Tomas Lopez: Hallandale Beach lifeguard fired after taking part in beach rescue

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.--As lifeguards are paid and trained to do, Tomas Lopez rushed down the beach to rescue a drowning man — and then got fired for it.

The problem: Lopez stepped out of the beach zone his company is paid to patrol, a supervisor said Tuesday.

"I ran out to do the job I was trained to do," said Lopez, 21, of Davie. "I didn't think about it at all."

At least two other lifeguards have quit in protest.

"What was he supposed to do? Watch a man drown?" asked one, Szilard Janko.

Lifeguards in Hallandale Beach work for Orlando-based company Jeff Ellis and Associates, which has been providing lifeguard services for the city's beaches and pools since 2003.

Company officials on Tuesday said Lopez broke a rule that could've put beachgoers in his designated area in jeopardy. The firm could ultimately have been sued, officials said.

"We have liability issues and can't go out of the protected area," said supervisor Susan Ellis. "What he did was his own decision. He knew the company rules and did what he thought he needed to do."

Lopez said he was sitting at his post at about 1:45 p.m. Monday when someone rushed to his stand asking for help. Lopez said he noticed a man struggling in the water south of his post. The man was previously swimming in an "unprotected" stretch of the beach, city officials confirmed Tuesday.

"It was a long run, but someone needed my help. I wasn't going to say no," he said.

Company officials said the rescue took place about 1,500 feet south of the company's protective boundaries. The unprotected area has signs alerting beachgoers to swim at their own risk.

By the time Lopez arrived, several witnesses had pulled the unidentified man out of the water. Lopez said the man appeared semi-conscious and had water in his lungs.

Lopez said he and a off-duty nurse attended to the man until the city's paramedics arrived.

The man, whose identity was not released because of medical privacy laws, was taken to Aventura Hospital, where he remained in the intensive care unit Tuesday, said city spokesman Peter Dobens.

After the incident, Lopez said his boss asked him to fill out an incident report. His boss then fired him for leaving his assigned area.

"They didn't tell me in a bad way. It was more like they were sorry, but rules are rules," Lopez said. "I couldn't believe what was happening."

Lopez became a lifeguard four months ago after passing the company's requirements, which include swimming and physical exams. The job pays $8.25 an hour, the lifeguards said.

Company officials said other lifeguards watched over Lopez's area during the rescue and were on the phone with 911 operators.

"The beach remained protected at all times," Ellis said.

She added that the firing and the resignations will not affect manpower during the Fourth of July holiday.

City administrators declined to comment Tuesday, indicating that the firing was a personnel decision made by a private company.

City Mayor Joy Cooper was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Commissioners Keith London and Alexander Lewy each said Tuesday they had not heard of the incident.

Hallandale Beach began outsourcing its lifeguards in 2003 as a money-saving measure. The city pays the company about $334,000 annually to provide four lifeguards and one supervisor at the beach year-round, said Dobens. The company also provides lifeguard services at the city's pools as part of the contract.

The company's contract expires this year.

Tuesday, Lopez acknowledged breaking a rule, but said he would do it again if the situation called for it.

"It was the moral thing to do," Lopez said. "I would never pick a job over my morals."
 

Copyright © 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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