For a swimmer caught in a rip current, floating unresponsive in frigid waters off Galveston in the heart of winter, the two or three minutes it can take to get to shore can mean the difference between life and death.
And while Galveston Island Beach Patrol enjoys a symbiotic partnership with the island’s police and fire department and other EMS personnel, water rescues are one area that sets it apart.
Beach Patrol Chief Peter Davis, who has been guarding the Galveston beach and its waters for nearly 40 years, shared a story about his colleague, Beach Patrol Capt. Tony Pryor, who went into the cold surf to rescue someone who was caught in a rip current at 59th Street.
“When he got to him, he wasn’t breathing,” Davis said. “Tony drifted around through the poles at 61st Street and brought him back to shore. And while they were in the water,
he was able to start rescue breaths and the patient was breathing when he brought him to shore.
“That kind of early intervention is critical because if you think about it, had Tony not done that and drifted that two minutes or so that it would take him to get him to shore, then the person could have gone into, cardiac arrest,” he said. “So, a lot of the areas that we can specialize in are related to medical response involving water where other groups aren’t able to get in there and do that stuff.”
As for the rescued man, “he ended up being fine,” Davis said.
What it does
The job of the Beach Patrol has five components, according to Beach Patrol Sgt. Dain Buck: protect, rescue, enforce, prevent and educate.
Davis breaks that down. Water safety, including prevention and response is No. 1, followed closely by medical response.
Then comes enforcement of beach etiquette and behavior. Finally, there’s education of the public, which are preventions that happen before people even arrive to the water.
“The big overriding thing that envelopes all that is public education,” Davis said, explaining Beach Patrol aims for “herd immunity” when it comes to water safety.
“Yeah, we stole that. I guess we stole that from public health,” he said. “I feel like if we could be as proactive as possible—not just in what we’re doing on the beach, but also what we do for people before they get to the beach—that they’re better protected. And so, we do our annual school outreach program. We teach about 30,000 kids a year, just in the county on up to the Houston area. We’re trying to affect a public health concept with immunization, except it’s with water safety information.
“The idea is if a group of kids goes out and more than half of them have a basic concept of how to be safe in the water, like avoiding rip currents or not going in certain areas, then overall the group will be protected,” Davis said.
What it takes
Fully staffed, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol has about 155 members, including dispatchers, office support, lifeguards, senior lifeguards and supervisors. Each of its 12 emergency response vehicles is required to always have an EMT on board, so all 12 of the patrol’s supervisors are EMTs. All the guards are, at a minimum, certified in “Emergency Response” through the Red Cross.
“Beach Patrol EMTs deal with a lot of nature and other non-medical factors, including unsafe scenes,” Buck said. “The first step for a Galveston Island Beach Patrol EMT is getting the victim to a safe area.
They are often in a dire situation that has them in a dangerous area, be it the middle of the ocean or bay or stranded on a sandbar or jetty.”
Since water rescue is at the heart of what Beach Patrol does, water skills are critical, and the criteria for swim standards are high. Jet Ski prowess is vital, as well as proficiency with rescue boards and other specialized equipment. Beyond that, Davis said, compassion is an essential competency.
“If you don’t have that sort of base of liking to work with people and liking to help them, then this job gets really hard and annoying quickly,” Davis said. “Cultural competency” also is important—especially in a town that attracts visitors from all over the world, he said.
“Everybody doesn’t come from the same perspective as you do. So, you have to kind of get in people’s heads when you’re trying to help them,” Davis said, explaining that even how bodies of the deceased are handled can vary in different cultures. “A certain level in intercultural competency really makes the job more enjoyable, but it makes you also a lot better at it as well.”
For Buck, dedication to the job and the ability to stay calm in intense situations are the characteristics that set the men and women of Galveston Island Beach Patrol apart.
He talks about a rescue on an evening in November 2019 when a boat wrecked onto Galveston’s South Jetty about a mile and a half offshore when he and Beach Patrol Supervisor Kevin Anderson responded. A large incoming storm made it impossible for them to launch a marine rescue boat.
“We then were to assist Coast Guard with the rescue as they flew their helicopters out to the stranded fisherman,” Buck recalled. “Unfortunately, both helicopters were unable to launch. We then took it upon ourselves to swim all the way out to the stranded fishermen on the leeward side of the jetty protecting us from the harsh weather. It was pitch black, winds howling at 30+ mph and the temp dropping to below 50 degrees.
“After about a 45-minute swim, we were able to locate the fishermen,” he said. “While checking the vitals on all the stranded fishermen we were able to have another beach patrol member launch a Jet Ski after approval for the night rescue. After about three hours, we had all the fishermen back to shore healthy and happy.”
Beach Patrol is the first responder to all coastline and oceanic calls, Buck said. They work closely with the island’s medical response agencies, who can provide more advanced life care and transport patients to the hospital.
Like other first-responder organizations in Galveston County, Beach Patrol is registered with the county health district, with the same medical directors as EMS, Davis said, so the protocols are the same.
“We’re all speaking the same language out there,” he said.
Beach Patrol’s medical training and police enforcement capabilities also allow the organization to lighten the load for the island’s emergency services and police personnel.
Calling it “catch and release,”
Davis said that only a small
percentage of the 2,500 to
3,500 medical calls beach patrol responds to each year have to be transported to the hospital by EMS. In the same vein, he said, the 3,000 law enforcement calls Beach Patrol handles each year take a burden off local police.
Beach Patrol has its own police department, of which Davis also is chief.
Galveston police, emergency services and beach patrol have worked together to ensure the health and safety of island residents and tourists for decades, Davis said, adding he personally learned from some “paramedic giants” on the island in the 1980s.
“We’re really aware of that legacy and that connection with EMS as a partner for us,” he said. “Just like they’ve always been there for us anytime we ever need anything, we want to make sure that they’re aware that we want to reciprocate. If there’s anything they ever need from us, we’re always there for them.
“We’re constantly in contact with them to adjust policies and to make sure we’re all working on the same page,” he said. “And they’ve just consistently always been there for us anytime we needed anything.”
Working with UTMB
Beach Patrol also has a close relationship with UTMB.
“We rely heavily on EMS and UTMB Galveston for all of our major calls,” Buck said. “When we have any major medical, be it cardiac arrest or near drowning, we always have our patients checked out by EMS and transported to UTMB for further medical care.
“We will check on our patients after the initial care to see what the end result is,” Buck said.
Beach Patrol works closely with UTMB to ensure that its air- and water-quality reports are communicated to beachgoers, as well, Davis said.
Davis is famously proud of his team, especially, he said, by the level of professionalism that even the youngest and newest members exhibit. For many of the guards, some as young as 16, it’s their first job ever.
“We have a really good training program, but it’s really amazing to watch them use that and rise to the occasion for doing such a difficult job,” Davis said. “They’re out there doing the kind of work that a lot of midlife adults couldn’t really do. And I don’t just mean physically. I just mean able to get in there and deal with all these difficult situations and stay positive and really be good tourist ambassadors.”
As chief, Davis would love to take credit for that, he admits, but it’s the Beach Patrol culture that is passed down through generations that makes the team what it is.
“It really is cool to work with so many people who are so into what they’re doing,” he said. “And so positive about it and not cynical about the work.”