The first lifeguards were trying to spot shipwrecks and help the occupants off as best they could. Most of the work happened at night as sailing ships weren’t able to see hazards during the dark hours.
It was cold and dangerous work, especially considering that very few people were able to swim at the time; and that included the “Lifesaver Men.”
The industrial revolution helped create a leisure class, who had time to recreate. “Bathing” at the beach became a national craze, and lifeguards who could swim or paddle out to make a rescue came on the scene. The idea was that the rescuer was pretty much on his own. They worked alone and without realistic possibility of backup.
These days, when things go bad, help is on the way before the guard even hits the water. In the early days of recreational swimming, those kinds of resources were not possible economically or culturally. Our local Galveston lifeguard hero of the past, Leroy Colombo, had the mantra of “One beach, one lifeguard.” It’s a testament to his physical and mental ability that he survived making over 1,000 rescues.
The difference between then and now is that the profession has matured to the effect of employing a whole rescue “chain.” Interdependence of lifesaving staff and between groups of emergency responders is an integral part of our philosophy. It’s safer for the rescuers and more effective. It does, however, take a little of the magic away. “All for one and one for all” doesn’t have quite the pizazz as “One riot, one ranger” or “One beach, one lifeguard.”
Now the beach patrol works in teams to the greatest extent possible. Our goal can be broken down with a simple mathematical equation. Our system is the number of victims equaling the number of rescuers plus one. Saving even one person alone is risky. For this reason we focus to such a large extent on preventing accidents instead of making rescues. And when we have to make them, we make them as a team when possible.
Teamwork doesn’t stop with the beach patrol. One of our most successful partnerships is with the other groups that respond to water emergencies and is called the Galveston Marine Response (GMR). Although the formation of the GMR was intended to address large scale aquatic disasters, a byproduct is increased efficiencies when responding to any water related emergency.
Swift-water rescue and urban flooding response is an area all GMR groups help with. To further this end, this week the beach patrol sent three full-time staff members to San Marcos to be certified as “Swiftwater Rescue Technicians.” This is a tough class involving hours and hours in swift water and flat water learning rescue techniques that we don’t use on the beach front. They even do simulated searches and rope rescues at night. Painful and cold! But they will come back with a much widened skill set that will be a huge help next time it floods here.