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A firm foundation: SCC graduates 100th class of future National Park Service officers

It’s been a full morning on top of a full week, and I’m tired when I file into the fluorescent-lighted classroom Tuesday afternoon. A large, laminated topo map of the Cashiers area is sitting on the table when I arrive at my seat, a dry erase marker and protractor tool arranged on top. 

“This session is to get you oriented in the basic use of map reading,” the instructor — an active duty officer who asked he not be named — says once everybody’s seated. “It’s such a critical skill.”

This is day two of woodland tracking, a three-day course offered with Southwestern Community College’s National Park Service Seasonal Law Enforcement Training, headquartered at SCC’s Jerry Sutton Public Safety Training Center in Franklin. The training is a four-month endeavor that covers everything from Constitutional law to woodland tactics, preparing recruits to land a seasonal law enforcement job at one of the nation’s 417 national park units. 

For today, I’m posing as a recruit, but tomorrow I’ll go back to my identity as a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News. My classmates, meanwhile, are learning everything they can in preparation for what they hope will be a long and fulfilling career protecting America’s most beautiful places. 

 

More than a good time 

These days, GPS is ubiquitous, but sometimes it fails, the instructor continues. The batteries die, or an ill-timed fall causes the unit to drown in a pool of water. But if you know how to use a map and compass, you’ll never be lost. Even outside of its basic use for getting from point A to point B, there’s so much you can learn from a map. You can anticipate how wildfire might move across a particular terrain, outline a hiking route to avoid the steepest or muddiest sections, or identify places where the land might form a chokepoint or ambush opportunity when chasing a fugitive. 

The longer I listen, the more I begin to see the map in front of me as a magic object, a genie waiting to be unleashed. Its powers seem so vast, and the tools so simple — a laminated sheet of paper, a magnetized needle set in plastic, and a small piece of metal marked with degrees. How hard could it be? 

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With a map, compass and protractor, a skilled officer can navigate even the most remote regions. Holly Kays photo

We run through a quick exercise, practicing how to use the protractor to figure out the coordinates of a particular location. Then we leave the classroom, taking our fledgling skills on the road. 

Standing in a field alongside the Little Tennessee River Greenway, just behind the Macon County Public Library, I hold a compass and a piece of paper outlining my marching orders. It’s just a list of numbers, with each line saying something like “170 degrees, 220 meters.” Somehow, from that, my partners and I are supposed to locate a tiny marker hidden somewhere 220 meters away from here, at an azimuth of 170 degrees. 

The instructor has prepared us for this challenge in one important way — by laying out a 100-meter transect for me and the other students to walk, counting how many paces it takes to get from one end to the other. With that number in mind, I can figure a reasonably accurate number of steps required to make 220 meters, and the compass in my hand should make the 170-degree measure pretty self-explanatory. 

It all proves a lot harder than expected. Following the azimuth requires tromping through knee-high grass, blackberry brambles, fields of poison ivy. It’s hard to keep the compass flat as I raise it to eye level, trying to divine where, exactly, the arrow is pointing when I estimate its trajectory across the landscape. After 90 minutes in the field, my partners and I still haven’t found the final marker in our three-leg course. 

“You have to practice,” says John Garrison, another one of the instructors, as he helps my team close the gap to the final marker. “It’s not something in the normal course of our duties that we do every day. It’s one of those things you have to make time. But it can be fun. Orienteering can be a lot of fun.”

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Students adjust their compasses to complete an orienteering course. Holly Kays photoStudents adjust their compasses to complete an orienteering course. Holly Kays photo

He’s right. I had a good time. The mental challenge, the sunshine and the idea that this is a skill that could keep me found even when technology conspires to get me lost — it’s all appealing. 

But as the group gathers for a quick wrap-up before dispersing toward dinnertime, Garrison reminds them — and me — that these skills are about more than having fun. In the real world for which these students are preparing, these skills can be the difference between life and death. 

“I’m encouraging you to find opportunities to practice these skills and take them to a little bit higher level, because what we gave you to do is just kind of a wake-up to there’s a whole other realm of skills out there,” he says. “Like with tracking — do any of you feel comfortable enough with this that you’d like to track a lost child tonight? 

“No,” the class replies in unison. 

“Neither do I,” says Garrison. “So we need to practice. We need to keep our skills up. It’s an important obligation as a professional.”

 

An evolving program 

That’s a message that Garrison has been teaching to SCC students for years, and it’s a message he learned himself when he was a student in this same program at SCC, launching a career that culminated with a post as chief ranger of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a job from which he retired in 2009.

Currently, only seven schools in the United States offer the training — of the seven, SCC has the second-oldest program, and it’s widely recognized as going above and beyond to teach recruits skills outside of what the Park Service actually requires. This spring marks SCC’s 40th year offering the program and the graduation of its 100th class of seasonal law enforcement trainees. 

“This school has been very innovative through the years,” said Garrison. “Like with this block of (tracking) instruction — no one else offers it. But Southwestern has been doing it for many, many years.”

These days, Garrison works as an instructor for Tactical Woodland Operations School, which runs the three-day add-on course that SCC offers to teach tracking and orienteering. Ordinarily, the tracking course is five days, not three — the version trainees receive is a lightning-speed version that hits the high points of map use, tracking and decision-making. But while students might not become masters of the art in such a short time, Garrison said, exposing them to this aspect of the field is vital. 

“The subject areas that we hit on, all of them have the potential of being high-risk, and that’s why we call it high-risk woodland ops. The manhunt aspect speaks for itself,” he said. “In my career, five friends, five people I worked with, were shot and killed in the line of duty.”

The danger is real, he said, and it’s imperative that students get the foundation they need to be as proficient as possible at what they do. 

Over the past 40 years, the training program has seen some dramatic changes. 

Bryson City resident John Mattox, who graduated with the first class in 1978 and went on to a 35-year career with the Park Service — retiring as special agent in charge of the Eastern U.S. — said in a video segment shot by SCC that when he was a student, the program was only 30 days long, compared to the four-month training in place now. The evolution has been continual, and intentional. 

“Each year this program has brought in new, innovative ideas. Frankly, I think in a lot of ways they were beating out the federal programs in training,” Mattox said in the video. “They had the flexibility to bring in new stuff, new instructors and new ideas. And the instructors just had so much passion for what they were doing, it was one of the things that really impressed me over the years.”

Current Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent J.D. Lee is also a graduate of SCC’s program, completing it in the spring of 1987. 

“It set the course for my entire career with the National Park Service,” Lee said. 

At the time, Lee had freshly graduated with a bachelor’s degree in natural resources, and he was surprised by how foreign the language and terminology of the training seemed when he first arrived, though he quickly found himself enjoying and excelling at the tasks presented. Lee recalls a program staffed by instructors with years of experience in legal issues and law enforcement. They drilled into him the need to always be thorough, honest and trustworthy when building a law enforcement career. 

“I’ve had the opportunity to hire and work with folks from many of the different programs, but I can tell you that I know that the one at SCC is one of the top programs,” Lee said. “I know that the folks that teach there are former rangers that I’m personally familiar with. I know that their commitment to the National Park Service is partly what makes that program what it is today.”

In 2015, SCC was chosen as the pilot school for the Park Service’s expanded training program, which featured 650 hours of instruction rather than the 400 hours required previously. The Park Service currently requires 679 hours, but SCC’s curriculum includes 727 training hours with an optional 40-hour training in wildland fire after graduation, available for no additional cost. 

Despite the program’s quality, SCC is far-and-away the least expensive program of the seven available nationwide. For the four months of instruction, tuition is only $180, with a $1,500 charge for supplies. The rest of the cost is tied up in uniform purchases, food and housing. By contrast, the program at Temple University in Pennsylvania — the closest, geographically, of the remaining programs — costs $8,500. 

“When I began in ‘93 helping part-time, it was a 10-week program that they were trying to cram 500 hours in,” said Curtis Dowdle, dean of public safety training at SCC. “They were going 10 hours a day, five or six days a week. We were trying to cram so many hours into a short period of time that we were fatiguing not only the students, first and foremost, but the staff and resources we had. When I had the opportunity to affect some change, we went to more of an academy setting.”

It’s still a lot in a short period of time — most weeks, class runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, though there are some six-day weeks as well — but it’s more spread out than it used to be. The goal is to finish up in time for students who have landed summer positions to go take advantage of those opportunities. 

And opportunity, it seems, is something that many of these students have. Of the 22 students in the 100th class, 17 of them had already landed jobs by graduation April 27. Of the five who hadn’t yet, one wasn’t looking for employment that summer and several had applied to parks that hadn’t yet announced their summer hires. 

“That’s pretty good placement,” said Tyler Goode, SCC’s director of public relations. “Any university in the world would give anything to have that kind of placement before graduation.”

 

Future of the field

The future Park Service law enforcement officers who make up SCC’s 100th class represent a diversity of backgrounds. 

There are former firefighters and EMS medics, military veterans and fresh college grads. Some grew up in the city, others in the country, and others a little bit of everywhere. Six of them are women, and 16 of them are men. They’re mostly in their mid-to-late 20s, and they mostly share the same dream — to make a living working in and protecting some of the most amazing places on earth. 

“I’ve wanted to be a park ranger for a really long time, probably since I was 12 or so,” said Nicolette Palmer, 25, of Philadelphia. “I haven’t really worked toward it entirely since then, but that’s definitely my goal now, and I’d like for that to be my chosen career path and just do that for the rest of my working days.”

Training has been hard, but it’s been good — especially the outdoors parts, said Palmer’s classmate Dean Hill, 30, of New Jersey. The academy includes plenty of hands-on lessons in shooting, driving, defense tactics and law enforcement scenarios, but before arriving at that more interactive part of the program, there was a lot of classroom time to endure. 

“The first month, two months was pretty slow because it was all classroom, pretty much,” said Hill. “We’re all outdoorsy people. Being stuck in a classroom eight, 10, 12 hours a day sucks. The first month, month-and-a-half it dragged on, but once we started going to the firing range, doing driving and defense tactics, that’s when it sped up, and the last two months have flown by.”

Hill has already experienced two seasons with the Park Service, spending the past couple summers as a firefighter and paramedic at Yellowstone National Park. He loved the place and wanted to go back — conversations with law enforcement rangers there convinced him to enroll in the academy. Now he’s headed for a post-academy position with the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. 

For Murphy resident Joshua Jones, 29, Park Service law enforcement seemed a natural fit to augment his other career, with the U.S. Army Reserve. Though he hasn’t been on active duty for four years, he’s been in the military police for seven years total. 

“I figured if I wanted to have the best of both worlds, I could work for the national parks and for the Army Reserves side,” he said. 

Because of his military background, certain parts of the law enforcement training have been more like refresher courses for skills he’s already developed. But other sections have been full of new information. 

“I think at the start I would have been a little nervous had I just been thrown into the job, but now I feel a lot more confident,” he said. 

That’s a good thing, because he’s about to put his skills to the test, having secured a position with Little River Canyon National Preserve in Alabama. 

 

Confidence to act

The officers move into position, veins coursing with a combination of nervousness and excitement. After a seemingly endless planning process, the complex investigation is about to come to a head. Three teams of six law enforcement officers are poised to serve search warrants, simultaneously, to three involved locations. 

A fourth six-person team will be on standby, ready to react should any of the three primary teams need a hand. It’s just three minutes till go time when Team One sends a message — they’ve come across a car accident, and it’s bad, a true mass casualty situation. They’ll need to hang back to provide first aid and scene control, missing the scheduled warrant service. The clock is ticking, but nobody can seem to get in touch with Team Three.

It’s plain that the original plan isn’t going to work. So the question is, what should be Plan B? 

Luckily for the roomful of Park Service trainees tasked with making the decision, this isn’t a real situation — at least, not yet. But before they’re faced with a real crisis, Garrison tells them, they need to spend time nailing down what their thought process should be when forced to shift gears on the fly. 

“It’s a continuous process,” Garrison tells the class. “Decision-making is not just a one-time (thing). It’s ‘if this doesn’t work I’m going to do this.’”

A good officer, he says, should be constantly thinking about contingencies. If the first line of attack fails, an alternate approach should be at the ready. 

There are certain cues to look for, aptly named “watch out” situations when it would be easy for something to go wrong. Know what those situations are, Garrison tells the class. Avoid them, and should they prove unavoidable think through a Plan B, Plan C and Plan D to follow should the situation change. 

“Situational awareness is a key skill for us to develop,” he says. 

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An instructor shows students the proper way to salute. SCC photoAn instructor shows students the proper way to salute. SCC photo

When it comes to facing the hypothetical scenario before them, students throw out several different ideas. They could call off the warrant execution and spend the next three minutes trying to get in touch with Team Three — maybe the radio’s only lost signal temporarily, and they’ll be back online soon. They could take a more proactive approach, and go searching for Team Three. They could just move ahead with serving warrants at two of the three locations, and save the third one until more manpower is available. Or perhaps, some teams suggest, the backup team should go in to substitute for Team One, which would then become the new backup team. 

To untrained ears, that sounds like perhaps the best plan — all the warrants still get served, and none of the suspects gets a heads-up beforehand, preventing them from destroying evidence and possibly compromising law enforcement’s ability to prosecute. 

But Garrison sees it differently. 

“That’s a pretty detailed plan,” he says. “So now we’re starting to shuffle the board. Anybody ever played the little shell game? That’s what we’re starting to do now is shuffle everything around. Can we adequately communicate so that people will understand the changes?”

There’s another question the officers should ask themselves, Garrison says. 

“What are the consequences in each one of those (contingencies), and of course the top consequence we want to think about is the safety of all involved. What’s the worst that could happen?” he asks.

If the two available teams go forward as planned, the subjects of that last warrant served could be alerted that something is up. 

“So we might lose some evidence,” Garrison says. “Unless that’s a serial killer, that’s a partial failure of the mission, but it’s not a critical failure. Sometimes the mission is not going to be perfect.”

But practicing those thought processes, those questions that a good officer will cycle through when circumstances change, is essential to ensuring that everybody stays as safe as possible and missions come off as perfectly as possible — even when the most carefully laid plans get blown loose. 

Because, while learning the mechanics of shooting, tracking, making arrests and using a compass can be fun and empowering — especially for the outdoors enthusiasts who tend to make up each class of trainees — the students are learning them for a real-life purpose. Upon graduation, they’ll go into jobs as commissioned law enforcement officers, working in some of America’s most beautiful and remote places, facing an unforeseeable medley of situations that they must find themselves prepared to handle. 

Years later, Garrison still thinks about the five friends he lost during his Park Service career, killed in the line of duty. They create a backdrop that underscores every minute of the training hours he’s responsible for. 

“If there’s a very high risk, we need to be as proficient as we can,” he said. “And nobody else is giving them this foundation.”

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