MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Every summer, you see lifeguards all along Grand Strand beaches, but how qualified are they to save your life?
One former Myrtle Beach lifeguard came forward to WMBF News with his concerns over the training and well-being of those responsible for your safety. Conor McCue took the lifeguard's concerns to the company in a WMBF News investigation.
With millions of people visiting Grand Strand beaches every summer, the folks responsible for keeping everyone safe have a tough task at hand.
"They're very concerned, they're worried about it," said one former lifeguard about his coworkers this past summer. "They're very on the edge, like, 'I hope nothing happens, because man, I haven't been trained out here.'"
This former lifeguard asked to speak anonymously about his experience with John's Beach Service. He says he worries the company's training process leaves beach-goers in danger for the first few weeks of summer.
The lifeguard says some employees start work in May, but he says training in the ocean doesn't actually start until June. Before that, he says lifeguards train as chair and umbrella salesman.
He says, to be fair, all lifeguards have to be CPR, First Aid, and Lifeguard-certified before starting, but that training often happens in a pool, not the ocean.
"Some of the lifeguards were rookies and they had never been a lifeguard on the ocean, and went two to three weeks without having training, because our first surf school, which wasn't until training day, wasn't until June," explained the former lifeguard.
He says once work starts, he believes the priorities are clear: rent as many beach chairs and umbrellas as you can, because lifeguards are paid solely on commission of those rentals.
"We don't get paid to lifeguard, we only get paid to sell umbrellas and chairs," he said. He believes it's a conflict of interest that makes it hard to just focus on swimmers in the water.
The lifeguard says he believes the root of all these problems is how the system is set up.
That's because in Myrtle Beach, the system works like this: the city awards contracts to beach franchises, who employ their own lifeguards. Those franchises are businesses though, and need to turn a profit. To do so, the lifeguards rent beach chairs and umbrellas for a fee.
The lifeguard we spoke with says he worries that because of that system, lifeguards in Myrtle Beach really have two jobs, but only get paid for one.
"I'm not going to lie to you and say we don't care how much money we make," explained Nick Jackson, General Manager of John's Beach Service. "That's how we all survive."
Jackson says he does have a business to run, but any accusations about the company's priorities are way off-base.
"I feel that we go above and beyond what is required of us, because at the end of the day, we do care about public safety," he said. "That's our number one goal, and if we didn't care about that, we really wouldn't be around much longer."
Jackson says if you don't believe him, take a look at the numbers. He says since 2007, there hasn't been a single drowning under the company's watch. He believes that all comes back to the training.
"You know, there was one day this past summer when we had 35 rescues," Jackson said. "These guys, in my opinion, are trained adequately, and I really don't know much more that we could do."
Jackson says whatever his former employee says about the training isn't true. He even showed us exactly what each lifeguard goes through for training.
Jackson says the company trains its lifeguards far more than the city requires.
The company trains lifeguards under the United States Lifesaving Association protocol, and employees are put through as many different rescue scenarios as possible.
"There's nothing more that we can do, that we don't already," Jackson said.
In the end, Jackson says his company's priorities do line up exactly with his former employee's: public safety first, money second.
The current beach franchise agreement in Myrtle Beach is actually set to expire soon.
City Council is working on revising it and has proposed changes to the agreement that could improve safety while lowering franchise fees. One change would include requiring mobile lifeguards.