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.
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.