PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE: THE LIFEGUARD STORY

A Florida lifeguard, and several of his colleagues were either fired or left their jobs with a private lifeguard company because that lifeguard opted to leave his post to save a life.
The problem here is that the drowning swimmer ventured into unprotected waters, and the lifeguard company only had liability to guard the protected areas. Therefore, the lifeguard who saved the swimmer was violating the company’s liability policy and put the company at great financial and legal risk. The city of Hallandale, Fla., is rethinking how it is providing lifeguard services.
Jay Bookman, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, discussed this story in a July 2012 column. He said the lifeguard made a choice: would he worry more about the company’s bottom line, or the life of a drowning swimmer? And Bookman asked: could he live with himself if he had stayed at his post and let the drowning swimmer die?
It’s not just a case of public services, vs. private profit. It’s also a case of who we are as people. The lifeguard’s colleagues who lost or left their jobs were asked point blank by the lifeguard company what they would have done in that situation. When they said they would save the swimmer, they were, essentially, dismissed.
As more public services are outsourced to the private sector – and there will be more such outsourcing in the future as government spending is reduced – we have to look at the INTENT of those who serve these companies. For most dedicated lifeguards, their intent, and their instinct, is to save lives first. That’s how they are trained. They should NEVER be penalized for doing that!
But in the liability morass, and as public institutions make beneficial, money-saving adjustments in how they perform public services, it’s difficult to fault Hallandale for finding a private company to handle its lifeguard services. South Florida has year-round activity on the water, so there is likely a very high price to protect those who use the water year-round.
The public sector has established many zero-tolerance policies that take decision-making out of a human’s hands. These policies go like this: if this happens, that’s the consequence. Period. No mitigating circumstances. No gray areas. A human checks his judgment at the door. No creative solutions allowed!
When the profit motive becomes part of “public” service, services are provided differently. Usually, private companies provide more efficient service. But sometimes, efficiency is not what’s called for. Doing something efficiently may not always equate to doing it RIGHT.
Government’s overriding concern is process and procedure, and making sure everyone is treated fairly – at least that’s the theory. Private companies’ overriding concern is maximizing profit, and minimizing expenses. Both concerns can mix well in some endeavors, but certainly not in every endeavor. That swimmer, perhaps, should not have been swimming where he was swimming. Do we let him die for a bad decision? People, particularly young people, make ill-advised decisions all the time, utilizing real resources to bail them out. Do we stop doing that, and make personal responsibility paramount?
These are fair questions as we watch the inevitable trend of outsourcing public services. Adjudication should consider who did the right thing. Adjudication should require human reasoning, instinct, intuition and, most of all, INTENT! Those who deliberately intend to do wrong without mitigating circumstances should be punished. But mitigating factors play a big part in defining right and wrong. And, people can do bad things unintentionally. In those cases, different consequences may be in order, depending on the extent of the damage, and whether or not the person should have been paying attention. The lifeguard’s attention was correctly focused on the troubled swimmer.
Think of your own life, your decisions and the consequences of those decisions. Do you feel good about what you did, regardless of what may have happened to you because of it? Did you make a small mistake, and are paying too dearly for it? The lifeguard may have lost his job, but, as Bookman points out, he probably would have been haunted for life had he not saved that swimmer.
For the sensible person, the gut reaction is usually the right one. When it’s not, the sensible person takes heed, and sees why it isn’t. The sensible person, most of the time, will do the right thing.
Peter
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