Should this lifeguard have been fired?

Jul 06, 2012

Lifeguard Tomas Lopez helped save a drowning man and got fired for it.

The reason: He left the section of a south Florida beach his company is paid to patrol. The Orlando-based company, Jeff Ellis and Associates, says Lopez broke a company rule and could have put beachgoers in his section in jeopardy.

Lopez was eventually offered his old job back, which he turned down, but it does bring up the following questions: Does it matter that he left to save a person's life? What should he have done? What would you have done and why?

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Firing someone for trying to save a life?  Is that nuts or could it actually be the correct response?  Is there only one right answer to that question?


Tomas Lopez left his post to save a man in danger.  Did he do the right thing?  What would you have done and why?


Today's conversation is not only about Lopez, but about how we decide when torn not between a good thing and a bad thing, but between two good things -- in this case compassion and fidelity.  Let's go!

Someone's life is in danger and you can help them with no one else getting hurt, you help them. His company says that people on his beach could have been in danger, but what about the person who definitely was in danger? Was Lopez supposed to let him drown? This is an example where leadership fails to show judgement and only follows rules blindly. We see it in other places: schools that don't let children put on sunscreen, TSA patting down a 4 year old after she hugs her grandma, police arresting a 12 year old for having french fries on metro. Being in a position of leadership isn't black and white rule following, it's about applying rules when they are needed and making exceptions when they are appropriate. Lopez's company should have patted him on the back rater than kicked him out the door. I'm glad he turned them down, I wouldn't want to work for them either.

YES! to everything you wrote -- and wrote well -- with the possible exception of your glee that Mr. Lopez turned his former employers down when offered a chance to return to work. Of course, he is within his rights to stop working for them, but there may be a missed opportunity in making that choice.


I appreciate that Loez says he wants to return to school and move on with his life, but given that the company reconsidered their original position, true leadership in this case might hinge on being willing to accpet that people can learn from past mistakes and need the ongoing participation of those who showed them the path to positive growth.


The extent to which we hang in with other people and other institutions, even when they have made a mistake, is also a leadership trait we often lack.  Ironically, the inability to do so is directly related to the "black or white" approach to leadership which you so wisely decry.

I think the swimmer should be penalized and penalized severely, monetarily that is. For it is the swimmer who knowingly went into the area that had a warning to swimmers. The swimmer is the one that put the other swimmers in jeopardy. The company should be proud to have a worker like Tomas who was called to duty. I think in their wisdom they realized this when they decided to hire him back.

Penalize the swimmer?  After the fact?  Although you are correct about his behaving irresponsibly,  keep the following in mind:

1. Lopez would also be responsible for endangering his charges had he left the area.  Those good people decided to swim there on the assumption that they were swimming in a guarded area.  What amount of money would have made it okay if one of them had been injured or killed while Lopez was off saving the first guy?


2.  Lopez made sure that his area was covered BEFORE he left his post.  That's the key here -- while he may have broken a company rule, he never seems to have endangered anyone.


The company's failure here was in failing to make a distinction between policy and safety.  That happens so often in our culture and it's what is disturbing about the case, especially in this case.  After all, they are called life guards, not policy guards!

In the comment section for the first article you linked to, I found the following comment interesting: "He may even have had an affirmative duty as a lifeguard toward others he could have reached, even if they were not in his "section". Failing to help would likely have been a breach of his duty as a lifeguard." I am not overly familiar with the lifeguard profession, but is there some set of codified rules dictating the responsibilities thereof - a sort of lifeguard Hippocratic Oath? Or was this simply Mr. Lopez's duty as a human being who saw another person in danger and was equipped by training and situation to help them?

I know of no such code, and I even did some checking for one!  But in truth, profession-specific codes are sub-sections of larger human codes, ones which relate to the special expertise of the profession.  They reflect the larger concerns and so what could be more important than the notion that all life is sacred and deserves to be saved.  Yeah, I know, we are still fighting about when that life begins, but I think in this case we can all agree about the swimmer in question.


Let's be clear though, had he not been able to secure alternative coverage before departing his section, he too would have violated the reasonable expectations of those who thought that they were swimming in a protected area.  I am not saying that it would be wrong to leave under such circumstances, but it's not so simple either -- ask anyone (think combat commanders, police and fire fighters, among others) who has had to endanger someone in order to save someone else, especially someone who has behaved badly.  It's not so easy to do, even when you know you are doing the right thing.

This isn't like store clerk fired for intervening in a robbery. He had a job to do--guard a specific group of swimmers--and he abandoned it to insert himself into a situation that was the responsibility of other lifeguards. That might be forgivable in some sort of mass incident, but not when the situation is exactly what his fellow employees are trained to handle. I don't think it speaks well for the company that they offered him his job back--they're willing to re-hire a hotdogging lifeguard and put future swimmers at risk for public relations reasons.

I appreciate your sophisticated approach to the ethical challenge here, especially as it mirrors a point I have been making!  Were it clear that there was another guard capable of helping, or had Lopez not secured back up coverage, you would be largely correct.  But it seems that there was not and he did, so you are incorrect.


You are almost certainly correct that the company made it's offer to re-hire Mr. Lopez based on public sentiment, not careful reflection.  In fact, based on some of what company rep.s said, it appears the original policy stems from there desire to protect themselves from potential legal problems.  Not exactly the most elevated way to approach one's obbligation to protect public safety, wouldn't you agree?

I think the company was right to be concerned. First, in our litigious society, there could be increased liability for the company if their employee goes into an unauthorized area. It's crazy, but some people have actually sued good Samaritans rescuing them "the wrong way" (ex: exacerbating injuries while pulling someone from a burning car). Second, there's a free-rider problem: what incentive is there for someone to take responsibility over that part of the beach if everyone knows that the company - who isn't getting paid for it - will do it for free? It's like the recent stories of firefighters who, unfortunately, have to let houses burn down when the homeowners refuse to pay into the system. They have to, or no one would pay. All that being said, if there's a life in danger, all bets are out the window, but the company has a legitimate position.

Well, with your last sentence, I thought we would find ourselves more in agreement, but no.  The company's position may be legally defensible, but it is hardly legitimate, unless you want to nurture the litigouness you earlier (and rightly) criticized.


The only way to break the cycle of insane litigation is to put human deceny before legal correctness in life, loby for policies that stop rewarding those who bring the suits, and pro-actively warn potential free-riders, punishing them when they do go for a free ride.  By all accounts though, as you admit, the death penalty would have been a "bit much" in this case.

How far did he go out of his jurisdiction to save the drowning person?

About 1,500 feet.  He was close enough to see that someone was in real trouble but not close enough to determine whether or not a call to 911 would be enough of a response.  Given that he made sure his offical charges were protected, there is no question that Lopez did the right thing.

There are certainly jobs out there where leaving your post does put people in immediate danger (such as in the military). And, the lifeguard was taking SOME risk in leaving his station to help a drowning man. But, depending on how long he was gone for, I think the immediate danger outweighed the possibility of someone having an accident in his section. He was trained specifically to help in this kind of situation, so it wasn't like he was outside of his area of expertise (ie. he wasn't just a bystander). Of course, I've never been a lifeguard, so maybe there was more to it. Like, perhaps part of the job is keeping track of the number of people in the water, who goes in and comes out, and making sure to account for everyone. Thanks, Brad!

Actually, thank you, for realizing that context, previous expectations, specific skill set possessed by the person in question, etc. are all critical factors in reaching a wise and ethical decision.  That's the real lesson in this case.


When it comes to life and death, while responses are often black and white in their implementation i.e. go or don't go, shoot or don't shoot, etc.  the thinking by which we reach that decision needs to be especially nuanced because the decision is so important.  I even understand that in the heat of the moment, those decisionsoften  need to be almost reflexive, but the training need not be and neither should the policies be.  Again, that is where the company failed -- they invoked a rule w/o asking what that rule is meant to achieve and how to honor that goal w/o losing the opportunity to save a life.

They say no good deed goes unpunished, and they're right. But this almost becomes a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't scenario. Because if he had stuck to the company's policy and remained only within his designated area, and the person had in fact drowned, he and the company could have been sued for negligence, and the internet would be abuzz with people saying he was unfit for the job. Personally, because he ran in to rescue someone, regardless of whether or not it was in his realm of responsibility, I commend him for his valiant efforts, and think he should be hailed as such. Besides, aren't we taught that it's commendable to think and operate outside the box, when the need arises?

The conflict between competing demands and the fact that we regualry don't know how things will turn out, is not just a feature of this case, but that's most of life.  Perhaps it would be better to think of it not as "damned if you do and damned if you don't" but as blessed if you do and blessed if you don't, and then ask yourself which blessings you want in your life.

Don't they have more than 1 Lifeguard per Section? This way if you have to get water, go use the facilities, someone is on duty at all times? This should have been a "team" effort. NO he shouldn't have been fired in the first place!

Can't say about what they always have, but in this case, there was a back up guard on scene.  Of course, one coulda lways argue that if there were two on duty, it was because that is a better form of guarding and so by leaving, Lopez ended up "short changing" those he was paid to guard. 


While that might be true in general, this was not a general situation!  This was an emergency in which a life was at stake, his experise was needed, there was at least some back up coverage, and so he did exactly the right thing.

At the risk of sounding cynical, I doubt that the lifeguard company learned anything other than to cave in to public opinion. Their public statements certainly don't sound like they think they did anything wrong. Like so many companies and individuals today, they are only contrite when they are caught out. Kudos to this young man for doing the right thing. Going back to his old job would just confirm to the company that they can "PR" their way out of their moral cowardice.

Well, if you are "guilty" of being cynical, we can be guilty together because I think your assessment of the company's response is spot on.  In fact, it appears that this was always about a policy designed to protect the company from law suits, not about keeping safe those who wear swim suits!


Where we differ is on the value of his going back to work.  Sure, the company would look good, but so what?  They would look good for having done the right thing by hiring Lopez back.  I know, there intent in doing so would not have been pure, but perhaps we should focus less on punishing bad intent, and more on rewarding good action.  Ultimately, there is good reason to believe that repeatedly doing the right action, actually leads one to healthier intent.

is no, he should have saved the swimmer and not been fired. However, I've read your chats more than once, and I have yet to see you agree with the easy answer.

Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing?  Whatever your response, you are correct about my interest in prefering good answers to easy answers, and when it comes to ethics, the two are rarely identical, or if they are, there is little about which to write/speak, so I don't bother.


We agree that Mr. Lopez should have saved the swimmer, but if we leave it at that, we lose the opportunity to see how we can apply the approach we support to the rest of our lives and to the world in which we live.  In this case, that means seeing the problems that arise when policies get too disconnected from the larger values they are meant to embody, and the value of seeing more things as conflicts between competing goods than conflicts between good and bad.  Yes, the latter exists, but not as much as we are too often lead to believe.

Color me squarely in the corner that says this is absurd. The lifeguard did the right thing, without qualification. The company did the wrong thing. And I wouldn't take the job back either. It matters not that someone on his stretch of beach "could have been" hurt. They weren't. Humans act, they don't sit idly by. Were the heroes who hid Jews during the Holocaust wrong because they could have endangered their Nazi-complicit neighbors?

Consider yourself so colored, and your analogy to the Holocaust is simply foolish.  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate hyperbole as much as the next guy, but you have got to be kidding!


However, as long as you mentioned it, let's take you seriously for a moment.  The proper analogy here would be to someone who protected Jews while puting there own children at risk of death for their having done so.  Do I applaud them?  There are not enough words to express how amazingly heroic such people were.  On the other hand, can any of us be so sure that we would put our own children in that position, and if we did and they died, would we really be okay, simply knowing that we did "the right thing"?


I am curious, have you ever put others in harm's way in order to achieve a desired goal?  No matter how great the goal, there is nothing simple about it.

Just curious - are you suggesting that he has a duty to return to his old job to show good leadership? Personally, I think he should be free to turn it down without anyone's judgment. There could be any number of reasons he said no, but, especially after something as high-press as this, maybe he just wanted to fade back into obscurity.

To clarify: NO, under know circumstances is this man duty-bound to return to his old job.  I just wanted to make the point that had he done so, it could have been a powerful leadership lesson.  But at the end of the day, he is a guy who did a good thing, and now let's hope, as you suggest, that life returns to normal for him.

Time is at hand, and my hands are tired!  Thanks, as always, for so many great questions and truly interesting questions.


Don't forget that we can continue this conversation if you find me on facebook or follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,



In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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