Training for Success and Safety

Published July 5, 2023
Several uniformed park rangers stand and pose for a photo in front Smithville Lake with trees and the lake in the background.

The class of Kansas City District’s 2023 Visitor Assistance Training Program pose for a group photo on June 15, 2023, at Smithville Lake, near Smithville, Missouri.

Four people engage in self defense training with grass in the foreground, cars and trees in the background.

Visitor Assistance Training trainee practices self-defense while battling the effects of pepper spray during Visitor Assistance Training at Smithville Lake, near Smithville, Missouri on June 14, 2023.

A park ranger sprays a trainee and volunteer in the eyes with pepper spray with cars and trees in the background.

Visitor Assistance Training trainee is sprayed with pepper spray during Visitor Assistance Training at Smithville Lake, near Smithville, Missouri on June 14, 2023.

Two trainee rangers engage in self defense training with trees in the background.

Rangers practice self defense techniques in the form of Krav Maga during their Visitor Assistance Training at Smithville Lake, near Smithville, Missouri on June 12, 2023.

Park rangers speak to a man with a dog in the grass with trees in the background.

During a mock scenario at Visitor Assistance Training at Smithville Lake, near Smithville, Missouri, trainees discuss the dog owner’s option with making sure the dog stays on leash on June 15, 2023.

The U.S. Army is known for the rigorous basic combat training its military members go through, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has training for its civilian men and women in uniform, park rangers. This weeklong training, Visitor Assistance Training, commonly known as VA Training, is conducted in Huntsville, Alabama for all permanent rangers to receive indefinite citation authority. Each district also provides VA Training to seasonal rangers, ranger trainees and permanent rangers who were unable to attend the training in Huntsville as the classes fill up quickly. These permanent rangers then receive temporary citation authority until they can attend the training in Huntsville.

This June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District held its VA Training at Smithville Lake, in Smithville, Missouri. USACE employees from the Kansas City District, Tulsa District and Omaha District attended the training.

“Visitor Assistance training is important to teach new park rangers USACE policy, their role in regulatory enforcement and most importantly how to perform those duties safely. I hope they learn how to communicate rules and regulations, recognize risks and to stay safe while performing VA duties at our lake projects,” said Jason Hurley, natural resource management specialist and training coordinator, Kansas City District.

Working as a park ranger might seem intimidating at first, but after this weeklong course, these rangers are ready to assist visitors at their lake projects and make sure everyone goes home safe, including themselves.

“This is an outstanding training for those who are just beginning their careers as rangers to determine what our responsibilities and roles are, and to learn how to work with the public,” said Shane Toupal, park ranger, Lewis and Clark Reservoir, Omaha District. Toupal previously served in law enforcement and spent 22 years in the U.S. Army before becoming a seasonal park ranger.

Training starts on Monday with the rangers learning about the history of visitor assistance, USACE policies, water safety, public outreach and self-defense tactics through training in Krav Maga.

Tuesday, the rangers learn the bulk of their enforcement authorities through Title 36 review and how to write warnings and citations. One important lesson reiterated was, it is not always appropriate to write a ticket, but use the incident as a learning moment and for the public to become compliant.

“Reviewing Title 36 within the brochure that is also available to the public allows for us to have a place where all the rules and regulations we enforce are easily accessible for everyone. I feel more prepared to enforce Title 36 after becoming familiar with it,” said Nick Longobardi, park ranger, Kanopolis Lake, Kansas City District.

Wednesday is the day all rangers look forward to. The afternoon is spent learning when and how to deploy oleoresin capsicum, or OC spray, commonly known as pepper spray. Some rangers even volunteered to be sprayed to know what it feels like.

“It’s important for the rangers to understand what OC Spray feels like because it’s very likely that residual spray will affect us if we use it. It is helpful to know our own reaction and that we are still able to function. It’s useful to know how quickly the effects dissipate and how to decontaminate ourselves,” said Jaime Picken, park ranger and administrator of OC spray at the training, Smithville Lake.

Deploying pepper spray is the last use of force in a long line of tools park rangers have at their disposal, and it is not often deployed. Tactical communications are the rangers’ main tool of choice. They are taught how to diffuse a situation simply using their words. In most cases, this resolves the situation, but if not, local law enforcement can also be brought in to help. The main goal of any situation is for the visitors and rangers to be able to go home safely at the end of the day, a theme reiterated throughout the whole training.

Now, having all the tools needed to be successful at their job, the rangers put their skills to the test.

Thursday afternoon the rangers went through mock scenarios simulating encounters they may come across when working. Scenarios included a dog off-leash, camping in an undesignated area, medical emergencies, domestic violence, quiet hour violations and day-use fee violations. The scenario-based training gives rangers the ability to use their new skills in a controlled environment, learn from other rangers’ approaches and be critiqued by seasoned rangers overseeing each scenario.

“I feel much more prepared after the training scenarios because it was real-life possibilities. This exercise also helped me see other ways to approach scenarios,” said Kasondara Fugate, natural resource specialists, Eufaula Lake, Tulsa District.

At the end of the training, the rangers received a certificate while permanent rangers along with some returning rangers received their Title 36 citation authority.

“The training was extremely valuable to my position. As a new natural resource specialist ranger, there are situations I am still encountering for the first time. The VA training equipped me with valuable tools and approaches to my job that I will implement daily. This training gave me the necessary skills to feel confident in my position and be equipped with situational approaches to confidently navigate future interactions with visitors,” said Connor Champney, natural resource specialist ranger, Milford Lake.