Tomas Lopez, 21, says he was fired for leaving his lifeguard chair on Hallendale Beach in southern Florida to save a swimmer who was drowning in an area outside of his patrol zone. NBC's Mark Potter reports.
A Hallandale Beach, Fla., lifeguard said he was fired after he left his post to rescue a man drowning outside the zone he was hired to patrol.
Lifeguard Tomas Lopez told NBC 6 that on Monday he was alerted by beachgoers that a man was struggling in the water, which was part of unguarded territory outside the lifeguard zone. He said he raced out to try and help him. A sign warning beachgoers to swim at their own risk separates the two zones.
"I was on stand, and guests came up to me and told me there was someone drowning, that people were screaming and so I started running in the direction,” he said.
Now, two other lifeguards say they have also been fired over failing to agree with the company policy, and four others say they have quit in protest.
The president of the company, Jeff Ellis, could only confirm that one employee was let go, and as many as three have resigned, said Hallandale Beach spokesman Peter Dobens.
Ellis said in a statement to NBC 6 Wednesday afternoon that the company is reviewing the situation.
"On radio I heard Tommy saying, ‘I'm going for a rescue but it’s out of our zone,’” said Kalok Geng, one his coworkers who has quit.
Their manager told him not to go and to call 911, Geng added.
By the time Lopez got to the man, beachgoers had managed to pull him out of the water.
"I put him in the recovery position, which we are trained to do, and I had a nurse come and help me,” Lopez said.
The man was rushed to Aventura Hospital, where he is in intensive care, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
When Lopez returned to his post, he knew what was next.
"And I’m like, I'm going to lose my job, aren't I?” he recalled saying.
Lopez said he knew that wasn’t in his zone, but he said he couldn't sit back.
"I was prepared for it,” he said of his firing. “It wasn't too much of an upset because I had my morals intact over my job.”
The city of Hallandale Beach hired Jeff Ellis Management to provide lifeguards for the beach.
Supervisor Susan Ellis, who was on lifeguard duty Wednesday, said she had no comment.
“If he was well-intentioned and tried to do what he believed was the right thing, even if he deviated from policy, I'm not sure termination was the right thing to do,” Ellis said of Lopez in his statement.
Ellis added that he needs to know exactly what happened.
“Once this investigation is complete, if we did something inappropriately, we will make it right. That includes offering him his employment back if he was terminated in haste,” he said.
Ellis is expected in Hallandale Beach Thursday to oversee a full investigation into the matter, Dobens said. He added that the city will wait for the results of the investigation.
"The city's position is if there's an actual emergency, the lifeguard should assist instead of waiting for a perceived emergency," Dobens said.
Dobens assured residents the beach was protected and continues to be protected.
"There's no way I'm agreeing with the company. If I see someone dying or they need my help, I'm going to go help them, because that’s my job,” said Zoard Janko, one of lifeguards.
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