Fired S. Florida lifeguard to be offered job back

Hallandale Beach lifeguard left assigned post

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The South Florida lifeguard who was fired after leaving his post Monday to help rescue a swimmer outside his zone will be offered his job back.

Jeff Ellis, head of a company that provides lifeguards at Hallandale Beach, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Tomas Lopez was fired too quickly.

Ellis said no area of the beach his company patrols was left unattended while Lopez went to assist a swimmer in distress. Witnesses pulled the man out of the water and Lopez and an off-duty nurse tended to him until paramedics arrived.

Lopez was fired shortly after on grounds he'd broken a company rule by leaving his section of the beach, but on Thursday Ellis said Lopez should never have been fired and would be getting an offer to go back to work.

The captain of the lifeguards at Neptune Beach who has been on the job for 15 years said they are trained to save lives wherever someone might need help.

"It's all about the safety of the people in the water," Capt. Rich Banks said. "We're not going to say, 'Oh no, that's your water. You take care of that.... If we see something we respond. We're lifeguards."

On Wednesday, Lopez told Miami TV station WPLG that's exactly what he did when he noticed someone in distress in the water.

"So I started running," said Lopez.

He was able to reach the unidentified man, carry him to safety away from the water, and conduct rescue techniques until EMTs reached the beach.

But just minutes after he filed his rescue paperwork, Lopez was fired on the spot.

Lopez said he was fired because he left his zone and saved someone outside the buoys in a part of the beach his company is not paid to protect.

Four other Hallandale Beach lifeguards gave notice after Lopez was fired.

"The person was drowning outside our buoy lines. It's an unguarded zone," said lifeguard Szilard Janko.  "So while he was off, we had two other guards watching his zone so the beach was secure."

Janko quit his job in solidarity, standing by his colleague's side for saving a man's life.

"I think we should be able to rescue anybody, anywhere," he said.

Both Lopez and Janko are 21 years old and have been lifeguards for less than a year. They said they knew the rules but could not imagine leaving someone to drown when their job is to save lives.

The now unemployed lifeguards said Monday's incident was the first time they were forced to decide between following the rule about the assigned zones or attempting to save a life.

"I'm not going to put my job over helping someone. I'm going to do what I felt was right and I did," said Lopez.

The firings continued after Monday's rescue. Szilard Janko's 16-year-old brother Zoard Janko was also let go.

"If I see anyone drowning, regardless of where they are, I'm going to save them because I'm a lifeguard and, even as a human, I'm going to save someone if I see they need help, and they told me I was fired," said Zoard Janko.

Janko said he was also fired after a manager asked if he'd leave his assigned zone to help someone in an unprotected area and he told his boss that he would.

Jeff Ellis, an Orlando-based company, is contracted by the city and paid to man the beaches, but only in the most populated spots.  

DOCUMENT: Statement issued by Hallandale Beach about incident

When asked what the lifeguards are supposed to do when someone is drowning outside the guarded zones, the men explained they were told to call 911.

Former Vice Mayor of Hallandale Beach Bill Julian was outraged over what is happening on the beaches in his city.

"This young man is a hero. He should not be fired," said Julian.

Julian was in office when the contract bid was given to Jeff Ellis and Associates, and he is not happy with how they are overseeing the beach rescues.

"Looking back at the contract we approved, as a former vice mayor, as a cost-saving measure, I think now is the time not to renew and get our guys back under our control," he said.

The company has been guarding certain spots of Hallandale Beach since 2003, but that contract expires this year. As of now, seven lifeguards are no longer patrolling Hallandale Beach, all because a man's life was saved outside of an assigned area.

"I understand it's wrong not to leave someone there, and they are grown-ups and they don't understand it," said Zoard Janko.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.