In tight financial times, many cities save money by outsourcing municipal services such as clerical work to private companies. But there is no service more central to government and the people it serves than public safety, which should remain the responsibility of public agencies. The case of a fired lifeguard in Florida shows why.
Beachgoers brought lifeguard Tomas Lopez's attention to a man floundering in shallow water. He raced to the scene; by then, the man had been pulled to the beach but had water in his lungs. Lopez tended to him until medical help arrived.
The swimmer survived, but not Lopez's job. His employer, an aquatics company that provides lifeguard services to the city of Hallandale Beach, decided that he had quite literally crossed the line by running to an area that was not part of the company's contracted responsibility, exposing it to possible liability. Several other lifeguards quit in protest. And after a nationwide outcry, the company offered all of the guards their jobs back, saying that, in fact, Lopez hadn't left his sector of the beach unprotected.
But the lifeguards aren't going back. Let's face it, it's not as though the job was such a great gig. Lopez was paid just $8.25 an hour, a little more than Florida's minimum wage. He and his fellow guards could make close to the same money flipping burgers rather than taking responsibility for strangers' lives.
And their employer, Jeff Ellis Management Co., still doesn't get it. The issue isn't whether another lifeguard was available to cover Lopez's turf, or whether he went 1,000 feet beyond the boundary. Government agencies have a long history of mutual aid when it comes to providing public safety; they go to the rescue of people outside their boundaries when needed. They hire employees for reasonable pay and expect them to serve the public good. If municipal employees whose job involves first aid see a choking person on the other side of the city's line, they know it's not the time to call in to headquarters for permission to save a life or to calculate the potential liability.
Even in the public domain, the concept of mutual aid has frayed a bit lately. Some cash-strapped California cities have begun charging nonresidents for emergency response if they are involved in an accident. But at least they provide the aid first, then ask questions (and send the bill) later.
There's a lot that government can't afford anymore. But when we take shortcuts on our responsibility to rescue one another in life-or-death emergencies, we abandon the most basic function of communal welfare.