Myrtle Beach, SC lifeguards need to guard life, not rent chairs. City needs to make change

JASON LEE/jlee@thesunnews

Help, lifeguard! I’m drowning! Oh, some folks need to rent beach chairs? Okay, I’ll wait.

That situation is not as absurd as you think, thanks to a strange and terrible deal the City of Myrtle Beach has with its lifeguard providers.

Myrtle Beach needs to end the deal and change the way it provides lifeguards. A recent lawsuit that resulted in a multi-million-dollar settlement proves that the city needs to take action.

A Maryland woman sued Lack’s Beach Service, a company that provides lifeguards to Myrtle Beach, after her fiance drowned in the ocean during a 2018 vacation. In the lawsuit, she claimed the lifeguard on duty was under-trained and distracted by renting chairs and umbrellas. In late July, a jury found the company liable for the fiance’s death and awarded the woman $20.4 million.

Lack’s lawyer tried to defend the company by claiming the man didn’t enter the beach from a public access point and ignored ocean condition warnings.

The suit and basic common sense should inform Myrtle Beach leaders of what’s obvious: Lifeguards need to guard life, not worry about beach chairs and umbrellas.

The Sun News’ Adam Benson reported about the agreements Myrtle Beach has with Lack’s Beach Service and John’s Beach Service. The companies provide the city with beach lifeguards, and in exchange, the companies are the only two that can rent beach chairs and umbrellas. Somehow these companies have convinced Myrtle Beach into agreeing that the lifeguards can handle all the renting and wrangling of chairs and umbrellas.

Myrtle Beach’s deals with the companies seem to imply the idea that people don’t drown every day, and so why not let lifeguards rent chairs in the meantime?

House fires don’t occur every day, but cities don’t task firefighters with selling fire extinguishers door-to-door while they’re on duty. That would be a tad irresponsible.

The idea of chair-selling lifeguards is so terrible that the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) won’t certify the Myrtle Beach companies. The USLA is the only organization that certifies ocean lifeguard providers by holding them to certain standards. One of those standards is that lifeguards who are monitoring the ocean can’t have any commercial duties, a USLA official said.

Nearly 19 million tourists visit the Grand Stand each year, and none of those who wade into the ocean in the City of Myrtle Beach are protected by a reliable lifeguard working for a certified company. That has to change.

Myrtle Beach brings in too many tourists to be a “swim at your own risk” city. Myrtle Beach needs to contract with an USLA-certified organization for lifeguards. It’s already happening in other places in South Carolina.

Charleston County’s park services is certified and some of the nearby cities contract with a certified organization for lifeguards.

Just a few miles up the road, the City of North Myrtle Beach is a certified provider of lifeguards. That means the city has it’s own training program and protocols for lifeguards that’s endorsed by the USLA. On most beaches, the lifeguards work for the government that owns the beach, a USLA official said. Myrtle Beach could begin a lifeguard program and earn certification. That makes the most sense. Other emergency services, like policing, fire fighting and emergency medical services, are run by cities and counties.

If Myrtle Beach leaders love the companies they have providing lifeguards, the city can keep them, but the city must require the companies become certified.

Any way the city can get a certified lifeguard provider is better than what it’s doing now.

Might getting a certified provider or creating it’s own certified program cost Myrtle Beach some money? It probably will. But the 18 million tourists who visit the area and keep the coffers full deserve nothing less from Myrtle Beach than a certified lifeguard program.

If Myrtle Beach leaders don’t make changes, the city’s next drowning will be on the city’s hands.