Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ya Gotta Be Freakin" Killin' Me

That Los Angeles Times ran a story today about a lifeguard who was fired for saving a life. Apparently the incident has to do with private contractors, boundaries and liability.

Tomas Lopez, age 21, was at his assigned post on Monday July 2nd, on the beach in Hallandale Beach, Fl.when a bystander alerted him to a swimmer in distress about 500 yards away from his lifeguard tower. Lopez could not see the swimmer and proceeded to the area where the witness directed him. The area just happened to be outside of the area that Lopez was assigned to protect and was in a "swim at your own risk" zone, one not protected by any lifeguards.

Lopez disregarded the boundary signs and spotted the stricken swimmer. He then rescued the swimmer, who was later reported to have been hospitalized in good condition.

Lopez was later fired by his employer, Jeff Ellis Management, a private contractor, who provides lifeguard services to the City of Hallandale.

Apparently, the resultant uproar was instantaneous and loud. Several other lifeguards employed by Jeff Ellis Management were either fired for publicly supporting Tomas, or resigned in support of him. Several national news networks picked up the story as did print media across the country.

The uproar became loud enough that Jeff Ellis, head of the company, told the Sun-Sentinel "I am of the opinion that the supervisors acted hastily" and that "it was not the appropriate course of action to take". He reportedly then offered Lopez and the other former lifeguards their jobs back.

Tomas Lopez declined the offer on a taped Sun-Sentinel interview, as did several other lifeguards.

Susan Ellis, a supervisor for Jeff Ellis Management (any relation?) told the Sun-Sentinel  on Tuesday that "We have liability issues and can't go out of the protected area," she said "What he did was his own decision. He knew the company rules and did what he thought he needed to do."

The city of Hallandale Beach released a statement saying that  the incident remained under review, even as it suggested that Lopez did the right thing: "We do not have all the facts in this case. We take the safety of all visitors to our beaches very seriously. Whether they are in a protected area or unprotected area, we believe aid must be rendered." according to the L.A. Times

Apparently the City of Hallandale Beach has been outsourcing lifeguard services since 2003 as a cost cutting measure. Lopez was reportedly making $8.25 an hour.

Quite a change of heart from Jeff Ellis Management don't you think? I am struggling with Mr. Ellis' statement on Thursday,  that he felt the termination was not the appropriate action to take, especially when a company spokesman with the same last name made a public statement justifying the firings two days before. Actually, I'm calling BS.

I'm speculating that the decision to terminate Mr. Lopez was at least known by and likely approved by the top management of the company. Jeff Ellis Management does not appear to be that big, they don't even have a physical address listed on their web page.

Apparently, the City of Hallandale Beach's contract with Jeff Ellis Management expires at the end of this year. It might be worth their while to get some more bids or take back their responsibility for lifeguard services.

I'm not sure the city can accept their current level of risk. Their contactor appears to be a liability.

Just my opinion


  1. Capt. Schmoe,

    Although I haven't dealt with Ellis & Associates (that's how I knew them back when..) for over 20 years, I strongly doubt Jeff Ellis has changed his management style much. The company trained all of the lifeguards at a waterpark in Palm Springs when I worked there in 1987-89, and Jeff Ellis himself used to get into the pool with us to test our skills. He was a damned fine instructor, and when you had to rescue him, you'd better be ready for a real rescue. The man came as close to actually drowning himself as one can get, in order to add realism to the rescue skills test for deep water lifeguards.

    Do I think he knew beforehand about the firings? Most likely. I'm sure the reversal is more geared towards keeping a highly profitable contract, and less about public opinion for the "right thing to do" aspect. But, I wasn't in the room, so that's just my two cents. That and about $2.50 will get you a cup of coffee these days.

  2. Lunchbox - As good an instructor Ellis might be, the pooch got screwed on this one. I read that Tomas Lopez was scheduled to be on CNN tonight, that can't be good for business.

    I understand the need to follow terms of a contract, but a little common sense would have gone a long way here.

    Imagine some kid on a stand at the beach, making $8.25 an hour. The kid is suddenly put in a position where they have to choose to cross a line, save a life and get fired or stand by and keep their job. I hope they would make the right choice.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. So I guess the question becomes, for the $300,000+ that Ellis is getting from the city to cover that beach with $8.25/hour lifeguards, why doesn't the contract include the area Lopez made the rescue from?

  4. BH - Without knowing the terms and length of the contract, I really can't say but it is pretty safe to assume that Mr. Ellis isn't providing his services without at least the intent of making a profit. As he has been in business for quite some time, I am pretty confident that he IS making money.

    Usually, cities contract service as these to save personnel cost such as wages and benefits. As lifeguards tend to be part-time, temporary employees, wages and benefits are not usually an issue. $8.25 an hour is $8.25 regardless who pays it.

    Maybe the city feels that the administrative burden of the task makes contracting it out easier or cheaper, but I'd bet the savings are not as much as they thought it would be, especially when all of the factors are added up.

    I'm guessing that this incident will prompt some form of review of the matter. If not, it should.

    Thanks for the comment.