Lifeguarding in Myrtle Beach: Do changes need to be made?

Published: Sep. 14, 2022 at 7:03 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 15, 2022 at 12:29 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - According to experts, there is a one in 18 million chance of drowning in the ocean when a lifeguard is watching. This summer, just in Myrtle Beach, three people drowned, all in spots where lifeguards were working.

Myrtle Beach has over ten miles of beach access monitored by lifeguards. The men and women who sit under the orange umbrellas all work for one of two different private beach services: Lack’s and John’s. They sit with a big responsibility on their shoulders.

“A lifeguard’s primary duty is to watch the water and nothing else,” said Wyatt Werneth, a national spokesperson for American Lifeguard Association.

But in Myrtle Beach, lifeguards are doing two things: watching the water and renting beach gear.

”I’m unaware of any other beach in the country that operates the way Myrtle Beach does,” said Chris Brewster.

Chris Brewster is the chair of the national certification committee for the non-profit “United States Lifesaving Association”. In 1993, USLA created a national certification system.

”We started with just a handful of lifeguard agencies being certified. Now there are well over 150,” said Brewster.

USLA certified Lack’s Beach Service in 1996. In the original letter, it says Lack’s can only keep its certification if it maintains USLA standards.

The letter also says lifeguards watching the water should not be assigned to duties that would distract them from keeping their full attention.

”When people are in distress in the water, they can’t call 911 – the only way that it’s going to be understood that they’re in distress is for someone ashore to observe that distress,” said Brewster.

Lack’s beach service lost its USLA certification in 2008. To this day, it has not gotten it back. John’s has never been certified.

In 2018, the City of Myrtle Beach entered a seven-year franchise contract with both Lack’s and John’s.

”Under South Carolina that’s the longest they’re allowed to make that contract. You can’t make it any longer,” said Chris Pracht.

Chris Pracht is a lawyer and represents the Wolde family. In 2018 Zurihun Wolde drowned after he was caught in a rip current in Myrtle Beach. A Lack’s lifeguard was on duty.

In a weeklong trial in July, Pracht’s clients were awarded over 20 million dollars, to be paid by Lack’s beach service.

Lack’s has requested a new trial or a reduced payment option.

”There were so many warnings, to the city and the beach service. Over the years. Starting all the way back to the late 90′s,” said Pracht.

One of those warnings came in 2016, two years before the seven-year contract between the city and the beach service companies was signed. USLA wrote a letter to Myrtle Beach’s then-mayor John Rhodes and all city council members.

The letter said, “Based on emails, media reports, and preliminary investigations of recent drowning cases, the USLA has identified the Myrtle Beach system combining lifesaving and commercial activities to be an unreliable means of protecting swimmers.”

The letter goes on to acknowledge that the city council sets the requirements for Myrtle Beach lifeguard agencies. It then said, “The USLA will not certify any beach lifeguard agency that assigns lifeguards to a dual role of public safety and commercial activity.”

To date, there haven’t been any conversations to make changes to the contract. And the current contract still has two more summers until it ends, and its raising concerns from legal professionals.

“Once the city decides to put lifeguards on their beaches, in the way that they did by contract, a private contractor, it has an obligation to not do that negligently, to not guard their beaches negligently,” said Josh Eagle, a professor with the University of South Carolina School of Law.

“It’s about stopping this in Myrtle Beach now,” said Pracht.

Two different nationally recognized groups have also raised their own concerns.

“When you’re a lifeguard, you’re watching the water,” said Werneth.

“The city council from our perspective simply needs to change the practices there to come in line with national standards and separate commerce from public safety,” said Brewster.

WMBF reached out to both Lack’s and John’s Beach Services. We never heard back from John’s but we did get this statement back from Lack’s which says, “Rest assured, the safety of our visitors is on the forefront of our mind as we prepare for next summer. We have no other comment at this time.”

When we asked Mayor Brenda Bethune for an interview for this story, she declined through a text sent Aug. 30. It says “Right now there have been no recommendations regarding lifeguarding changes in Myrtle Beach brought to council for consideration.”