Horry County Government will soon prohibit lifeguards from renting umbrellas and chairs on county beaches.
The county typically contracts with private companies to provide lifeguard services, but those agreements also allow the companies’ lifeguards to rent umbrellas or beach chairs to visitors. The county’s seven-year franchise agreements are expiring in May, and county officials now want lifeguards exclusively focused on beach safety.
“We know that things are different now than they have been over the years,” said Randy Webster, the county’s assistant administrator over public safety.
What’s changed? One issue is a nearly $21 million verdict that a jury awarded in July to the family of a 41-year-old Maryland man who drowned in Myrtle Beach in 2018. The family sued the city and Lack’s Beach Service, which has provided lifeguard services to the city for more than 40 years, alleging the dual lifeguarding role prioritized profits over safety.
County council’s public safety committee discussed the verdict at its Tuesday meeting and the need for keeping lifeguards’ eyes on the water.
“Lifeguards shouldn’t be renting umbrellas,” Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught said.
To address that concern, Webster said the county plans to require that a beach service’s lifeguards be assigned to beach safety — and nothing else. Any personnel wishing to rent chairs or umbrellas would have to be clearly distinguishable from the lifeguards, such as being dressed in a different colored shirt. County officials said they wouldn’t object to the rental side employees being cross-trained to assist in an emergency, but the lifeguards would be prohibited from participating in any commercial activities.
“We don’t need water safety people conducting a retail commercial business on the beach,” county attorney Arrigo Carotti said. “It distracts them from their primary responsibility.”
Along with lifeguard duties, the county also plans to change the rules for the umbrella line that companies create when they set up their wares on the beach.
Under the proposed policy, umbrellas would be grouped in clusters of 10 and there would be at least a 30-foot space between those clusters. Beachgoers would be allowed to place their own umbrellas in that area.
“They could be a part of the umbrella line,” Carotti said. “They don’t have to go around it like they do now.”
County officials will soon solicit bids for what they hope will be another seven-year beach services agreement, though they admit they don’t know how the local companies will respond to their new demands.
County council also plans to vote on ordinance changes next month that would make the proposed regulations permanent.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is working with ASTM International to develop testing standards for beach umbrellas, while advocates say anchor systems are a necessary safety precaution. Meanwhile, Myrtle Beach is thinking about allowing Shibumi Shades.
Another matter weighing on the minds of county leaders is the death of a 63-year-old woman who was impaled by a flying beach umbrella in Garden City last month.
The umbrella had been rented by a company that contracts with the county for beach services, and Webster said county officials have inquired about how the business’s beach umbrellas are secured.
“We have asked for clarifications on how they do it,” he said. “What we have learned is there’s not really any standards out there for holding these things in the ground.”
When council members asked about the county’s legal exposure from the umbrella incident, Carotti said that he didn’t want to delve into potential litigation. However, he noted that both the City of Myrtle Beach and Lack’s Beach Service were initially named defendants in the drowning case that received the verdict of over $20 million. The city was dismissed from the litigation before the case went to trial.
“That’ll give you some indication of how litigation of this sort takes place,” he said.
Although the county is taking steps to divide lifeguarding duties, the change would only impact the beaches in the unincorporated areas. No municipal beaches would be affected.
Last year, Myrtle Beach officials began discussing taking similar steps, though the city still has years left on its franchise agreements with beach services and it’s unclear if they will follow suit.
“That’s a conversation council will ultimately have as we approach the end of those [contracts],” city spokesman Mark Kruea said Tuesday afternoon.
The United States Lifesaving Association, a lifeguard certification group, has long objected to the city’s dual-role lifeguards.
In 2007, USLA suspended Lack’s Beach Service’s certification for 30 days, fully revoking it the following year.
“They were operating contrary to United States Lifesaving Association standards, which say you can’t assign lifeguards to commercial activities,” USLA Certification Committee Chair Chris Brewster told MyHorryNews.com last year. “I don’t know any other city where lifeguards are assigned a dual role of commerce and lifeguard duties.”
In the summer of 2016, Myrtle Beach Lifeguards, which covered the beach from 67th Avenue North to 77th Avenue North, was suspended for failing to ensure all of its lifeguards passed the requisite exams.
In September of that year, USLA wrote a letter to then-Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes warning that the franchise system was inadequate to protect beachgoers, saying the commercial component divided lifeguard attention.
Any loss of life is tragic no matter what the cause. Having said that , what is the big picture here ? You have a staff of well trained and dedicated life guards who go through certification and continued training ( I know because my child is a lifeguard). You will now reduce their pay by more than 50%. So now what? Do you think they will come back for half pay ? Would you ? It’s hard enough to get workers in Myrtle Beach as it is, cutting their pay is not going to add more workers of this highly skilled 1st responder nature. If safety is truly what you are seeking maybe the town and city should pony up and pay a what these heroes would be losing. That is if they really cared about people and just weren’t afraid of law suits. Everyone makes decisions for the wrong reasons to appear as if they care. Solve the problem with real solutions. Keep the lifeguards doing what they do and PAY them accordingly or we will revisit beach safety in the future when things really get dangerous.
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