Lifeguard fired for saving man outside his 'zone.' Outsourcing gone wrong?

In Hallandale Beach, Fla, lifeguard Tomas Lopez was fired for leaving his designated area. Now, some are rethinking the town’s decision to outsource the management of lifeguarding.

Bruce Smith/AP
Swimmers walk on the beach while a yellow caution flag waves from a lifeguard stand at Folly Beach, S.C., in May.

The Florida town of Hallandale Beach is rethinking its decision to outsource its lifeguarding duties after an incident in which Tomas Lopez, a lifeguard, was fired on the spot for leaving his “zone” to rescue a drowning man.

On Monday, beachgoers alerted Mr. Lopez to a situation about 1,500 feet down the busy beach – outside the guarded area – where someone was apparently drowning. By the time he sprinted to the scene, other beachgoers were dragging a drowning man to shore. Lopez took control of the situation and stabilized the man, who remained in intensive care on Thursday.

The private company hired by the town to patrol the beach is Jeff Ellis Management, and its rule is to call an ambulance if a lifeguard sees someone drowning on a different part of the beach. That’s what Lopez was told by a supervisor to do.

“I'm not going to put my job over helping someone. I'm going to do what I felt was right, and I did," Lopez, who is in his early 20s, told a Local 10 reporter.

The company’s explanation, on paper, is reasonable enough: By leaving his station, Lopez opened the company up to liability, even though other lifeguards said they covered Lopez’s stretch of beach as he ran to save the man. (That assertion, however, has not been verified by the contractor.)

A town-hired guard would also have opened taxpayers to liability for his actions, but it’s likely the reaction would have been different, say labor experts.

“I’d focus not so much on the fact that there was a sanction, but I think the kind of sanction was the issue,” says Trevor Brown, a government outsourcing expert at Ohio State University in Columbus. “What seems extreme is the guy was fired.” Had it been “some other provider, I’d expect a minor slap on the wrist, just to make them aware” they exposed the company to liability, he says.

Outsourcing, like many things, has its risks and rewards, and a few towns in the United States are today completely privately managed. But when basic lifesaving functions – think police or fire services – are privatized, problems can arise, experts say.

Jeff Ellis Management reportedly fired three young lifeguards on the spot Monday, including Lopez, and four others resigned in solidarity, although the company says that it fired only Lopez and the others resigned. As the story went viral Thursday, the company appeared to be questioning whether the firings may have happened “in haste.” It’s launching an investigation into the incident.

To the lifeguards, the conflict seemed generational, where somehow a basic human instinct was punished by nonsensical authority. But many adults were taking notice, too: Former Vice Mayor Bill Julian, who was on the town board when the decision was made to outsource the beach guarding duties, agreed with the angry lifeguards.

Mr. Julian told Local 10 that the company’s reaction underscores a deeper problem with the current arrangement. “This young man is a hero. He should not be fired,” he said.

The company’s contract is up for renewal this year, and the vice mayor, for one, believes the town should go back to managing its own lifeguards. Signed nearly a decade ago, the contract saves the town about $300,000 a year.

"Looking back at the contract we approved, as a former vice mayor, as a cost-saving measure, I think now is the time not to renew and get our guys back under our control," said Julian.

While few American cities or towns outsource policing, one specific lifesaving service – ambulances – are widely outsourced in the US, for the most part both successfully and cost-effectively.

In that light, “I wouldn’t necessarily flag this as a flaw of privatization, because I think [if the lifeguards were public employees] some of the same issues would prevail,” says Mr. Brown at OSU. “But this does point to a very challenging issue for the delivery of this particular service: To what extent does an employee have responsibility to fulfill the mission of the organization, to save lives, while still balancing [his or her] responsibility to whatever the organization’s rules and procedures are?”

The owner of the lifeguarding company, Jeff Ellis, seemed to be doubting the beach managers who fired the lifeguards.

“If [Lopez] was well-intentioned and tried to do what he believed was the right thing to do, even if he deviated from policy, I’m not sure termination was the right thing to do,” Mr. Ellis said in a statement. He added that the company “will make it right” if he finds that his managers overreacted, including “offering him employment back if he was terminated in haste.”

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