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Beach Patrol and What’s Coming Up

This Sunday, May 1st, we are expecting 70 or so lifeguard candidates to show up for lifeguard tryouts. The following Saturday we’ll have another tryout and academy as well. We need them all!

I thought it would be fun to walk you through a sample of a summer day with us to illustrate all the things that are happening behind the scenes.

Starting at 7:30am the first patrol truck hits the beach, puts out flags, gets an overall feel for conditions, and updates the warning system. Our 1st dispatcher arrives and preps for the shifts to arrive. Three shifts of guards arrive starting at 7:45, followed by 10:30, and the main shift comes on just after noon. All shifts go to the beach for physical training, followed by short sessions that rotate between topics related to lifeguarding, medical response, resiliency, leadership, tourist relations or intercultural competency. For every 3 towers we ideally have 4 guards scheduled per day, to allow for breaks. Dispatchers work in a similar way.

We stagger our shifts to best use our resources and aren’t at full strength until after noon. To help fill the gap, many of our Wave Watcher volunteer program are out early checking various areas of the beach. They are a huge help in spotting potential issues before they escalate.

Meanwhile, we are also working administrative staff 9-5 and running our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp, with kids between 10 and 15. The first session of the day runs from 8-12 and the second from 1-5. They typically bounce back and forth from the headquarters to the water. They recover from exercises, games, and skills sessions while having lessons on similar topics as the guards. Then they go back to the ocean for swimming, paddling, rescue techniques, etc. We choose instructors carefully, so they’re learning from the best.

Guards get off around 8:30pm and supervisors and dispatchers continue for another hour. Then, some lucky soul gets to be “on call” and be ready to respond throughout the night to all kinds of emergencies.

Afternoons are our busiest time and can be filled with emergencies, or just the steady work of keeping people from danger. We work a zone system, where each truck takes care of a zone having 5-9 towers in it. We work a zone system, and are always ready to backfill, so we’re able to maintain uninterrupted coverage.

To accomplish all of this, we have approximately 125 lifeguards- most of whom are teenagers, 10 dispatchers, and 15 year-round employees. We cover 9 miles with 34 towers, provide patrol for 33 miles, and respond 24/7/365 to emergencies that happen in about 70 miles of waterfront. We also maintain our police department, support 15 or so Survivor Support Network Volunteers, and about 60 Wave Watchers. And our JG day camp program has 120 kids ranging in age from 10-15.

This all works because we have layers of supervision and coaching, both in our facility and on the beach, where the adults are in constant contact with the teenagers and children.

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….

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.

LIFEGUARD TRYOUTS

LIFEGUARD TRYOUTS:

July 6th at 7:00 AM
UTMB Pool House
301 Holiday Dr. Galveston, TX 77550

Check back here or call us for updates the day before tryouts.  Swim location may be subject to changes.

DO NOT BE LATE FOR THE SWIM!  IT WILL START RIGHT AT 7AM!

The Madness

It’s hard to keep up. Summer hit hard. Crowds come early for the weekend and stay late. Friday and Monday look like weekend days and on Saturday and Sunday all 33 miles of beach are blanketed with people. Police, Fire, EMS, and Beach Patrol have all been scrambling to stay on top of all the calls for service. Our statistics show an incredible volume of work performed by lifeguards who are constantly moving people away from danger day after day.

Last weekend we had two drowning fatalities, one Friday morning and another Sunday midday. The total is up to 6 for the island this year. Two in the bay related to a boating accident, one by a jetty that was rip current related, one in a small pond, one was found early morning on the beach, and another appears to have collapsed in shallow, calm water.

In the middle of all this, we’ve run almost continual lifeguard academies. I think we’re on our 6th or 7th academy but have lost track at this point. But we’ve got to keep those towers full to handle all the rough water and crowds. We also ran a jet ski rescue course, dispatch certification course, and have provided training for surf camp instructors and the fire department.

We’ve also been holding our Junior Lifeguard Program for a couple of weeks now. There’s nothing I like more than going out for my morning training sessions and seeing a small group training for the national competition, the guards out there training for the daily training sessions at the start of their shift, the Junior Guards out practicing swimming and rescue board techniques, a jet ski rescue course practicing victim pick up techniques, and a Lifeguard Candidate course out practicing rescue techniques. All at the same time, like a synchronized, frenetic, clock.

Every circus needs a ringmaster and, for us, its our Captain of Operations, Tony Pryor. Captain Pryor does the scheduling, assignments, oversees the Junior Guard Program, and takes care of the thousands of little things that have to happen to make this circus work. But there are many, many other people here that continually amaze me with their dedication and energy. Angie Barton, our Office Coordinator, somehow manages to keep everyone’s time tracked, the computers and office all working, and is usually working on 4-10 pretty significant projects simultaneously, while guards pop in and out of her office asking for one thing or another. Sgt Dain Buck is out in the field making sure all the zones are covered and everyone gets their jobs done. Lt. Mike Reardon, whose been here since the ‘70s, technically works patrol part time, but still finds time to review and perfect the many, many reports we generate. And our Supervisors, Senior Guards, Junior Guard Instructors, Dispatchers, and of course Lifeguards seem to be tireless, infinitely patient, and willing to work themselves into a stupor when needed.

The level of teamwork our staff shows is not easily described, but without it the beach would be a very different place.

Memorial Weekend Wrap Up

The little girl sat in the sand with her plastic bucket and shovel. She was completely absorbed in her mission of shoveling sand into the bucket, pouring it back onto the ground, then repeating the process. Stewart Beach was packed. From a distance it looked like living, multicolored moss covered it completely. The girl had happily found a clear space to pursue her mission.

Unfortunately, the clear space was right in the middle of the emergency lane that runs from East to West. There are also corridors that run from the parking lot to the lifeguard towers. Working with park staff and the security detail, we struggle to keep them clear on busy days. But the lanes provide not only a clear spot for us to access people during an emergency, but also provide safe passage for beach service, vendors, and park staff working hard to keep the beaches clean.

I approached the girl, explaining she was in the “road” and asking her if she’d be willing to move to the other side of the poles. I received an emphatic “NO!”, as did the Lifeguard Supervisor for the area. Fortunately, her mom swooped into the rescue. The little girl smiled at me, bouncing up and down in her mother’s arms, as she was whisked away.

About an hour later, a mile and a half down the beach, I got flagged down by a couple who had discovered a lost child walking down the beach. Same girl, same smile. But now we were friends, so she rode happily with me back to her mom, punching random buttons in my truck that delighted her when lights went on or sirens blared. I asked her if she got lost a lot, and she replied, “All the time”. Shocking.

My new friend was one of 35 children we reunited with their families over the Memorial Weekend. Official beach season opened with a bang. We also moved 19,413 people from dangerous areas, responded to 55 medical calls, made 11 rescues, worked 6 possible drowning calls (one of which resulted in a fatality), made 186 enforcement actions, provided 354 tourists with information about the island, and gave water safety information to 4,238 people. This doesn’t include all the good work done by the other public safety groups, the security program for the beach parks, and the staff from the parks, parking, and Coastal Zone Management. One of our guards, who looked like an exhausted prune after spending about 3 or 4 cumulative hours of his 9 hour shift in the water moving swimmers, told me he couldn’t be responsible for what happened the next time someone shouted “easy money” or “Baywatch” at him.

I’m really proud of how well our staff handled the weekend. Especially considering many of them worked solo in towers, unlike previous years when they were doubled up for much of the day on holiday weekends.

If any of us had doubts about Galveston’s tourism bouncing back, I think last weekend took care of that!

Mothers Day Wrap Up

Two boys drifted towards the rocks in the longshore current. Once they got to the point of the longshore current, which pushed from West to East, met the rip current, which pulled out towards the end of the groin, there was no going back. They couldn’t swim to shore or against the longshore current. They had two options. They could swim out around the groin or they could climb up on the rocks. Because they were swimming at 47th, which was not guarded, there was no one to whistle them in or go in for them and swim them around the pier.

Fortunately, this was just another close call. A passing lifeguard patrol truck saw them and made it to them in time to keep them above water as all three climbed up onto the rocks together. They were cut up but alive.

It was a wild ride. We moved 4,664 swimmers, like these two, away from rip currents before they got in trouble. A handful of groins weren’t guarded, and our Supervisors scrambled in trucks to keep swimmers safe in these, and many other areas. Bumper to bumper traffic, beaches and water peppered with people made moving around quickly an impossibility. At one point we had a large, combative guy refuse to get out of the water (for hours), that was ultimately arrested by the Galveston Police Department. Meanwhile we had rescues made by lifeguards, a bike went off the seawall causing a significant head injury, and there were a couple of incidents involving weapons. All to the beat of a steady stream of swimmers moved, lost children reunited, a near drowning in a pool, and enforcements for everything from dogs off a leash to alcohol infractions. The fever pitch was exacerbated by a sand blasting 25 mile per hour South wind. The fun didn’t stop when the sun went down when joined our public safety partners to several nighttime beach emergencies, including a merry band of revelers who, around 4am, decided to drive their truck into the water at the San Luis Pass. The party continued on top of the vehicle, until eventually they came to shore at the coaxing of the public safety groups that responded. One guy tried to make a break for it back to his almost floating truck, but a Jamaica Beach Police Officer and several Galveston Firefighters stopped him.

The crowd looked like a busy Memorial weekend, which is our busiest weekend of the year. I was extraordinarily proud of our crew, who worked so hard and so long in such difficult conditions. From the lifeguards who were in the water most of the day moving swimmer after swimmer, up to Captain Tony Pryor, who worked a 10-hour shift, then came back in for 3 more hours when we had all our vehicles out on emergencies and needed support for the lifeguards and someone to patrol unguarded areas.

Tomorrow, May 15th, we have tryouts, and all employers are hurting for people. Let’s all pray for a good turnout!

Rookies Needed!

One week from tomorrow, on May 15th at 7am we will be holding lifeguard tryouts at the UTMB Fieldhouse. Info is on our website. After the swim, drug test, and orientation, we will launch straight into almost 100 hours of training in 9 days.

We are all holding our breath hoping that recruiting efforts pay off, word has gotten to interested people, and a crowd shows up for tryouts. Now more than ever, Galveston needs a full compliment of guards to protect what has become an almost unbelievable number of tourists that visit our island and its beaches each year.

The academy involves things you would assume ocean guard trying would include. We teach CPR and First Aid that specializes on beach related injuries and emergencies. There is a ton of instruction and time spent on both how to swim and effect a rescue in the surf environment. We train for multiple victim rescues, rip current rescues, and rescues involving specialized equipment like rescue boards, boats, and jet skis. We get into specifics like how to move around on rocks covered in algae and barnacles while waves break on you without getting hurt. Search and Recovery is of course an important part of their training as well. But there are other things you wouldn’t immediately think of. Things like how to be a tourist ambassador, help a stranded dolphin or sea turtle, deal with a panicky parent who has lost his/her child, how to deal with toxic materials, and what to do if you encounter a crime scene. City ordinances, park rules, Beach Patrol policies, and an understanding of all the community programs Beach Patrol is involved in are in the mix. Obviously, there is still plenty of learning that has to happen up in the actual lifeguard towers, but we give them a solid base to work from so they know they can handle anything.

One of the main differences in the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) training that is provided compared to pool or water park lifeguard training is that the standards for beach guards are necessarily much higher, particularly the swim requirement, and the required training hours are 2 or 3 times other lifeguard programs. The Galveston Island Beach Patrol is an “Advanced” level agency, which involves more training and more requirements for the full time and supervisory staff. Additionally, the training philosophy is different. USLA focuses on a flexible approach where we emphasize general concepts that can be adapted and are easier to remember in a crisis. For example, we teach the basic concept of keeping floatation between you and a victim when making a rescue as opposed to getting too focused on one specific technique. In short, we teach and train for Murphy’s Law.

The bottom line is that when you see the man or woman in our lifeguard towers or rescue trucks, you can feel comfortable knowing they have been through rigorous and practical training to earn the right to be there. Best of the best.

We just need many more. So, if you know anyone who has what it takes…

Galveston Island Beach Patrol History

In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas and one of the more important ones in the country. Much of this was due to it being a great natural port for the shallow draft boats of the time.

Before that time, the United States Life Saving Service was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners. Today’s Beach Patrol traces its roots back to the lifesaving station at San Luis Pass which was established in 1875. Galveston has had continual lifesaving protection since that time.

Through the late 1800s, the lifesaving stations on Galveston Island continued to rescue shipwrecked mariners, but the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, with the advent of the industrial revolution and a leisure class, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

The three large storms that hit the island in the late 1800s culminated with the big one of 1900. After the 1900 Storm, Mr. George Murdoch, proprietor of the Murdoch Bathing Pavilion, announced that he was building a new pavilion on the site of the old bathhouse to accommodate the increase in tourism.

George Murdoch also provided ropes by which bathers could hold onto since most people did not know how to swim. He also kept beach patrol and lifesaving crews on duty. In 1910, bathhouse records showed more than 150,000 people came to Galveston’s beaches.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of lifeguards, stationing them at 3 main points of the island in addition to the then-called “Negro Beach.” Galveston and its beaches were booming.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. In August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards. That number remained more or less constant until the late 80’s.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were given police authority and provided aid to the increasing number of beachgoers.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Increased tourism meant drowning rates soared. In stepped Senator Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor, and the Moody family, all of whom contributed significantly.

In 1981 The Sheriff’s department took over management of the Beach Patrol, 1 penny was dedicated by state law from the hotel tax through the effort of Senator Schwartz, and beach-user-fee monies were funneled through the Park Board of Trustees to modernize and expand the Beach Patrol. The United States Lifesaving Association was formalized at a meeting facilitated by Jim McCloy at Texas A&M Galveston.

The USLA and a Moody grant assisted in the professionalization and modernization of the Galveston Beach Patrol.

Shoulder Season

Driving down the seawall last Monday, I spotted a couple of people right next to the rocks towards the
end of the 53rd street rock groin. They were right in the dangerous area. Thinking I only had seconds, I
flipped on the overheads and made a U turn. Once I was off the wall and rolling down the rocks, I hit the
airhorn and gave instructions on the PA system to come directly to shore. I assumed any second they
would step off into the hole caused by the rip current and be in serious trouble.
I spotted a bag on the groin, so assumed that they’d walked back to shore and gone around the three
signs and under the rope and flags we stretch across them as a reminder. They’d also walked by a rip
current advisory sign at the base of the steps. We maintain these at every access point along the beach,
as well as the ones at the water’s edge.
I called for backup and jumped out, grabbing my rescue tube and fins, then raced to the water…
For good reason, there’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about the time between when our seasonal
lifeguards end their 7-month work period and when it is cold enough to prohibit swimming. We’ve had
three drowning fatalities that happened just after the tower guard season ended. Once it’s cold we can
be pretty effective in preventing drowning fatalities from mobile patrols. During the season we have
guards covering about 9 miles of beach, making proactive preventative actions throughout the day. But
on a busy weekend with guards we make several thousand preventative actions because the guards are
right there on the spot. In the trucks, if we really work, it may be a few hundred. The right weather,
crowd, and water conditions can be a real issue without guards.
This window has become more and more of an issue as: 1. The Houston area population increases,
resulting in a corresponding increase in visitors here in Galveston, 2. The weather seems to stay warm
later into the year, and 3. We add on to our beaches and market ourselves in the fall and spring as a
tourist destination This year, due to the limitations on recreation imposed by Covid, we saw a marked
bump on top of this trend of increased beach use more of the year.
Many coastal communities have faced this issue as tourism expanded. Many worked out a hybrid
system that involved a lifeguard service that was not “seasonal” in nature. We’re exploring options. I’m
sure funding will be an issue if we find something appropriate for Galveston, and that won’t involve the
city’s general fund or property tax dollars. But ultimately and eventually we have to find a way to ensure
our visitors’ safety.
As for the two people we left hanging in the water, they avoided the hole. They got back safely with just
a scare and a story to take home. And hopefully they’ll read the signs and notice the flags next time.