Save or sell: national lifeguard organization discusses Myrtle Beach concerns

Save or sell: national lifeguard organization discusses Myrtle Beach concerns
Source: YouTube recruitment video from John's Beach Service
Source: YouTube recruitment video from John's Beach Service

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – A national lifeguard certifying agency says none of Myrtle Beach's lifeguard franchises are certified.

In a previous investigation we looked into complaints from one lifeguard about his training with a local beach service.

Following that story, the USLA (United States Lifesaving Association) reached out to us, saying people aren't getting the full story.

WMBF News reporter Conor McCue looked into the company's concerns.

With only dozens of lifeguards, looking over millions of visitors, preparation and training is crucial.

For John's Beach Service, managers say their training regimen is born out of a national standard set by one organization.

Above: Recruiting video posted to YouTube by John's Beach Service in 2014. View on YouTube here.

"Why not use the best source available at hand?" asked Nick Jackson, GM of John's Beach Service. "You'd be dumb not to."

The United States Lifesaving Association sets those standards, and certifies nearly 130 agencies around the country. It looks over agencies from cities as big as Miami and Los Angeles, to smaller beach towns like Cape May, New Jersey.

In that list of 130 certified agencies, you won't find John's Beach Service, or any other Myrtle Beach lifeguard franchise.

"To make an assertion that you're following our standards without that being independently reviewed is, well, problematic," explained Chris Brewster, USLA President, via a Skype interview.

In a previous WMBF story, John's Beach Service broke down its training program for us.

GM Nick Jackson walked us through the three-day rookie school, and showed us the USLA handbook that he says he trains his lifeguards from.

He told our crews his beach service is not allowed to be USLA-certified, but it does follow the group's protocol. The USLA quickly contacted us about its concerns with what John's had to say.

"It's just a problem for any lifeguard agency, that is not USLA-certified, to assert that they are meeting those standards because who is evaluating that independently?" asked Brewster.

The USLA President says the reason why neither John's nor any other local beach service is certified is simple.

They don't just save lives, they turn a profit as well.

In Myrtle Beach, the city awards contracts to beach franchises, who then employ their own lifeguards.

The companies make their money by having lifeguards also rent beach chairs and umbrellas. Three percent of that revenue then goes back to the city as a franchise fee.

The USLA believes those dueling roles hinder a lifeguard's capabilities.

"Those lifeguards involved in the commercial activities are inevitably distracted by those commercial activities, and a major responsibility of lifeguards is to be vigilant at all times," said Brewster.

Brewster says this dual role lifeguarding system is something you really won't find anywhere else in the country.

Myrtle Beach leaders don't mind. In fact, they just agreed to extend a similar contract with John's Beach Service and three others, for the next seven years.

"We've been doing this 50 years, give or take," said Myrtle Beach spokesperson Mark Kruea, "It's been in place for a long time."

"It's the choice of any community, whether they want to set their own standards, or look to the experts, in terms of setting standards," said Brewster. "It's clear what the decision has been in this case."

That means another seven years where local beach agencies won't qualify for USLA certification.

"This type of situation, the dual-role situation, may not work everywhere, but it works here," said Jackson with John's Beach Service. "Again, I'll default back onto the statistics, we haven't had a confirmed drowning in a guarded area since 2007."

Jackson says while his beach service may not be USLA-certified, his lifeguards will continue to train up to its standards.

He says they will continue to rent beach chairs and umbrellas, but safety will remain the number one priority.

"We're not all out there to just make a buck. Obviously, at the end of the day, water safety is paramount," Jackson explained. "We do care about that, because at the end of the day, we wouldn't be around long if money was all we cared about."

This next beach franchise agreement with the city was agreed upon last week and will go into effect in October.

The biggest change to it is the new addition of mobile lifeguards in residential areas.

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