct 1 CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams), our GPD managed security detail, park staff, Wave Watchers, Survivor Support Network, and Coastal Zone Management. Also, can’t thank Police, Fire, and EMS enough for the extraordinary work they did over the weekend!

HAPPY HOLIDAY!

REMINDER:

  • Always swim near a lifeguard:
    • Lifeguards work continually to identify hazards that might affect you. They can advise you on the safest place to swim, as well as places to avoid. They receive many hours of continuous training and most have been with Galveston Island Beach Patrol for several years.  They want you to have a safe day. Talk to them when you first arrive at the beach and ask them for their advice.
  • Stay Away from Rocks!
    • Rocks present special hazards to swimmers. Piers and Jetties act as the perfect environment for the formation of Rip Currents, which are the number one cause of open water drownings worldwide. For more information on Rip Currents, visit our informational page
  • Four Legged Fur Babies:
    • Sand has been really hot lately.  Be passionate about your pets paws.

More information:

Sand Bars, Troughs, and Holes

Hidden deep spots in the surf are hazardous, especially for small children. Waves are powerful and dig holes in the bottom near shore that may be several yards wide. They can form at any water depth, so you may step into one while wading in very shallow water.

When you visit the beach, you may see swimmers standing in waist-seep water far offshore. What you don’t see is how deep the water is between the beach and the sand bar area they are on.

The natural processes of the Gulf create a series of bars and troughs in the nearshore areas of coastal Texas. The height of the bar and the depth of the trough vary, but the water in the trough is sometimes “over your head”. Unless you swim very well, do not try to reach the sand bar offshore.

Effects of Heat & Sun

Protect yourself against sunburn. You can become sunburned even on cloudy or overcasts days.

Ultraviolet rays are harmful to the skin, regardless of the color of that skin. You should wear a high SPF sunscreen (15 or higher); wear loose fitting light colored clothing, hat & sunglasses. Also, drink plenty of non-alcoholic, caffeine free liquid to prevent dehydration.

Piers and Jetties

The Texas coastline is lined with fishing piers and rock jetties. These present special hazards to swimmers. Barnacles and other sea life tend to make these structures their homes, increasing the possibility for stings, bites, and cuts when swimmers get near them. Piers and Jetties also act as the perfect environment for the formation of Rip Currents, which are the number one cause of open water drownings worldwide. For more information on Rip Currents, visit our ‘informational page’.

Stings, Bites, and Cuts

Stinging jellyfish abound the Gulf waters and randomly sting whatever they touch. The most dangerous stinging jelly is the Portuguese man-o-war, a community of animals called zooids. This most obvious zooid is a purple float with its tentacles dangling in the water. Lifting the tentacle from the skin and dousing the area with a saline solution brings relief. Do not rub the area with sand – this will only ensure that all the stinging cells fire. And remember just because the man-o-war or jellyfish is washed up on the beach does not mean that you are safe. The tentacles can still sting. Avoid stomping them or smacking them with a stick.

Stingrays frequent shallow Gulf waters and can thrust a sharp shaft into an offending foot or ankle when stepped on. This shaft, located at the base of the stingray’s tail must be handled carefully, usually surgically, because the spines point backward and prevent easy removal. One good preventive action is to shuffle your feet while wading. When disturbed, the stingray will move away.

Swimmers, particularly children are advised to wear some type of footwear when in the Gulf or on the beach. Broken glass and sharp shell remnants are everywhere, and children often fail to watch where they are going. Remember there is a high concentration of bacteria on objects in the water and near the beach. Clean even minor wounds well and monitor for signs of infection.

Currents

For any body of open water, currents will always be a danger, presenting a hazard not found in swimming pools or waterparks.

The Long Shore Current (also known as the Littoral Current)’s strength and direction are generally determined by wave and wind energy. Look for the Long Shore Current by the angle of the waves coming into shore, by the foam, swimmers and surfers flowing parallel to shore with the Long Shore Current. Always be aware of your surroundings and your position in the water relative to your location on the beach. The Long Shore Current can push swimmers far down the beach, and towards hazards such as piers and rock jetties.

The Long Shore Current can also influence and help create Rip Currents, which present a very deadly danger to swimmers. Be sure to avoid swimming or wading near rock jetties and piers, as Rip Currents often form next to them.  See our ‘Rip Currents’ page for more information.

Always adhere to warning signs.

4th of July Tips

We’re here! The big Fourth of July weekend. It’s hard to believe how fast summer flies, especially when it’s as busy as it is here in Galveston. This summer has already been intense with tons of people and very rough water. The storm system is clearing out just in time for a gorgeous weekend. The one thing we’re preparing for is the potential for wind, waves, and rip currents. If you compound that with all the normal issues big crowds bring, we could see a very busy weekend. Adding to that, there will be fireworks at Moody Gardens, the Seawall Parade, and the all-new futuristic drone show. www.Visitgalveston.com  has all the dates and details.

For the big weekend, there are a few simple safety tips that can keep you and yours safe. Of course, swimming near a lifeguard and avoiding rip currents are the big ones. Rips in Texas predominantly occur near a structure like a jetty or pier. They create holes or trenches underwater. Although they don’t pull you under, they do pull you out and can cause exhaustion, panic, and drowning fatalities. Obey all warning signs and instructions from a lifeguard to be safe. Also, pick a stationary point as a reference, so you don’t accidently drift into a problem area. If accidently caught in a current, stay calm, float, and go with the flow. Call or wave for help if possible. If you’re a good swimmer, try swimming parallel to shore until out of the current, and then back to the sand. If you see someone in a rip, don’t go in after them. Instead throw a floating object or line to them, like the ring buoys in the rescue boxes on each jetty.

Be sure and swim near a lifeguard. Ours are amazing, and while you are responsible for your own safety, they can provide an added layer of safety. They can also help with first aids, lost kids or virtually any type of beach emergency. It also helps to swim with a buddy, obey warning signs and flags, designate a “Water Watcher”, and avoid diving in headfirst. A huge thing to remember is not to enter the water at either end of the island. The Ship Channel and the San Luis Pass have dangerous tidal currents and it’s illegal to swim there. Also, don’t forget to wear that lifejacket if you’re boating or are either a non-swimmer or a child.

It’s been hot! Hydrate with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen with a high SPF, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. Speaking of protecting your eyes, it’s a good idea to steer clear from shooting off your own fireworks. Beside the fact that it’s against the law, they mess up the beach, are a major fire hazard, and can cause problems for wildlife.

Above all, know your limits and don’t check your brain at the causeway. Enjoy your vacation on our beautiful island and have fun!

Opening Lifesaving Minds

The crew has been holding up well, although they’re taking a beating.  Brutal heat and persistent west wind make for hot, gritty conditions that are an assault on the senses, particularly for guards who are working long shifts in the towers day after day. Guards in trucks and towers are moving thousands of swimmers away from some serious rip currents by structures like piers and jetties. There have also been a number of significant rip currents appearing in the middle of the beach, which have kept Galveston’s guards working double-time.

Persistent wind means persistent lateral currents that run parallel to the shoreline. These, in turn, scour deep troughs, some of which are very close to shore. Additionally fat, powerful rip currents near structures take sand with them, leaving deep channels near the structure which in turn perpetuates stronger rip currents. A few days of semi-calm conditions can break this cycle and allow for the bottom to level out, but over a month of continuous wind hasn’t allowed for that.

Last weekend, we had our mid-season all staff open water swim race. The whole crew met at 7:30 a.m. for a staff picture followed by the swim. The water was rough and there was a lot of current, which makes for great training. Also, it was a great chance for our seasoned guards to show off their skills and beat some of the newer, sometimes faster, swimmers. We have new employees that are amazing swimmers but get beat in our training races by slower, but more experienced, guards. Once these new rookies get the hang of using these “tricks” they often come out on top. This time a big pack of people overcorrected for the current and missed the buoy, swimming past it. Some of our best swimmers were in this pack and finished behind some of the guards that were more strategic and “picked a better line”, meaning they used the current to the maximum advantage.

We also incorporate a lot of entries and exits from the water. Repetition is a proven way to get the guards to internalize the theory that they learn in the academy and in our daily skill training sessions so it’s automatic when making a rescue in stressful conditions

We use races as a means to improve and hone ocean swimming and paddling skills. Some people are naturally more intuitive than others in this respect, but there is a learned component when it comes to using current and waves instead of fighting against them.

For the complete mind/body/ rescue techniques tripod of lifeguarding, the final ingredient involves remaining centered under stress, opening your mind, and seeing a few moves ahead. Some have an innate predisposition for this, but experience helps. It’s critical for ocean rescue and for preventing accidents. In many ways this ability is more important than physical conditioning or technique when racing or rescuing. It separates a good lifeguard from a great one.

And it can mean the difference between life and death.