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Winter Dangers

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

With recent water temps in the low 50’s and even high 40’s, getting out on the water requires more foresight and preparation than during warmer months. A quick dip in the water when you’re a couple miles from shore can become a serious thing without proper gear. Kayakers, surfers, kite-boarders, stand-up paddlers, etc. should not only wear a wetsuit, but should have the appropriate wetsuit for the activity and conditions. When at all appropriate it’s a really good idea to not just bring a lifejacket, but to wear it. That way when the unexpected happens you’re able to float and wait for help long after the cold water prevents swimming.

Each spring when the air starts to warm but the water is still cold the conditions are ripe for sea fog. This fog can appear all at once or as a white bank that rolls in. Our Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office, one of the best in the country, is very tuned in to the aquatic environment and puts out all kinds of relevant marine warnings. Last weekend there was a fog advisory, but localized fog can happen without warning. Rescue workers from all agencies associated with the “Galveston Marine Response” coalition were kept busy when several kayakers and boaters got lost in fog in West Bay and the San Luis Pass area over the weekend. Some were really close to shore. In fact, at the San Luis Pass, a fast acting Galveston Fire Department crew was smart enough to go to the area that a kayaker entered the water and blast their siren continuously until the kayaker paddled back in following the sound.

Aside from proper attire and a Coast Guard approved lifejacket there are a few other things you should do before getting on the water. First, be sure someone has very specific and accurate information about where you’re going and what times you’ll be out. Having participated in hundreds of searches for people, I can tell you the better starting point a rescuer has, the more likely he/she is to locate the missing person. Make sure your cell phone is charged and in a waterproof case. If you have a smart phone, there are apps that can help you find your way around, but don’t rely on electronics! A small watch compass has gotten me out of a jam more than once.

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

 

 

A Small Thing

It was a small, but deeply meaningful thing.

The other morning it was cold, windy, rainy and overcast, but there were some nice little waves breaking. It was early as I grabbed my board and paddled out at 37th street.

As I used the rip current to paddle out, I noticed our rescue buoy box was open and the ring buoy was laying on the rocks with the rope spread out all over. These boxes are invaluable and we document at least 15 rescues a season by fishermen or bystanders who throw the ring buoy out to a person in distress without having to endanger themselves by going in the water after the victim. I made a mental note that when I finished I would pick up the buoy, stuff the rope back in its throw bag, stick it back in the box, and latch it closed so it would be ready if someone needed it.

After awhile a couple of other guards joined me before their shift. Between sets of waves we chatted about how cold it was. It was in the 40s with a strong north east wind and drizzling. Pretty miserable.

We saw our “on call” unit coming down the seawall and stop to put out the condition advisory flag on the sign up on the seawall at 37th street. The “on call” unit is the person and vehicle assigned to answer any 911 calls during the night. We rotate this job each night so anytime during the year, day or night, we are available to help if a water emergency comes up. Supervisor/Officer Josh Hale was finishing up his on call shift by putting out the daily flags. It was so cold and miserable that we all decided that Josh would either not notice the buoy on the rocks or would act like he didn’t see it. We realized we were wrong when we saw Josh trudge out through the rain and wind wearing his big red coat. He carefully put the rope back in the bag and set the whole thing back in the box, waved at us, and walked back to his truck and drove down the beach.

I later found out that this was not for show. Every day when Josh puts the flags out he double checks each of the buoy boxes and makes sure they are stocked and ready to go. Josh, like most of the Beach Patrol lifeguards has seen enough of what can go wrong to be motivated to do whatever he can to keep bad things from happening. He doesn’t do it to please me or anyone else. He goes the extra mile because he believes in what we do and knows little proactive actions like this save lives.

Josh is not alone. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many others who do thousands of unrewarded, quiet actions to keep organization running well. The combined result of these small things keep thousands from injury or death each year.

Snapshot

A sea of hands are raised in the Galveston school while students struggle to keep their bottoms on the gym floor. Supervisor/Officer Kris Pompa surveys the crowd and picks a young man way in the back. “What do you think?” The little boy says, “Lifeguards are there to protect people from sharks and undertoads”. Kris chuckles and says, “Close! But the main reason lifeguards are on the beach is to protect people from dangerous currents when they swim in the water. But we protect people from other things too. We even tell people when they’re starting to get sunburned. We also enforce rules and help kids who get lost find their parents.”

Meanwhile, at a mainland high school, Supervisor Mary Stewart is talking to the swim team about what beach lifeguards do every day. “…. After you finish your morning workout and skills training, you have 45 minutes to check out your flag bag and radio and get to your tower. Once on location you clean the tower, put your flags up and swim the rip current to see how hard it’s running and how deep it is there. Then your main job is to keep people away from the rocks, see if anyone needs help, and do whatever you can to keep people from harm. Every day we train, and on Sundays anyone can enter the weekly competitions. Most of my friends are on Beach Patrol and it’s a great bunch of people. I hope you guys will come try out, most of our guards are either on swim teams or were at one time.”

On the seawall, around 37th street Supervisor/Officer Josh Hale and Supervisor Lauren Hollaway pull over to check on a young surfer that is hanging off the side of his board in the rip current by the jetty. They watch him for a bit to make sure he’s able to get back on his board and paddle back out to the lineup. Turns out he’s OK and they don’t have to jump in the 56 degree water to help him. They drive on to the next cluster of surfers at 27th street while scanning the seawall for any problems or anyone needing a hand.

At headquarters in the garage Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas is finishing some work on a new rack system he’s been intermittently working on between other jobs, patrolling, and special activities. Upstairs Captain Tony Pryor is putting the finishing touches on the next employee schedule while Lieutenant Kara Harrison solicits bids for some equipment that needs to be ordered.

This is a snapshot of an average day for the full time staff of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol during the “down season”. Soon we’ll have all 100 of our seasonal workers back and we’ll finish up our annual school water safety talks and recruiting visits. Maintenance and administrative duties continue all year but the focus will be almost completely on the millions of beach patrons that visit the beach each year.

And so it begins!

 

Dune Planting with Artist Boat

CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS!! There are still spots available to help us plant dunes on Super Dune Sunday, February 1st from 1:00-5:30 PM at the end of Seawall and Delanara RV Park! Contact Nate Johnson at [email protected] to volunteer!

Dune Planting

Winter Is Here

Water temperature in the 50’s is a game changer. Even our hard core surfers don’t last long with the 3 millimeter wetsuits most Texans wear, and the only swimmers we encounter seem to be Russian or Canadian.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and got to spend time with people they care about. This is always a great time to reflect on things we’re grateful for. I personally feel really appreciative of the hard work our staff did this season, the support of all the groups we work with and the community of Galveston, and the chance to slow down for a bit, recharge the batteries, and fill in some details that we couldn’t get to during the busy season.

We’re almost at the end of our patrol season with this weekend being the last where we’re proactively out there checking the beaches for a while. Most of our crew has been working hard refurbishing our 28 lifeguard towers while alternating the days they take a patrol shift. They’ve also been doing one last pass of replacement and repair of the 300 or so signs we maintain along 33 miles of beachfront. But starting December 1st everyone will focus on finishing the towers up so they can spend the remaining time until everyone is able to work on individual projects.

Each of our full time supervisors has an area of responsibility that they take full charge of. There is a window of time from late December until March 1st when they have time to get the bulk of this work done. Some of the areas are board and craft repair/maintenance, website upgrades, virtual lifeguard museum, recruiting/water safety video projects, policy and procedure manual updates, training material preparation, and ordering supplies and equipment.

One major change we are trying to make is to move to an almost completely paperless system. We recently purchased computers for each vehicle so reports can be done while overseeing a zone of responsibility. We’re getting close to purchasing an electronic records management system for storage and easy retrieval of reports and other documents. My hope is that by 2016 we can operate with 90% digital files and documents.

There’s an upcoming event that I wanted to mention. We’ll follow up with more details, but the annual public safety Christmas parade is scheduled for Saturday, December 13th in the morning. This event has been growing and has been a fun X-mas holiday kick off. It’s been a nice way for first responders from different agencies to show our community how appreciative we are for the support we receive. Also it’s an opportunity for the community to show support for everything these hard working public safety organizations’ men and women do.

From all of us at the Galveston Beach Patrol we hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season. Hopefully you’ll have the time and opportunity to reflect on and appreciate the things and people that are most important to you.

Terrible Tuesday, Winter Activities and Marketing

After the first 5 minutes of swimming, we still felt like our faces were going to fall off.

On the initial immersion, we felt as if we couldn’t breathe at all. We had to force ourselves to put our heads down in the water and relax enough to swim. Every time we opened our mouths to breathe the water felt like a freezing cold water fountain. Those with cavities definitely felt it!

By the time we finished the first lap, our bodies were starting to adjust. Hands, feet, and faces became numb and the pain receded to a dull ache. By the end of the next lap, done on rescue boards, our core temperature was smoking hot and generating enough extra heat to make it much less of an ordeal to enter for the third lap, which was another swim.

After six laps, three swims and three paddles, and 9 runs we had averaged about an hour and 20 minutes of training. Enough to know that your body will adapt to water in the low 50’s or high 40’s. We do this workout, dubbed the “Terrible Tuesday”, once a week during the winter months. Enough to not become afraid or distracted or disoriented when you have to jump in for a rescue.

Training like this during the winter is a welcome break from the frenzy of activity at the Beach Patrol leading up to the next season. Looking back over the past 3 months we’ve replaced all the downed or damaged signs on the beach, done a lengthy employee review,  rebuilt all of our 26 lifeguard towers, ordered all vehicles and supplies, updated or training and policy manuals, trained and recertified staff members, revised our employee evaluation process, created an annual workflow calendar, revised our website, attended job fairs and other recruiting events, and helped in the design process of the new Tourist Ambassador Training program the Park Board has been creating. We’ve also researched and ordered almost all of our supplies for the year including vehicles, medical supplies, uniforms, rescue equipment, etc.

The nice thing about having the time to concentrate on all these internal projects is that once the beach crowd arrives we can focus almost completely on that. We have our hands so full in the “season” hiring, re-training, and supervising our 110 or so seasonal employees that it feels like there’s not room for much else. With 5-7 million visiting the beaches and so many seasonal workers it makes sense that we’d be stressed and running around like crazy to get ready for the coming storm!

With more tourists coming more of the year, and a focus on increasing tourism during the “shoulder seasons”, we are working to solidify our infrastructure and be prepared to expand to more of a year round operation if needed. As tourism becomes more and more important to our economy and livelihood, the best marketing we can possibly do is to make sure they feel safe and that the beaches and island are attractive.