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A Lifeguard’s Soul,
Outsourced to the Bottom line

| July 8, 2012

Sue at your own risk. (© FlaglerLive)

If you think government is losing its way, privatization is losing its soul.

Thomas Lopez is still wearing braces and smiles boyishly enough to belie his 21 years. But last week he was all man when he rushed to a drowning victim’s aid at Hallandale Beach, south of Fort Lauderdale, where he worked as a lifeguard. The victim had been pulled out of the water by the time Lopez got there, but Lopez tended to him until paramedics arrived. Lopez then filled out an incident report for the private company he worked with. And was promptly fired.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive Lopez worked for Orlando-based Jeff Ellis and Associates, which provides lifeguard services on various Florida beaches since several local governments have outsourced their lifeguard duties around the state. It’s been at Hallandale Beach since 2003. Among the company’s rules: Lifeguards are not to step outside their assigned areas. Lopez did just that. People had rushed to him to tell him about the drowning, which was taking place some 1,500 feet past the imaginary line of his jurisdiction.

Lopez knew the rule. He also knew what he’d told himself when he started the job four months ago: “I was thinking I was not going to obey such a ridiculous rule,” he said in one of the serial television interviews he gave since his firing briefly caught the world’s attention. Anybody who would obey such a rule shouldn’t be a lifeguard. Of course, any lifeguard-service company promulgating such a rule should think of going into a different line of business. Like rat catcher.

The company has since offered Lopez his job back. He turned it down as politely as the way he was fired. Good for him. The company wasn’t being kind. It was doing damage control to its reputation, which rests in large part on a fallacy upended by the incident on Hallandale Beach: that outsourcing is about doing a job better than government while saving taxpayers money. Had the company’s rules prevailed that day, it certainly wouldn’t have been doing the job better than a government-paid lifeguard. And absent other alert people on the beach, a man’s life might have been lost.

This isn’t conjecture. In 2005, Jeff Ellis and Associates lobbied the Broward County’s Dania Beach Commission to take over lifeguard services there. Jeff Ellis, a lawyer, appeared before the commission to tout the fact that lifeguards would not stray beyond the company’s “designated protection zones.” Glenn Morris had been a beach captain serving the local commission for 31 years until then. He was astounded at what he was hearing. “We go anywhere people need help,” he said in comments quoted by the Sun-Sentinel. No imaginary lines. No bizarre rules against saving a drowning man’s life.

Imagine that: your local fire rescue EMTs sitting out a call to a car wreck because it’s just past their official jurisdiction. Or an off-duty cop watching a victim being assaulted and looking the other way, because the cop is off the clock. It’s not so hard to imagine if those services are provided through a private company whose imaginary jurisdiction lines are drawn to the dismal vectors of liability.

Jeff Ellis and Associates explained after the Lopez incident that it could get sued if one of its lifeguards abandoned post and something happened on his watch. Maybe, though Lopez wasn’t leaving his post to get ice cream. This is where rules drown in the absurd and a service loses sight of its purpose, with potentially lethal results. Fear of liability has become an all-purpose pretext to cut corners and surrender responsibility while making androids of employees.

It’s also what happens when bottom lines are considered more important than people. In privatization, that’s the most unbending rule of all.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here.

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13 Responses for “A Lifeguard’s Soul,
Outsourced to the Bottom line”

  1. Jackie Mulligan says:

    Thank God for HEROES!!!

    They don’t always go by the rules.

    Jackie Mulligan

  2. Charles F. Ericksen, Jr says:

    True heroes never go by the rules..

  3. Magnolia says:

    Bureaucrats are not noted for their genius. Just look at TSA.

    • elaygee says:

      The TSA is outsourced to the same kind of companies that fired the lifeguard, Corporate “people” who are more important that real people.

  4. sam8131 says:

    The only reason for the rule is because of politicians, lawyers, insurance companies and judges. Common sense has been taken away for us!

  5. The Truth says:

    I was glad to see he didn’t accept the position back. This man was truly a hero and did the right thing.

  6. Outsider says:

    Maybe lawyers shouldn’t run lifeguard companies?

  7. Kip Durocher says:

    Get ready for more of this government privatization to sleazy companies.
    This is what Glow Scott our governor is all about.

  8. Gia says:

    Unfortunately the city was in the legal right to fired the lifeguard. Imagine that during that time somebody was drowning in his legal area & the lifeguard was not where he suppose to be? A question of Liability. Money talk.

    • elaygee says:

      They could sue but they would not win. Anyone can sue for anything. They COULD be sued and lose big time if the man drowned after the lifeguard was informed and the lifeguard refused to cross the imaginary line.

  9. Anonymous says:

    If one is swimming in a “at your own risk” beach how could they sue if something went wrong. I think this life guard did the right thingin helping another BUT it was outside ofthe place he was to watch. If something did happen in that place when he was someplece he was not to be then a law suit would be just.

  10. Linda says:

    My hero – he’s got a moral compass and he followed it. The idiocy and stupidity of the employer aside, this is one of the best good news stories I’ve heard in a long time.

  11. Lefty Loon says:

    Is it the rule or the outsourcing that is the problem. The city hires contractors and vendors all the time and the city can set the rules because that’s their job. In fact if there was ever anything that a city was good at besides spending other peoples money, it is making rules upon rules until there are so many everyone is breaking the law all the time.

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