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Fall and G-Bay

You can feel summer slipping away. It’s not just the cooler temperatures and the fact that we’re starting to see frontal systems push all the way through. There’s something in the light, the shorter days and the look of the surface of the water that is just different.

Last Sunday was the last day of the year for John’s Beach Service at Stewart Beach. Max Wilson has been working for decades along with his brother Walter. It’s a model business that runs like clockwork. Part of the winning formula is to not change what works. They open each year on Good Friday and close the last Sunday of September. They dig the holes at 7:30am and the umbrellas come off the beach at 5pm. Like the birds that migrate south, Max leaves just after they close to travel the world. For many years he went all over the place. But countries are like people and people are attracted to both like-minded people and countries. Max spends the majority of his off season in Australia. But for me, Max leaving is as much a portent of fall as the cooler weather.

For me this signifies the best time of the year. The beaches are beautiful and empty. The weather is still warm but more comfortable. And the burden of managing a staff of over 100 millennials and a day camp of nearly 100 teens and pre-teens is lifted somewhat. I love them but am happy to have some time that involves more planning than in crisis-management. I also like the way that without all the distraction of crowds it feels like we can see the beach and all the wildlife again.

Tuesday will be our very last day for working seasonal guards. Stewart Beach Park’s last day is Sunday and East Beach is already closed for the season. The lifeguard towers will be picked up mid week and moved to a central location so our staff can refurbish them during the winter months. But we still have plenty of guarding to do. Our full time staff of 9 will be working double time to cover the beaches from the rescue trucks and will continue to patrol until December. Then in February we’ll start again although, like always, we’ll continue to provide emergency response to 911 calls year round.

Last weekend was the G-Bay Paddle that was based at Moody Gardens and happened in Offats Bayou. This event was held for the second time and nearly doubled in size since last year. It is a day of racing Stand Up Paddleboards (S.U.P.s) and kayaks. Beach Patrol and the Galveston Police Department Marine Division provided the water security and Galveston EMS handled the medical coverage. It went pretty well. We only rescued one person who ended up being ok after a little attention from EMS. The sport of S.U.P. is taking off in leaps and bounds and we should expect to see more of this type of event in the near future.

 

End of Summer

“Good Morning. Ma’am, do you mind hopping down out of our lifeguard tower?”

“Why?”

“The towers are there for the lifeguards and we prefer other people don’t sit in them.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“There’s a sign right next to where you’re sitting saying ‘no trespassing’, so it would be the same as sitting in someone else’s house and refusing to leave.”

“Well then I guess I’ll leave. But I’m leaving the beach in that case. It’s too hot out here!”

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. It can be a challenge, but if I have my head right 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.

“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 it goes into a whole list of reasons that all generally have the same theme that this particular case should be exempt from the rules. Some of the best ones are: “he’s really friendly and loves people”, “she just likes chasing birds and hardly ever bites anyone”, “I have him for protection”, or, my personal all-time favorite, “my dog is on a verbal leash”.

The other common technique that can be fun 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”

“So…. I can’t have my tarp here?”

After it runs on for a while like that, they realize that even if you keep asking the response is the same. Then they might move it. Or if you’re lucky they might go into the previous technique and point out that they need shade more than other people because…..

End of summer grumbling aside, we got through the weekend pretty well. Despite the weird weather we still had moderate crowds out in the rough surf conditions. We moved about 520 people from dangerous areas, made four rescues, and a number of enforcement actions. Busy, but not like a holiday weekend would traditionally be.

It’s been a busy summer and I don’t think any of my staff minded ending the high season with a whimper as opposed to a bang!

 

 

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Late Summer Safety

Late summer brings some real significant changes to the beachfront that can impact what you need to do to stay safe. In spring and Early to mid-summer we are almost overwhelmingly concerned with rip currents and keeping people out of them. As we move into hotter weather and calmer water conditions other concerns come into play as well. With a few safety precautions you can avoid most or all of these.

To be clear, rip currents are the primary safety concern on the beach year round. The current running perpendicular to shore that is generally found near the rock groins is a constant hazard. It pulls offshore and takes sand with it leaving a trough. Even on the calmest of days you want to avoid swimming or wading near structures that stick out into the water, obey warning signs, and swim near a lifeguard that will remind you if you slip up. If caught in a rip, stay calm, call or wave for help, and just float. If you’re a good swimmer, swim parallel to shore until you get out of the rip current and then to shore. If someone else is caught in one don’t go in after them. Call 911 or signal a guard, throw a float or rope and/or extend a reaching object to them.

But now that we’re in a calmer weather pattern and the heat has hit be sure and take precautions for the heat and sun. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothing, apply sunscreen with a high SPF rating, wear protective glasses with a high UVA and UVB protection, drink plenty of fluid, and seek shade periodically. If you feel weak, dizzy, or disoriented and have paler than normal, clammy skin you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Get cool and out of the sun, drink fluids, and self-monitor. If left unchecked this can lead to heat stroke, which is an extreme emergency. If you stop sweating and have hot, dry skin and a reduced level of consciousness it’s critical that you cool down and get to a hospital as soon as possible.

When the water gets calm lots of critters can move closer to shore unmolested by heavy wave action. We’ve seen a drastic increase in stingray hits the past couple of weeks, including a couple of lifeguards. The barbs are loaded with nastiness and usually break off under the skin causing certain infection. Treatment is lots of heat on the puncture site which alleviates the pain rapidly. You should always seek medical care so they can check if there’s a broken off piece of the barb in there and start you on a course of antibiotics. The good thing about stingrays is that they’re easily avoided. Shuffling your feet when in shallow water lets sting rays and a bunch of other critters know you’re in the area so they can make a quick getaway. After all, if some giant, weird looking creature tried to step on you, wouldn’t you fight back however you could?

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.

Memorial Weekend

It’s here! Beach season is on us. Depending on a multitude of factors, somewhere between 250-500,000 people will visit the island this weekend. And it won’t stop there. Last year, Galveston tourism set records for visitation and visitor spending. More than 5.8 million visitors came to Galveston Island, spending $687.2 million to generate an economic impact of $951.8 million to the local economy. This was a 5% increase from 2012.

Our tourism experts have been hard at work to keep the tourists coming. All of our major resort hotels have gone through renovations this year and we’ve had several new attractions open, including the new ropes course and zip line at Moody Gardens that just opened a couple weeks ago. In addition, the island just launched its first ever Certified Tourism Ambassador program where we are training hundreds of hospitality front-liners to provide deeper knowledge of the destination and better customer service to visitors. Being that our No. 1 attraction is the beach, they recently launched a new interactive website, www.galvestonbeachinfo.com, that allows visitors to check out surf conditions, weather, beach events and more prior to coming down to the island. Finally, the island offers a lot of free entertainment throughout the summer, such as free Sunday concerts and East Beach or Movie Night on the Strand. Check this out at www.galveston.com.

But once we entice all these visitors to the beach it falls to the various public safety groups to protect them. Lifeguards, Firefighters, Paramedics, and Peace Officers will go into a frenzy starting this afternoon and for the next few days. Memorial Weekend is usually the busiest holiday of the year. We will be ready. Last Wednesday we held our annual mass casualty drill. The scenario this year was a boat accident in Offats Bayou and the Moody Gardens Colonel paddleboat was kind enough to participate and serve as a safe site for rescue and triage of patients. The “victims” were our 27 lifeguard candidates who learned by watching how more experienced responders handled their simulated injuries. These drills are invaluable when practiced right before the busy season. Although the drill went well, we did find a few areas that needed improvement during the debriefing afterwards. We’ll have those rough edges ironed out when we face the inevitable crises over the holiday.

Our lifeguard candidates who made it through the final exam and “night swim” are scheduled to shadow a working lifeguard today as a final phase of their training. They’ll be out along with all the rest of the staff Saturday.

When you come to the beach this weekend remember to swim near a lifeguard, stay far from the rocks, don’t swim alone, observe warning flags and signs, take precautions for the heat and sun, and keep a close eye on children. Feel free to approach the lifeguard with questions. The guards will be busy, but they’re never too busy to give safety advice, provide tourist information, help find a missing person, or assist with whatever problem you may have.

 

 

Training and CPR

Tomorrow is the last day for lifeguard tryouts. If you know anyone interested have them show up at the UTMB swimming pool at 7am. They’ll swim, interview, drug screen, compete in a run swim run for starters. Those that make it will start the 100 hour lifeguard academy that takes place over the next two weeks.

We are entering the busiest period for Beach Patrol. All of our seasonal workers should be rolling in during the next week or so which will be a relief since we’ll be able to provide much more beach front coverage. But it does mean that we have to conduct the bulk of our training over a short period of time.

During the next month we’ll train the rookie lifeguards, hold a week long lifeguard supervisor academy, implement tourism training courses with the Park Board, conduct a certification course for dispatchers, participate in a large scale scenario with our public safety partners, conduct six CPR classes including two for the Park Board staff, train surf camp instructors, run two separate personal water craft rescue courses, and hold our traditional “night swim” ultimate lifeguard physical challenge. Oh, and work the busiest holiday and the busiest part of the summer season. Fortunately we have an exceptional Training Officer, Sgt. Kara Harrison, who will be coordinating this three ring training circus.

Although all this training is mandated by one group or another, it sometimes feels like overkill. It’s exhausting, but you really see the value when you see the crew in action. A comprehensive training program directly translates to lives saved.

Last weekend Supervisor David Nash was patrolling with Senior Guard John Garcia at 53rd when they got a call that a man ran into another car and was slumped over the wheel and not breathing at 57th and seawall. They quickly made it there to find Galveston Police Officer Sean Migues had pulled the man out of the car. Sean is an ex Beach Patrol Supervisor/Officer who is also a Paramedic and Firefighter. GPD Chief Henry Porretto has a knack for putting the right people in the right places and Sean, a very affable, tourist friendly guy, works the parking detail on the seawall. Sean had already started CPR and David and John grabbed the automatic external defibrillator from the truck and quickly gave the patient two shocks which reportedly restarted the man’s heart. EMS arrived shortly after and took over care.

All three of these rescuers are heroes. But each has also had hundreds or even thousands of hours of training that led to such an efficient and professional response.

So when you drive down the seawall on Memorial Weekend and see all the men and women out working the lifeguard towers, patrol cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, know that each of them has committed a good portion of their lives to the training that enabled them to earn the right and privilege to be the one that might one day save you or your loved one.

Easter, Menard, and Burgers

Sunday was a good day.

Finally! We finally got the weather we all love. And it actually happened on Easter Weekend. It was perfect with sunny conditions, mild temperatures, flat blue/green water, and heaps of people out enjoying themselves. The crowds were well behaved and everyone seemed to be really thankful for finally getting the chance to hang out on the beach.

I enjoyed the entire weekend. It was great to drive the beaches and finally see so many local and tourist families making sandcastles, swimming, laying out, cooking BBQ, and getting to spend quality time with each other. It was one of those times that makes you thankful for the life choices you’ve made to put you where you are. We had a good turnout Saturday morning for lifeguard requalification and tryouts as well.

Sunday I started my normal high season weekend routine. I like the weekends because I get to do what I originally joined Beach Patrol to do- spend time helping people on the beach. I got up early and checked the entire beach and then had a good long surf-ski (a long, skinny kayak) workout in the ocean. Next I checked the beaches again and got to our headquarters to meet with the second shift guards before they went out to their towers.

After a few administrative duties I had my Sunday indulgence that I look forward to all week- a Whataburger! Generally, I try to eat fairly healthy but this is different. My Grandma and I were close and, after an injury, she relocated from her apartment into an assisted living space. She was kept on a strict diet, but on Sundays, she’d give me a call and say, “Are you bringing my package?” So I’d sneak in two Whataburgers in a backpack, we’d barricade her door to keep out potential snitches, and get to business!

As I went through the drive through the food took a while, so I chatted with the woman working. She was telling me about a reunion she’d been to the day before up on the beach at 29th. She grew up in the neighborhood around Menard Park and many of the old crew have moved out. They all still get together each year for Easter for a friends and family reunion.

Back when I started working as a tower guard I was assigned to 29th most of the summer. There were huge neighborhood parties across the street every Sunday and all the kids came down to my beach to play. I never had to bring lunch as someone always showed up at my tower with a huge plate of food to thank me for watching the kids. When I got off-duty a group of guys around my age would move over to the beach side of the seawall. I’d tell them the trouble spots and they’d keep the kids safe well into the night. Talking about those days brought back some good memories.

Like I said, Sunday was a good day.

 

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.

 

 

Tryouts

The group of young men and women radiated nervousness as they lined up on the sand. “On your mark, get set, GO!” shouted the instructor as they raced down the beach around the tower and into the water.

I was about half way out to the buoy when a group of good swimmers caught me and basically swam right over me. By the time I got going again a wave smacked me right in the face as I was taking a breath. When I got to the buoy I had to hang on for a few seconds to catch my breath before pushing on.

The year was 1983 and I finished 11th out of 30 in the Beach Patrol tryouts. They took the top 8. Finally, around the 4th of July I got a call that I could come and work. There was no formal training and no special first aid course other than what I got when I took the Red Cross pool lifesaving course. I was just given a radio and sent to work.

Tomorrow is the first of three tryouts for the Beach Patrol at 7am at the UTMB pool. If you know anyone that wants to work on the Beach Patrol spread the word. The basic swim test is the same as it was 32 years ago when I bombed it. Details are on our website. Candidates who want to start working right away can go through the first lifeguard academy over spring break. We pay them to attend the school where they are certified in CPR, First Aid, and beach lifeguarding. They also go through training in tourist relations, city codes pertaining to Galveston’s beaches, gulf coast ecology, and near shore topography and hydrology. Coupled with all the classroom work is hands on training in how to swim and make rescues in surf, search and recovery, and the basics of lifesaving sport. It’s a busy week and we’ll do it all over again the second week in May for the second lifeguard academy.

In addition to training for new lifeguards we are starting our annual training session for dispatchers, supervisors, and personal water craft rescue operations. By the time Memorial Weekend hits we’ll be up to speed. Despite the huge amount of effort all this requires of our permanent staff members there’s a big payoff for both our staff and the public. The inconsistent training that once took a whole summer is taught in a uniform manner. Each employee is taught the same material and instilled with similar core values. Any one of our guards can handle whatever is thrown at them when and if they complete the training.

So for those that would like to try being a beach guard, I hope you’ll give it a shot. I’m so happy I squeaked in all those years ago. For me it was a life changer. Not many people get to go home at the end of the day with the knowledge that they saved someone.