Tomas Lopez might have been forgiven if he actually had thought his job was going to be a day at the beach. After all, he was a lifeguard in Hallandale Beach, Florida.
That was until he made an unforgivable mistake.
Now, I can think of plenty of unforgivable mistakes that a lifeguard might make. Like ignoring someone flailing around in the water yelling for help. Or paying too much attention to cute girls and failing to notice the kid whose just been swept out to sea on the riptide. Or missing the shark fin at 12 o’clock high because you’re staring at your reflection, admiring your pecs and your zinc oxide nose in a tidal pool.
Tomas Lopez was guilty of none of the above.
What he was guilty of was abandoning his post to help save the life of a drowning victim foolish chose to hit the waves on a part of the beach that nobody was paying Jeff Ellis and Associates to guard.
Lopez clearly didn’t know the first rule of business: you gotta pay to play.
Orlando-based Jeff Ellis and Associates, the company Lopez worked for, said lifeguards cannot go beyond the perimeter of the beach they are responsible for overseeing.
But that day, a beachgoer rushed to Lopez's lifeguard station to alert him to a man who was drowning.
The man was some 1,500 feet outside the company's protection zone in an area where signs warn visitors to swim at their own risk, a supervisor with the company told CNN affiliate WPTV. (Source: CNN.)
A couple of other lifeguards have quit in solidarity/disgust, and Lopez himself calls his firing “ridiculous.”
" What was I supposed to do? Just let the guy drown?"
Apparently the answer is ‘yes.’
After all, it’s right there on the Jeff Ellis web site:
Our lifeguards a professional, courteous, and trained in customer service.
See, it’s there plain as day: trained in customer service.
Not in the service of the freeloaders and scofflaws the next beach over, which is posted as a ‘swim at your own risk’ area, and which is unguarded.
Jeff Ellis brags about its unblemished record of ‘zero drownings’ in eight years in business.
You don’t get a record like that by taking your eye off the zone you’re paid to cover.
What was Tomas Lopez thinking?
He was, in fact, thinking about company policy. But:
Even though he knew it was outside the company protection zone, Lopez ran into the ocean toward the struggling man and pulled him ashore.
The man, he said, had turned blue.
"He was having a lot of trouble breathing," Lopez said.
The man may have been blue in the face – he ended up in the ICU – but Jeff Ellis has liability issues to worry about.
Lopez has acknowledged what he “should” have done in such cases:
"We are supposed to call 911 and hope they get there in time."
So Lopez did the only decent thing you could do: try to save the guy’s life.
Okay. The guy was swimming in an unguarded area – one posted as so. Caveat swimmer.
And Jeff Ellis and Associates does have liability to worry about. Someone could have needed help while Lopez’s back was turned. The person that Lopez went to rescue could well turn around and sue for a broken rib. Something terrible might have happened.
How would Jeff Ellis & Associates have felt if Tomas Lopez had actually followed the rules and let the guy drown?
It might not have “counted” against their zero drownings record, but they would have looked like a bunch of callous a-holes. We would be reading about this jerk of a lifeguard who was ‘just following orders.’ The blogosphere would have been all hopped up about it. Lopez’s actions would no doubt have been seen as an indictment of his generation. (He’s 21).
Which is all far worse than what they got because Tomas Lopez went by his human, humane, and decent impulses and saved the guy’s life.
But what they did get doesn’t make them look like the kind of an outfit you’d want to do business with. Or work for.
How much better if this incident had prompted a review of company policies, some ‘what if’ training for lifeguards, rather than the knee-jerk decision to go by the book.
Tomas Lopez now counts himself among those who don’t want to work for Jeff Ellis & Associates.
Yes, the company ended up backpedaling and offered him his $8.25 an hour job back. Lopez turned them down.
The eponymous Jeff Ellis himself has admitted that the supervisor who fired Lopez – and two other lifeguards who admitted they would have done the same thing – was in the wrong.
"I am of the opinion that the supervisors acted hastily, " Jeff Ellis told the Sun Sentinel in a phone interview. (Source: CBS.)
Repent in leisure, as they say.