A national nonprofit association of lifeguards advised Myrtle Beach in September that its system of guarding the beach is an “unreliable means of protecting swimmers,” according to a letter obtained by The Sun News.
The letter, dated Sept. 30 and addressed to Mayor John Rhodes from the United States Lifesaving Association, says that group determined the city’s system inadequately provides for the safety of beachgoers because guards also spend time renting umbrellas. Lifeguard companies in Myrtle Beach work on a franchise system in which they do not receive money from the city but are allowed to earn money by renting umbrellas on the beach.
“Myrtle Beach is very definitely an outlier in regard to how it provides lifeguard protection,” Chris Brewster of the USLA told The Sun News. “It’s just not the way beach life-guarding is provided in the United States, and we wanted (city council) to understand that.”
Brewster said in most cities, lifeguards are municipal employees whose only job is to guard the water. In cases where private organizations provide lifeguard services, he said, those companies usually employ a separate set of workers to rent umbrellas, sell drinks or provide other amenities on the beach. North Myrtle Beach, which is USLA certified, separates its umbrella and chair rentals from lifeguarding services.
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Mayor John Rhodes said Wednesday that while Myrtle Beach’s lifeguarding agencies are not USLA certified, “over the years we have been able to maintain a pretty safe record out on the ocean.”
One Myrtle Beach franchisee, Lack’s Beach Service, was at one point a USLA group, but its certification was pulled in 2008, according to a letter from that year provided by Brewster. A certification with USLA costs a lifeguarding organization about $100 per year.
George Lack, the owner of Lack’s Beach Service, said that some members of USLA, who are municipal employees, may be threatened by services that operate without using taxpayer money. He said criticisms of lifeguarding in Myrtle Beach are political.
“(Brewster) has always had a problem with anything or anybody that doesn’t do anything the way he thinks they should be done,” Lack said. “This is a wizzing contest.”
Rhodes also said he did not take issue with the fact that lifeguards also sell umbrellas, but said that the city takes stock of franchisee performance every year and pointed to new proposals for beach safety, including Jet Ski patrols conducted from the water, that will come before city council on Tuesday. This was a busy year for guards in Myrtle Beach, and calls to service to local public safety agencies surged.
Five people drowned in the ocean this summer, four of which occurred after normal guarding hours or in an area without a stationed guard.
“I think overall, we should look at everything (USLA suggests) and decide what is a fit to us,” Rhodes said. “I think the Jet Skis … is a first step, and then look and see how it goes from there.”
USLA also sent a cease-and-desist letter to John’s Beach Service, a Myrtle Beach franchisee, on June 27, asking the group to stop using the USLA logo on the John’s website and on apparel. Brewster said the usage was a violation of trademark law, because John’s is not accredited by his organization.
“We also just wanted to make sure that nobody was being — at least not the city council — was being fooled by people using our intellectual property without permission,” Brewster said.
A Sun News review of archived web pages found that John’s Beach Service featured a USLA logo on the bottom of its website on May 3 of this year, but by Oct. 4, it was replaced with a different image.
Representatives of John’s, which is closed for the winter, could not be reached by phone or email Wednesday afternoon.
An archived web page for Myrtle Beach Lifeguards, another franchisee that operated for part of the summer, showed that on Oct. 7, its website featured a USLA logo. Myrtle Beach Lifeguards was yanked from the sand earlier this summer for an issue with its guards’ Red Cross certifications. Its web page address directed to a 404 error message on Wednesday morning.
Gene Hudson, the owner of Myrtle Beach Lifeguards, could not be reached by phone.
Stephen Goldfinch, the attorney representing Hudson as he tries to regain status as a Myrtle Beach lifeguard franchisee, said he had no new information about his client’s status with the city.