Question: When is a lifeguard not supposed to guard life? Answer: when he's an "aquatic risk management consultant" working for a private contractor hired to oversee public beaches in the world's most litigious country.
Tomas Lopez, a 21-year-old member of the Baywatch corps on Hallandale Beach in Florida, was at the centre of nationwide outrage last night after it emerged that he had been fired for the egregious sin of saving a swimmer who had been drowning.
The lifeguard was approached by a member of the public on Monday afternoon and told that a nearby beachgoer was in trouble. He ran to the scene, where the man had been dragged from the water and was already receiving first-aid treatment, and attended to him until paramedics arrived.
But when Mr Lopez filled out an incident report for his employer, Jeff Ellis Management, he was promptly sacked. The reason: the rescue occurred roughly 1,500 feet outside the "safety area" Mr Lopez was officially supposed to be protecting, where signs tell people they swim at their own risk.
According to a statement from the company, Mr Lopez therefore broke one of the cardinal rules of his job: he left them with a "liability issue". Had the rescue gone wrong, or had another incident occurred in the "safety area," the firm could theoretically have been sued.
"We have liability issues and can't go out of the protected area," the company's supervisor Susan Ellis told reporters. "What he did was his own decision. He knew the company rules and did what he thought he needed to do."
Mr Lopez has no regrets. Helping the man, who remains in intensive care "was the moral thing to do," he said, adding: "I wouldn't put my job over morals."
Several colleagues agree. Seven have already resigned, saying they refuse to work for a company which puts health-and-safety protocol ahead of saving a human life.
"What are we supposed to do?" asked Zoard Janko, one of the seven. "Let people die?"
As outrage over the affair mounted last night, the firm issued a second statement, saying they had begun an investigation into the "exact facts of what happened," adding: "If we did something inappropriate, we will make it right."