‘I like the craziness’: Longtime Lawrence lifeguard shares her love of the job

photo by: Chansi Long

Makayla Mefferd leads a recent class on lifeguard training. Mefferd has been a lifeguard in Lawrence for 10 years.

When the Lawrence Outdoor Aquatic Center opened for the first time in over a year, it was Makayla Mefferd’s day off.

“I wasn’t on the schedule, but I asked to be here,” says Mefferd, 28. “I like to be out here. Yeah, it’s hot, we deal with a lot, but I like to be out here. I like the craziness. It’s kind of its own beast.”

Mefferd has been lifeguarding for a decade. Last year was the first and only summer break she’s taken since starting to work at the pool 10 years ago — and that break was mandatory because of the COVID lockdown.

In the morning, before the pool opened for the summer, Mefferd triple-checked safety equipment and practiced rescue drills in the water with the other lifeguards.

“The seasoned lifeguards were very excited because we had missed a whole summer,” Mefferd says. “We’ve always got something different. It literally could be anything; you never know what you’re going to have on your shift. It could be smooth and chill or it could be something every five minutes.”

As Mefferd talked about her experience lifeguarding to the Journal-World, a fellow lifeguard blew a long whistle, which is intended to alert all lifeguards of a more serious situation.

“That’s a long whistle,” says Mefferd, shaking her head. “You can’t just do that. It sounds like it wasn’t a real long whistle.”

According to Mefferd, the use of whistles as an emergency signal is an important component of lifeguard training. A short whistle alerts pool patrons to a minor infraction; say they’re running or horsing around — the whistle tells them to stop. Two short blasts gain the attention of another lifeguard, and that’s usually not serious. Three short whistles capture the attention of the head lifeguard, and five short blasts are meant to clear the pool, perhaps for a safety break. Four short blasts represent a “code Adam,” or missing child.

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World

Swimmers prepare to dive into the Lawrence Aquatic Center pool on opening day, Monday, June 14, 2021.

The long whistle indicates a serious emergency, but the accuracy of the whistle length, and a lifeguard’s comfort level with whistles is something that improves over time.

“The first two to three years I was lifeguarding I was terrified of using my whistle and that someone would need to be rescued,” Mefferd says.

Now Mefferd is confident, eyes constantly scanning the patrons in the pool, whistle at the ready. As head lifeguard, she trains new lifeguards in CPR, and during her classes, she bounces around a lot, claps, cheers and quizzes her students with an excitable charm. When a student answers a safety question correctly, she claps and squeals with delight.

“I would have to say that the most important part of lifeguarding is good, quality, consistent training,” Mefferd says. “Lifeguards need to be able to respond to an emergency within 10 to 30 seconds, so we need all staff prepared at all time.”

When another lifeguard let out three short whistle blasts during the interview, Mefferd scampered off to help a young boy out of the water. Lowering to his level, she listened as he told her he couldn’t find his mom. Notifying the boy that she would make an announcement, Mefferd dashed off and then her voice belted out over the intercom, requesting the mom come be reunited with her son.

When Mefferd returned, she casually rattled off a litany of rescues she’s conducted.

One day a man at another facility lost consciousness, and she had to perform CPR. Another day at the Lawrence Outdoor Aquatic Center, two children toppled off the high dive, their young bodies colliding onto the concrete. Mefferd had to backboard one of the children, spreading him onto a plastic board for emergency treatment.

“It’s a (rewarding) day for me when I get to use my lifeguard skills,” Mefferd says. ‘I wasn’t just walking around that day.”

Perhaps an overlooked talent for a lifeguard is the ability to tolerate boredom during downtime, which isn’t constant, but does occur.

“At times when the bather load is very low, the job can become monotonous in the chair,” Mefferd says. “During those times, we encourage lifeguards to move their bodies and drink water to help to stay alert. During the summer, there are very few slow times at the pool.”

Right now there is a lifeguard shortage at both the outdoor and indoor aquatic centers. The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department wanted to hire at least 100 lifeguards. It was able to attract only 50, as of Thursday, according to Aquatics Supervisor Lori Madaus. The shortage means the indoor leisure pool at Free State High School is operating at a reduced capacity.

The fact that people aren’t racing to the pool to train to become lifeguards is perplexing to Mefferd, who obviously loves the work.

“Every year I stay with this gig, I learn a little more and I am a little more efficient,” Mefferd says. “The more I have trained, and the more I have experienced, the more confident and comfortable I feel in my ability to handle any situation that arises at the pool. Now, I don’t even worry what might happen on shift that day. I know I can handle it, and furthermore, I know I can lead others in handling it as well.”


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