The brain-dead and ethics-empty conduct of Jeff Ellis Management, an Orlando, Florida-based company, in its recent firing of 21-year-old lifeguard Tomas Lopez is welcome in one respect, and one respect only. It helps explain the inhuman attitude of the two Brooklyn EMT’s who stood by and watched a woman die of a heart attack as they munched bagels. It begins to explain why two Seattle security guards stood by and allowed a woman to be nearly beaten to death while they looked on. It almost explains how a crowd of people on a California shore, including firefighters, stood by as a man named Raymond Zack took nearly an hour to drown himself. It might even provide some insight into the thought processes of Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueery, who famously observed Jerry Sandusky as he engaged in a child rape but didn’t stop it. For one of the reasons so many Americans turn off their ethics alarms, reject their humanity and flunk their duty to rescue those in peril is that there are people like Jeff Ellis, who deem human life less important than business, policy and profit, and who will punish any employee who doesn’t feel similarly and act accordingly.
The company fired Lopez after he pulled a struggling swimmer out of the ocean on Hallandale Beach in Broward County, saving his life. The rescue, you see, occurred 1,500 feet south of the firm’s contracted boundaries for lifeguard service. Lopez was told that a swimmer was in peril off the neighboring beach, and ran to his rescue, leaving the “protected beach” area where his services had been contracted to serve. The near-drowning victim was swimming in the “unprotected area” without lifeguards, and there’s no point, the management company reasons, to hire it to provide lifeguards if the heroes like Lopez will dive in for free.
Jeff Ellis’s explanation was predictable, and even logical. He said the company’s first responsibility is to ensure that service for its contracted zone is not disrupted, potentially endangering trusting swimmers there and opening up his company to liability issues. “We are not a fire-rescue operation. We are strictly a lifeguard organization,” he told reporters. “We limit what we do to the protected swimming zones that we’ve agreed to service.”
Got it. Except that there are more than one lifeguard on the protected beach, so the likelihood of Lopez being torn between rescuing an individual outside his zone and going to the aid of another imperiled swimmer in his zone is smaller than slim. Except that policies always require exceptions for the extraordinary circumstance, and a circumstance where someone’s life is in immediate peril virtually always demands an exception.
This is not a case like those where bank tellers play hero and foil bank robberies. In those cases, the banks have a legitimate reason to discourage spontaneous attempts at heroism that can lead to death or injury to customers and employees. Lopez performed a rescue that was within the scope of his training and job description; it just wasn’t paid for, and was technically an abandonment of his duties, which were limited to the protected part of the beach. The incident is more similar to the recent Safeway embarrassment, in which the chain fired an employee who stopped a man from beating up a woman in one of its grocery stores. It is very similar to the contract fire department cases, where houses have burned to the ground as firefighters watched, because the owners didn’t pay their local firefighting bill.
Two other lifeguards quit to protest Lopez’s firing. Good for them. Like Lopez, their ethical and human priorities are in proper order, even if Jeff Ellis’s are not. I recognize that the rescue raises problems. Maybe the city needs to pass an ordinance that reimburses companies like Ellis’s when their lifeguards perform rescues outside their contracted territory. Maybe it needs to require any beaches that permit swimming to hire lifeguards. Maybe there needs to be exemptions from liability for rescuers and their employees. Whatever the solutions are, they were and are not the responsibility of Tomas Lopez. He did the right thing, and should not have been punished for it. Punishing him declares that he did the wrong thing, and that he should have allowed a man to die when it was within his power to save him.
And that’s ridiculous.
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