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Spring Break and Tri

Here we go! Another beautiful, busy weekend has passed. With no seaweed, perfect water and air temperature, and large well-behaved crowds, it’s no wonder our property values have risen so much! Technically, that should be the last big one of spring break, but I have a feeling that if the weather holds, we’ll be looking at busy weekends until the summer madness kicks in. We’ve been reviewing stats and staffing patterns and the reality has set in that Galveston’s beaches are busier earlier and later than they were just a few years back. Last weekend looked like a weekend in June. Again, our luck held with calm few incidents, even though we were busy with small stuff all weekend. Over Spring Break, we ended up with 5 rescues and a 4,153 actions where we moved people from dangerous areas.

The action is showing no sign of slowing. Sunday, April 3, is the Memorial Hermann 70.3 half Ironman event. We’re working with the Ironman staff, the Galveston Police Department Marine Division and Jamaica Beach Fire Rescue to provide water security. With around 3,000 registered participants it’s going to be a huge event and a big deal for Galveston. We work the watercourse with a modified version of how we guard the beach. Lifeguards work on rescue boards, so they can sit above the water to spot people and have floatation for all the swim assists and rescues we typically make during the event. Other guards work on “jet skis” to cover a zone of several guards and we call them Personal Watercraft Crew (PWC). Lifeguards communicate with PWC crews and each other using a combination of whistles and hand signals, which are the same ones we use on the beach front. The PWC operators have waterproof radio headsets so they can communicate with an “incident commander” on the shore. This capability affords the ability to triage patients in the water and quickly pass information to the incident commander, EMS, and the Ironman workers who know the racers’ numbers and vital patient information. Most of the people rescued are tired swimmers, but we can experience more serious cases that go directly to the EMS crews. At the end of the race, the lifeguards and police divers stay on the water until the Ironman staff confirms that all swimmers have been cleared of the water using the numbers we provide and electronic chips that register racer numbers as they run across a mat at the end of the swim.

Last Saturday, we held our first lifeguard tryouts of the season. The next one is in May. Out of all the applicants, four made it through the tryouts and demanding lifeguard academy. We also had a decent number of returning lifeguards requalify and, for those in leadership roles, go through their annual retraining in rescue techniques, report writing, advanced level CPR, and PWC rescue. The tower guards will renew their CPR qualifications along with those who return in May.

Another season is upon us and we’re all ready for another wild ride!

Warm It Up

Finally! Spring feels like it’s just around the corner. After the long, long winter there’s finally that feeling in the air. The cold is still there but doesn’t seem to penetrate all the way to your bones, and even if it’s cold in the morning you’re able to get by with a thin layer or just a t-shirt by the afternoon.

The water, however, doesn’t yet seem to know that it’s time for winter to relinquish its grasp. When our team works out in the ocean, we’re still wearing full wetsuits and hoods; boots and gloves aren’t necessary. The water temperature hovers at or just below 60 and Saturday was too cold to guard, but since then it’s been needed.

The spring breakers have been undaunted by the chilly water though. When the sun pops out or the wind dies down, they suddenly appear all over the beach. With Stewart Beach temporarily closed, we’re missing the spring sand volleyball tournaments and pickup games, but it will be worth it this summer when the crowds rush the shore. Last year, we had to close the parking lot due to flooding over 20 times. The lifeguards, shivering in their towers, have been moving swimmers away from the jetty rip currents. Fortunately, returning guards re-qualified and along with the full-time staff we’ve been covering a decent amount of towers. It seems like there were many people here on the island hanging out in restaurants, hotels, The Strand, or one of our many tourist attractions waiting for temperatures to warm so they can hit the afternoon beach.

This weekend is the last of main part of Spring Break. Afterwards, on the Seawall, fewer drivers will meander across the lane in front of you with speeds varying between 5-45 mph. No one will pull a U-turn, almost hit you, and then post up by a potential parking space, unashamedly blocking traffic, while 5 people take 20 minutes to load two chairs and a cooler into the back of their vehicle. Enjoy it while it lasts, because soon it will be time to retreat to the “secret” ways of moving around the interior of the island!

This weekend Houston schools, and a handful of colleges, conclude their Spring Break and the weather forecast looks pretty good. We may see those big crowds we’ve been expecting. Working with the Galveston Police Department, we’ve been keeping our eyes out for “pop up crowds” that can appear at a moment’s notice almost anywhere. As soon as the water hits about 65, which shouldn’t be long now, we’ll see a lot of bodies out there in the water. No doubt, it will get really busy really quickly to help keep them from getting in trouble and help set the conditions for a great resident and visitor experience.

The nice thing in our community is that we will soon graduate a small class from our lifeguard academy that can jump in and lend a hand to the more seasoned veterans. And more academies to come.

And so it begins….

Wave Watchers

Spring Break and lifeguard tryouts are just a week away!

Our full-time crew has been tying up all kinds of loose ends to get ready for the big kickoff of the 2022 beach season. They’ve been working hard to get ready for you! Finishing up getting all 600 beach signs we maintain in working order, we’ve also repaired and maintained towers, and many are already on the beach. Our lifeguards have completed crazy amounts of training to make sure they’re ready to respond to emergencies when needed. In addition to savings lives, they are ready to teach returning and new lifeguards what they need to know. All the while, our guards will continue to connect with the community, engage visitors, protect the environment, and help make Galveston a great place to live, work and visit.

Last week guards renewed medical skills, requalified in swimming and rescue techniques, practiced jet ski rescues, trained in handling workplace harassment complaints, equipped themselves with resiliency skills, and completed a big block on leadership. Mostly supervisors, these impressive people set the tone for around120 seasonal guards. A critical part of making sure we provide our staff with a safe, supportive environment, they are also the EMTs, Peace Officers, and back up for guards to handle the bigger emergencies. We put a lot of time and energy into making sure they have all the tools they need to do a really tough job and they appreciate your support.

Last week we talked about the Survivor Support Network. Another program that we’re excited about and hope that many of you will participate in is the “Wave Watcher Program.”

This program is a way for citizens to join our team. A mini lifeguard academy, Wave Watchers is free of charge and will begin in mid-April. Most instruction is virtual with a couple of in-person sessions.

The course will cover Beach Patrol history and operations, general beach safety, first aid and CPR tailored for the beach, tourist ambassador certification (CTA), beach and waterfront municipal ordinances, and Wave Watcher operations. On the final day, we’ll do a site-by-site visit of “hot spots” for water safety and discuss how Wave Watchers integrate into Beach Patrol operations.

There is no physical requirement and Wave Watchers do not make rescues. But upon completion of the academy, they form an important cadre of informed beachgoers who have “the eye. “Our Wave Watchers spot trouble developing and notify first responders to prevent situations from escalating or respond as needed. They do this important work during their normal daily life when members drive, walk, fish, surf, or boat along the beachfront, or during more organized patrols. The level of commitment and involvement will be completely up to the graduates.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the crew, you can find more information on our website at https://galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com/wave-watchers  or sign up at [email protected]

We hope you will join our team and family for a fun way to support a great cause!

Academy and Spring Break Prep

A group of men and women hold onto the pool wall, each in their respective lanes. Some are visibly nervous and already breathing hard. Others are taking deep controlled breaths and look calm, at least on the outside.

“Swimmers take your mark. Go!”

We are on the precipice.

In just two weeks we will hold lifeguard tryouts! At 9am, Saturday, March 12 in the UTMB Fieldhouse swimming pool, prospective lifeguards will swim 500 meters. To make it to the academy, they must complete the swim in 10 minutes or less.

From the pool, the ones that pass will go directly to the Beach Patrol headquarters and drug test, fill out paperwork, and dive right into the academy. Over the nine-day academy candidates will take a high-level Red Cross first aid and CPR course. They will learn and practice open water swimming and rescue techniques in the pool before using and building on these skills in the surf. They will have lessons about Galveston beach and lifesaving history, the way the city and the Park Board operate, and learn about the importance of teamwork. Front-line tourism ambassador training, how to diffuse conflict, how to build cultural competence, and how to become a better leader and follower are all part of the syllabus too.

Throughout the course, a variety of experienced instructors emphasize the importance of important concepts, including the understanding general rescue theory vs. getting mired in details of techniques that may or may not work in a real rescue. They learn about the need for flexibility and independent thinking and the balance between concepts like chain of command and group decision making. We repeatedly emphasize and practice the critical importance of physically and mentally rehearsing how to make a variety of rescues. Rehearsing and visualizing helps first responders to make the basics automatic and it can help them focus and helps reduce “tunnel vision” when first responders are stressed.

During this 90-hour course, our returning lifeguards will be out working Spring Break. Once the candidates course work is near completion, they’ll get to join the more experienced guards and work some busy beach days. There’s nothing more valuable than putting their new skills into practice in real life, under supervision.

We need guards! If you or someone you know is interested in a challenging, rewarding and life-changing job that helps people and allows you to explore your full potential, consider joining the men and women that protect Galveston’s beaches. There is specific information on www.galvestonislandbeachpatrol.com  about the academies we offer and other ways to support Galveston’s designated lifeguard service. Even if you are not one of those people in the pool on Mar 12, we still need everyone’s help and there are many ways to serve your community and “pool” our resources and experiences.

Come by and say hello and get connected to us. Anyone can help save a life by listening to advisories, learning, sharing safe practices and being “water safe.” And always, let us know if we can help. We are here to serve you.

Training

Happy Mardi Gras! When this big annual party rolls around that is a signal for us that beach season is just around the corner. This year, because of increased tourism and great weather, it feels like we never really left. These intermittent cold snaps are the only time the beaches don’t have people on them. Granted, with water in the low to mid 50’s, swimmers are few, but our patrols have moved a surprising number of people from the rocks for it being the “wintertime.” In just a few short weeks we will “Laissez le bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll) again and it will be “summer go time.”

One nice thing the past couple of months is the amount of training we’ve been able to get squared away. Our seasonal lifeguards, of course, have one hundred hours of training just to get going, and train consistently each day to maintain their readiness level. As they move up in the organization, there are more requirements. In fact, professional lifeguards wear so many hats that it feels like we’re always doing some kind of training or another. For some of our staff they’re maintaining an EMT certification, personal rescue watercraft certification, peace officer licensing, or Red Cross instructor accreditation (medical and lifeguarding). They also have certifications in swift water rescue, boat handling and SCUBA. On top of that they do training in leadership, workplace relations, cultural competency, tourist relations and more. I firmly believe that there is a direct correlation between the amount of quality training we can fit into their busy schedules and a high level of competence achieved to better serve the public.

One of the training courses that helps me stay current is Texas Police Chief Leadership training. I’m not always excited to attend and leave the island, but I find it useful, stimulating and re-energizing once I’m actually in the course. Texas has some of the best police training in the country and this course is no exception. I try to always take it in the winter, so I can be here during our busy season.

This year the course was even better than usual. The content was partly what you’d expect with fitness, use of force, legislative updates, employment law and emergent issues in law enforcement training. But there were some surprises such as strategic decision making in ambiguous environments, tools for conflict management and building financial strength in first responder families. There were even some like “training for life” which included meditation techniques, diet information and other strategies to mitigate stress. For a group that has one of the most stressful jobs and lifestyles out there, it really hit home.

There seems to be a groundswell of recognition among public safety, academics, and hopefully the general public that these types of jobs are abnormally stressful and its critical to reduce health and suicide. I’m glad we recognize that now and are preparing our first responders so we can keep supporting our residents and visitors and “let the good times roll” safely together.

Survivor Support Network

With the sun beating down and recovery operation terminated, I scanned the searchers to make sure everyone was OK. I then turned to see, with relief, that a tent had been erected and a family was seated comfortably drinking water and talking to a Jesse Tree councilor who had just arrived following a tragic drowning…

Thinking back over the past decade I have lost count of the times we’ve worked a drowning on one of our beaches along with our public safety partners and had family members of the victim sitting on the beach looking to us for some type of resolution. We’re very good at our primary mission of prevention, rescue, and the operational side of a recovery effort. But we’re just not geared or resourced for providing counseling or religious support. Nor do we have the capacity to beat the bushes for hotels to offer free rooms for families, donations of meals or clothing to help aid a grieving family. In this situation families need someone to help them liaison with public safety groups, consulates and embassies, or a network of emotional and spiritual support in their home communities.

That’s why I’ll always feel a tremendous gratitude to Ted Hanley and David Mitchell of the Jesse Tree for their willingness to take on this emotionally draining, but critical role at a time that is so needed for these families. The team that has joined them through the years is just as compassionate and willing to step forward and do something that makes a real difference. They have done so much for so many and been amazing ambassadors for the spirit of caring and support that permeates so many people here on our island. And now it’s time for us to help them to help more of our guests. In their words:

“Tragedy Strikes when we least expect it. For over a decade the Survivor Support Network has responded with consolation, compassionate care, and common sense to the families and friends of drowning victims on Galveston’s beaches. This dedicated team of volunteers meets their immediate needs, while guiding them to the necessary resources in the aftermath of the tragedy. The team also ministers to the needs of the Beach Patrol staff- many of whom risk their own lives to save others and significantly feel the impact of these events. Without this well-trained team, these incidents would simply not offer the dignity and compassion that a loving community can bring to a tragedy. Please support our effort to keep this team on alert as the summer season approaches. The Jesse Tree invites you to support this worthy work by donating or joining the team.”

For the upcoming season we are doing our best to prepare for what will come. My staff and I are extremely grateful for our partnership with the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network https://jessetree.net/survivor-support-network  and all they do for us and for people who experience tragedy when they visit our beaches. Nice to have friends with a shared mission!

The Jesse Tree:  Uplifting    Rebuilding    Connecting

Photo courtesy of Galveston News

Flags

We’re just over a month away from beach season, believe it or not. Soon we’ll be putting out all kinds of information about how to stay safe when visiting the beaches. One area that’s important to refamiliarize yourself with is our Flag Warning System (FWS).

The FSW advises beach patrons of the current water conditions and any applicable environmental warnings. The flag colors described below used to help beachgoers understand the current conditions in the always dynamic environment of open water.

On Galveston Island, informational signs and warning flags are posted each day year-round along Seawall Blvd. at flag warning stations. Also, each guarded Lifeguard tower hoists the appropriate flags for the day, and they also are displayed at beach park entrances.

We post flag color, warnings, and other important safety info on our homepage and on multiple social media platforms every day. You can also sign up on our website to receive the notifications via email and/or text message daily.

Here are the different flags we use and some inside background information on them:

Green: Conditions are calm, but swim with care. Remember this doesn’t mean you’re 100% safe. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond so you should always be extra careful even on flat days.

Yellow: Indicates that beachgoers should use caution when entering the water. This flag is flown for normal ocean conditions to remind swimmers to stay alert. It is very important to stay close to shore on yellow days.

Red: Flown when conditions are rough, such as presence of strong wind, strong current or large surf. Adult swimmers should stay in water no more than waist deep and non-swimmers and children should enjoy the water along the surf line. When there is a red flag flying you should assume the presence of very strong rip currents near any type of structure like groins or jetties.

Purple: Indicates potential problems with jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, stingrays, or other marine life that could be a hazard for swimmers. Purple flags are used in combination with other flags. Every lifeguard trains before every shift and we are the “Guinea Pigs” to test the waters If we get several stings while swimming, the flags go up. Sometimes a wave of critters comes up midday, so we put the purple flags up when we reach a minimum threshold of the ratio of stings to swimmers.

Orange: Indicates an environmental warning for air and/or water quality. Ask the Lifeguard for more details. Orange pennant flags will be used in combination with other flags. We have a partnership in place with UTMB for air quality warnings and one with the Health District’s Texas Beach Watch Program for water quality warnings. Water quality warnings can be specific to certain places so these flags, when flown, may just be applicable in some areas. We don’t determine when either of these warnings are issued. But we help spread the word by our flag system, or website, or via social media.

Heat

The knock on the door in the late afternoon wasn’t a surprise. Nor was the woman in her 70’s who was dizzy, a little disoriented, and sweating. Our Headquarters doubles as a first aid station for beach patrons, so its not unusual for people to show up with all kinds of medical emergencies including heat exhaustion. In this particular case, after taking her vitals and getting some medical history as well as an inventory of what she’d eaten, drank, and been doing for the day, we decided to rehydrate her and monitor her to see if she improved. After an hour or so she and her family left with a reminder to seek quick medical attention if the symptoms returned.

We are in some weird weather patterns fluctuating between storms and heat waves. Although in Galveston the actual temperature isn’t really that high, the real thing that worries us is the heat index, which is a combination of relative humidity and air temperature. When the relative humidity is over 60% it hampers with sweat evaporation and hinders your body’s ability to cool itself. Since in Galveston the humidity is pretty much always over 60% heat related illnesses are an ever-present danger in the summer.

Heat exhaustion is the first stage of heat related illness and is usually accompanied by some type of dehydration. We see heat exhaustion often on the beach in late summer. Many people spend the whole day in the heat and sun and often aren’t used to those conditions. Sometimes people who are outside regularly forget to hydrate or drink beverages that hasten dehydration. Generally, people will be confused, nauseous, dizzy, lightheaded, tired, have headaches or cramps, have pale or clammy skin, sweat profusely, and/or have a rapid heartbeat.

Normally, as was the case for this woman, this is enough, and we are able to treat at the scene and release them with a warning to take it easy for the next few hours or even days. This would be one example of the roughly 1,800 calls we’re able to filter for EMS annually. But if these measures don’t show improvement within a few minutes, we call for EMS because heat exhaustion can progress rapidly to heat stroke. Heat stroke is a critical life-threatening situation, so we want to avoid it if at all possible.

An important, but not well known, issue that affects our guards and people that are on the beach all the time is that of cumulative dehydration. New lifeguards often find that on the second week of work they are dizzy when they stand up or have stomach issues. They don’t feel thirsty so there’s no clue that they have become more and more dehydrated. Until they learn that they need to drink close to two gallons of water a day even if they’re not thirsty it will continue and worsen.

Living where we do in Galveston County it’s important that we are consciously aware of the effects and dangers of heat and sun and takes steps to mitigate them.

 

picture courtesy of news.okstate.edu

Lightning Policy

WHACK! I didn’t remember seeing a flash or hearing thunder, but my ears were ringing. I looked around and it felt like I’d just woken up. My heart was beating pretty quickly, and my hands were shaking, but I didn’t know why. Suddenly, I noticed a volleyball court pole about 15 yards away was split in half and shards of wood were scattered in a radius of 20 feet or so from the pole.

Suddenly it was if a fog cleared, and I remembered dispatch had radioed with a warning about a storm cell moving in the area and realized two guards were on a metal 4 wheeler 3 miles down the beach in the direction the storm was moving. We were helping set up for a footrace on Stewart Beach. On the way there, two more bolts hit close enough that I couldn’t tell a time difference between the bang and the flash, but I never saw where they hit. When I got there, the three of us huddled in my truck, windows up, without touching the sides or radios.  We canceled the event.

The United States Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org) and the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov) years back formed a task force that I was on to establish procedures to notify the public on our nation’s beaches when lightning poses a threat. I learned a great deal, but the main points were that the general public should seek shelter in a closed building that’s grounded or a vehicle when they hear thunder. Open buildings, non-grounded shelters, or just getting out of the water and on the beach does not protect you or your family. Armed with that information we in the United States Lifesaving Association came up with a template and guidelines for beach lifeguard agencies to use to establish policies for protecting both the public and their staff from lightening strikes.

Our Supervisors have been revisiting this policy recently to try to tighten up some of the cracks. They’re really committed to protecting people and it’s been a good discussion which was facilitated by Supervisor Micah Fowler. As is recommended, we pull the guards from most of the towers and notify the beachgoing public via PA systems to seek shelter in a vehicle or building when lightning strikes within 10 miles of where they are. We have two fancy towers that are grounded that we’re able to leave guards in, but the other 29 towers we clear. Sounds good on paper, but we’re talking about 33 miles of beach and potentially as many as 150,000 people. And often we aren’t able to get back to the same area quickly enough when we put the guards back up and its safe to get back out there.

So, the consensus is that the best approach is to have the guards drop their flags to show the area isn’t’ guarded and include in the announcements that when the guards return the lightning is no longer a threat.

SHARKS

Nat Geo ran a documentary story this week about sharks and played an interview I did with them a while back. Whenever Shark Week rolls around people start seeing things in our water  and reporting them. They’re almost always a dolphin’s pectoral fin since you really wouldn’t spot a shark from the shoreline very often, but people can still get pretty worked up about anything to do with sharks. There are a lot of sharks in the Gulf and they capture the imagination.

But where does reasonable caution intersect with irrational fear?

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 7 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty favorably… for the swimmers.

There are a number of reasons that our number of bites is so low compared to other beach locations, and you very seldom hear of an actual “attack” involving multiple bites. One of these is that we don’t have rivers or inlets flowing out where there are a significant number of recreational swimmers. For example, in Florida’s New Smyrna Beach, which is basically a river mouth, there are a number of bites every year. Another reason is that sharks in this area don’t have a regular food source that resembles a person. When I lived on the west coast and surfed regularly at Santa Cruz, I often thought about how the white of my board resembled the soft white underbelly of a seal seen from below.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

  1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.
  2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them, they won’t try to fight back.
  3. Don’t swim while leaking blood- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Part of the fun of swimming in the ocean is the excitement of being in a place that’s not your natural habitat. With a reasonable amount of caution, you can significantly reduce the risk of a mishap and have a great time.