An Orlando company made national headlines this week after firing one of its lifeguards in South Florida for leaving his assigned zone to help rescue a drowning man.
Tampa Bay area residents who have joined in the chorus of outrage might find solace in knowing such a controversy likely would not erupt on Tampa Bay area beaches. Officials in Tampa, Clearwater and Pinellas County said their lifeguards can use their own good judgment about whether to leave their assigned posts to perform a rescue.
"We do not have any policy that you cannot leave your post if someone else is in an emergency situation," said Mary Burrell, spokeswoman for Pinellas County. "If somebody else needs emergency aid, the lifeguard uses their discretion. It's not a black and white situation."
Lifeguard Tomas Lopez, 21, was at his post Monday on Hallandale Beach in South Florida when a beachgoer pointed out a man struggling in the water. The man was about 1,500 feet outside of the zone Lopez was assigned to cover, but Lopez ran down the beach to help.
Witnesses had pulled the semiconscious man out of the water, but Lopez and an off-duty nurse attended to him until paramedics arrived. Afterward, Lopez was fired for leaving his assigned area by Jeff Ellis Management, a private company in the Orlando area that provides the lifeguards for Hallandale Beach. A company spokesperson said Lopez leaving his assigned area could have created "liability issues" for the company.
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Jeff Ellis offered Lopez his job back after learning that other lifeguards covered his portion of the beach while he was away from his post. Lopez reportedly declined.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported Thursday that two other Hallandale Beach lifeguards were fired after telling their supervisor they would have done the same thing Lopez did, and several others have resigned in protest.
Along the busy beaches of the Tampa Bay area, long stretches of waterfront have no lifeguards and people swim at their own risk. However, Pinellas County has 25 lifeguards employed to guard the beaches of Fort De Soto, Sand Key and Fred Howard parks, Burrell said. All are expansive waterfront parks that attract thousands of swimmers daily.
The city of Tampa staffs Ben T. Davis Beach on the Courtney Campbell Parkway with lifeguards from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The city does not have a policy that restricts lifeguards to working only in an assigned area.
"We would expect our lifeguards to perform the duty wherever they saw the need," Tampa parks and recreation director Greg Bayor said Thursday.
Clearwater Beach lifeguards are generally expected to attempt a rescue even if it would occur outside their zones, said Art Kader, the city's assistant director of parks and recreation.
"If someone is in distress — someone's drowning or someone's hurt — then they will respond," he said. The beach typically has seven lifeguards working on any given day, Kader said.
Some people enjoying a sunny Thursday at Clearwater Beach said they were left incredulous by the news of the lifeguard's firing.
"I was like, how could they fire someone when their duty is to save lives?" said Natalia Duque, 18, of New Port Richey.
Brittany Parrish, 27, of Indianapolis said she thought the firing was ridiculous. "I'd think a lifeguard was highly negligent if they watched someone drown," she said.
Mike Gissel, 44, of Huntington, W.Va., said the lifeguard made the right decision.
"The Bible says the greatest thing you can do is lay your life down for somebody," he said. "He was justified in what he did."