Did Ellis Go Too Far Firing Lifeguard Trying to Save Drowning Victim?

Update: Jeff Ellis & Associates was not involved with firing of the Fla. lifeguard in this discussion, according to a press release the firm put out that is linked below... A lifeguard management firm  is under fire this morning for firing a lifeguard who left his zone in an effort to save a drowning man.

Here's a brief news story about the incident: 

A Florida lifeguard has been booted from his lifeguard chair for running to save a man who was floundering in the surf.

Tomas Lopez , 21, was fired by his supervisor for vacating his lifeguarding zone to save a man drowning in an unprotected area of the beach in Hallandale Beach, Fla., on Monday, reports the Sun Sentinel.

Lopez' employer is not paid to patrol the zone where the man had been in trouble.

According to the Sun Sentinel, Lopez was approached by a beachgoer who pointed out a man struggling in the water nearly 1,500 feet south of his post.

Instinctively, he ran down the beach to save him. By the time Lopez got to him, he had been pulled to shore by fellow beachgoers.

Following his rescue attempt, Lopez was let go for leaving the area he was supposed to be covering.

Jeff Ellis and Associates, a private aquatic safety contractor, is hired by the city to patrol the beaches. The company is also in charge of hiring and training the city's lifeguards.

Susan Ellis, spokeswoman for Jeff Ellis and Associates, told the Sun Sentinel that Lopez broke company rules when he left his zone, and cited "liability issues" that may have occurred as a result of Lopez leaving his designated area.

Ellis could not be reached for further comment.

Some of Lopez's friends rallied for him on his Facebook page where he had posted the Sun Sentinel's article.

"thats messed up but im proud of you for standing up like that and doing whats right. Tomas Lopez = Hero!!" one commenter wrote.

Tom Gill, spokesman for the United States Lifesaving Association, said Lopez's firing came across as a little harsh.

"It seems unfortunate that a guard would do what he's trained to do and be fired for it," he said.

Gill said that the boundaries set by Jeff Ellis and Associates were most likely set by the city of Hallandale Beach in a private contract.

"Usually when the municipalities hire someone to [lifeguard], those organizations are not only taking on the responsibility of the job, but a lot of the liability," he said.

USLA is recognized as the authority on open water lifesaving by the Red Cross, and certifies agencies and associations around the country based on their training.

Gill said Jeff Ellis and Associates has not applied for certification with USLA, and so he could not speak on the company's regulations or training.

"As far as being fired for going outside the zone, I couldn't tell you how they could make that justification," he said.

Here's what an AI reader emailed me this morning:

Nothing could be more idiotic than Jeff Ellis & Associates firing the
heroic lifeguard who saved a drowning man.
Is that how you want to be perceived? If so, you're succeeding. I'm
in California, where the news is a hot topic.

By the way, what would you want a lifeguard to do if it was you
drowning? Stay in his chair?

Signed:

Adrian Brooks

Tags: Ellis, fired, lifeguard, rescue, zone

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Gary,

I absolutely think that EA went too far in firing this Lifeguard off the bat.  I have read 3 different news stories about this incident since Tuesday and in each of them it is mentioned that Lopez secured backup at his beach before venturing out to make the save.  The job title is Lifeguard and as such he had a duty to act. In my humble opinion if there is a significant life-threat it warrants a Lifeguard leaving his area of responsibility provided that backup coverage is available and the rescue doesn't present a high level of undue risk to the Lifeguard or other bystanders.  He did leave his zone, and he did ignore a direct order from his superior, however his actions were justifiable and at the most warranted a private disciplinary counseling session not immediate termination.  I think this move is could be just as much of  black eye to Ellis & Assoc. as the Heimlich incident was to NASCO...

Nick,

 

I am a bit fuzzy on the particulars of the case and so will wait until the facts are borne out prior to forming an opinion. I can say with confidence, however, you may be overstating the “duty to act” element of the case, regardless of the facts.

As well, many lifeguarding agencies rely on a “para-military” style span and control structure necessary because of the gravity of the work to be performed. When personnel are allowed to deliberately contravene received directives, their actions are at varience with the essentials of a command structure that relies on a structured and chreographed response to be successful. Arguably there is good reason not to allow a culture of insubordination to flurish.

So let me get this straight.  A Trained Lifeguard, a "Professional Rescuer" isn't allowed to rescue someone?  Taking that a step forward, if a guard is guarding a pool, and someone out on the street collapsed, that guard won't be able to help that person because it is outside his zone?  As a Professional Rescuer the guard had a "Duty to Act"

Another thought, in response to Joe's "When personnel are allowed to deliberately contravene received directives, their actions are at varience with the essentials of a command structure that relies on a structured and chreographed response to be successful",  can anyone say Adolf Hitler?

First off, let's leave the Holocaust out of this... having a supervisor require that you follow their policy and directives is far from the needless slaughter of 7 million Jews, gypsies, and elderly.  

Now that we've got our perspective back...

From what I understand, the guard left his assigned station --despite orders to the contrary-- and abandoned his professional duties to his assigned area.  When he made the choice to do so, the guard opened themselves up for major problems and getting fired is just one of them.  I'm sure they were made fully aware of these consequences and expectations prior to hiring and during training.

Though we don't always like it, or agree with being consistent, there are ALWAYS consequences to our actions when it comes to leaving a surveillance area without following the proper EAP protocol.  This is just one of those choices, and although it sounds callous, this is the predictable result of their own making.

Bob,

Wow, very interesting post.

To be clear, you muddle the distinction between what lifeguards “aught” to do with what they ”must” (legally) do. In traditional thought, the former appeals to some ethical or moral obligation while the latter duty derives from a legal framework.

Am I safe to suggest the Florida lifeguard’s actions possess no moral ambiguity? No doubt anyone of us would be compelled to assist under like circumstance. My beef is with those who argue there was a “duty to act” since this implies that our obligations have a legal basis.

American jurisprudence recognizes four elements to general negligence: Duty to act, breach of duty, damages and causation. However, because the law is loath to impose duty (one of the four elements), when it does so it requires that the duty fall under one of the four following legal theories: By reliance, by special relationship, by statute, or when putting into motion a non-tortuous instrumentality. A “duty to act” is not a legal fact until you can show a lifeguard falls under one of these four doctrines. So far, I cannot make a case for an existent legal duty from the few facts I have gleaned.

Your comment equating my actions to Adolf Hitler is, well, mildly amusing at best. My point is lifeguards must work as a unit, as a team, to be successful. You cannot have a team whose members selectively choose to follow some directives and not others. This creates chaos and makes for very unpleasant organizational dysentery.

Joe,

I don't refute your statement that it is important for employees in any form of "command structure" to follow the policies and directives put in place by their superiors. Without that there would be chaos.  However I believe that the only reason this Lifeguard may have not had a duty to act rests solely on the fact that he was a private employee.  Without getting too deep into a debate here I think it is very important to remember that in it's infancy Surf Lifeguarding, on both coasts, was a private venture that hotels put in place to protect their patrons, and as those Lifeguards began patrolling and making rescues outside the hotels' beaches the local cities and counties saw the value in establishing Lifeguard services.  If it had not been for acts like the on Tom Lopez performed over a century ago there might not be public Lifeguards today.

He secured backup and made a judgement to effect a rescue outside his zone, knowing it was against policy.  Given that there was a legitimate life-threat, I think his actions were justifiable, and that he should have been counseled about the dangers of ignoring policies or directives, instead of fired outright.  That is just my opinion. 

Nick,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am beginning to understand your point better. However, I am not clear when you say, “…the only reason this lifeguard may have not had a duty to act rests solely on the fact that he was a private employee” as this does not square with my understanding of general negligence. In any case, if lifeguards (private or public) routinely respond to emergencies outside their control (or contracted area), it signals to the public the agency accepts responsibility for the safety of all swimmers, and potentially creates a duty to act based on the legal theory of “reliance.” This is why, as others have commented on the board, it is important there be consequences when policies are violated to mitigate any liability.

Furthermore, the establishment of public lifeguard services, regardless of the operative catalyst behind its evolution, is generally regarded as good public policy for obvious reason. As money continues to become a constraining factor, however, I fear a shift towards more signage and fewer posted lifeguards in public waters. It is one of those unfortunate permutations where good public policy is hollowed out by other public interests competing for those scant resources. It is truly a shame.

Finally, if by suggesting that the lifeguard’s actions “were justifiable” you mean they are morally defensible, I agree 100%. But this is a matter separate from whether or not there is a duty to act. Thanks again, Nick, for your insight.  

Joe,

I understand your point about reliance, and I think it relates very well to my comment about the reason there wasn't a clear duty to act because he was a private employee.  I am not familiar with Florida codes however I know that several states have legal presidents for public safety officials to respond outside their jurisdiction if there is a life threat, provided there are no other available resources, or those resources are significantly delayed.  Had Tom Lopez been a city employee tasked with public safety at the city's beaches I believe there would have been a legal duty to act in the events of last Monday.  However that is just my opinion without being a legal expert on such matters in the state of Florida.  

I echo your fears about the continued reduction in public Lifeguard services.  It is my personal belief that cities, counties, and districts that provide public beaches should also provide Lifeguards at those beaches.  I recognize that is not financially feasible in many areas, but it is still my belief.

Thanks Joe.

When I oversaw pools located in city parks I educated my lifeguards that their responsibility was to the pool and the patrons in it. They were not responsible for anything in the park. If they chose to respond to an incident in the park they did so at their own risk and liability, just as if they responded to an incident when off duty. They must never leave their zone unattended which would put people at their pool at risk.
However, when some of my guards responded to en emergency in the park and did CPR on a pregnant woman, I submitted them for a Red Cross Citation award, I didn't fire them!
Bottom line, we all know the legal liabilities that these type of situations put us in, but a life is a life, and anything our staff does to save a life should be commended! What are the chances that an emergency is going to occur in their zone during that time that the remaining guards could not handle?
Besides, we all know that well-trained lifeguards are capable of panicking in a real emergency and not responding. With these guards, I knew they were going to respond if ever needed again, I sure wanted to keep them!

Gary,

Thank you for making the clarification and distinction between Ellis & Associates and Jeff Ellis Management.

Here is the current statement:

It has been incorrectly reported that Jeff Ellis & Associates was involved with the firing of a Lifeguard in South Florida.

 

Jeff Ellis & Associates is an Aquatic Safety & Risk Management Consulting firm. Jeff Ellis & Associates does not own, operate or manage aquatic facilities.

 

Jeff Ellis & Associates does not have a contract with the City of Hallandale Beach.

 

Jeff Ellis Management is a separate company that provides facility management services and does provide service to Hallandale Beach.

 

Jeff Ellis & Associates has over 600 Clients worldwide who participate in a Comprehensive Aquatic Risk Management Program and offer the International Lifeguard Training Program™ to train the lifeguards they employ to staff their facilities, and protect the guests that frequent their facilities.

So EA is not - https://www.jellis.com/about-us.html  - and this Jeff Ellis isn't the same person?

I think this issue has raised a very interesting point to ponder.  Have we crossed a line by saying its ok for the individual to take personal liability over the liablity of the employer.  Do the young men and women guarding our pools, waterparks, and beaches realize the responsibility of guarding waters they are hired to protect. Is it a duty for them to react to any situation that someone on the beach has brought to there attention.  For example chest pain, obstructed airway, any medical issue that a beach goer deems an emergency who are not in there zone of protection.  What happens when a lifeguard doesn't respond to something down the beach and that person stays on the stand technically doing what they are paid and prepared to handle.  Will that person now be, dare I say negligent?  Yes, I think waiting on terminating the employee would have been the right call until all the facts are in.   I will tell you this, I am now looking at our EAP, and other appropriate policies for any holes we may have.  We will also have a discussion with our supervisor teams and learn from this.  Like all of us in this industry we will adapt and implement the right changes for our own facilities. Curious to see what others are thinking about. What are people doing at there facilities.  Are you making changes because of what has happened here or is it business as usual.  I look forward to additional comments.

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