HALLANDALE BEACH (CBS4) — The firing of a Hallandale Beach lifeguard has drawn harsh criticism, all because he saved a drowning man outside of his patrol area.

Tomas Lopez was fired Monday by Orlando-based Jeff Ellis and Associates because he broke a company rule and could have put beachgoers in his section of Hallandale Beach in jeopardy.

“We have liability issues and can’t go out of the protected area,” supervisor Susan Ellis told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “What he did was his own decision. He knew the company rules and did what he thought he needed to do.”

“A guest come up to me and told me someone’s drowning,” Lopez said.  “I didn’t see him, I just started running towards his direction.

The man had been swimming along an unprotected stretch of beach, Hallandale Beach officials said Tuesday.

“It was a long run, but someone needed my help. I wasn’t going to say no,” said Lopez, 21, of Davie.

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

Lopez and an off-duty nurse helped the man until the city’s paramedics arrived.

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

The rescue was performed about 1,500 feet south of the protective boundaries set by Lopez’s employer. The unprotected area has signs alerting beachgoers to swim at their own risk.

“I think it’s ridiculous, honestly, that a sign is what separates someone from being safe and not safe,” Lopez told CBS4’s Ted Scouten.  “Honestly, a job is not as important as a person’s life.”

Other lifeguards watched Lopez’s area during the rescue and were on the phone with 911 operators, the company said.

“The beach remained protected at all times,” Ellis said.

Three other lifeguards have quit in protest of Lopez’s firing.

“We were sitting on the tower and we heard the news that he got fired, so we radioed our manager, our supervisor to come cover the water for us and we resigned,” said Szilard Janko.

Lopez is getting a lot of support from people on the beach.

“I think he did right,” said Effie Birboutsakis.

“A human being was dying,” said Francois Aduet.  “You need to do what you need to do.”

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.

Hallandale Beach began outsourcing its lifeguards in 2003 to save money. The city pays Jeff Ellis and Associates about $334,000 a year to provide four lifeguards and one supervisor at the beach year-round, said city spokesman Peter Dobens.

The company also provides lifeguard services at the city’s pools as part of the contract. Its contract expires this year.

The man Lopez rushed to save, whose name was not released due to privacy laws, remained hospitalized Tuesday in intensive care, Dobens said.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and the  South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.)

Ted Scouten

Comments (7)