Four donated modular units should help ease a space crunch at the Public Safety Training Center in Macon County, but the fix could be short-lived.
The training center, run by Southwestern Community College, might soon become one of a handful of sites in the country where federal law enforcement officers can get high-level training.
While thousands cycle through every year for basic police, fire and rescue training, demand may be stiffest for a handful of coveted slots in a four-month academy for federal park rangers.
Men and women seeking seasonal, or temporary, law enforcement jobs with the National Park Service train there now. But the college hopes to offer more federal training next year — by increasing the number of academies it holds and adding training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers.
The National Park Service would be the primary beneficiary. Some other federal agencies also could use men and women commissioned through the training center.
“There’s a lot of potential with this federal accreditation,” said Curtis Dowdle, director of the training center. “But we would have to meet a number of policies and regulations, such as instructors who hold certain credentials, equipment requirements, enough square-feet-per-student requirements.
“Record keeping is probably the biggest part — we’d have to house the records on the students forever, and that’s a big space issue,” Dowdle said.
Right now, all training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers takes place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, headquartered in Glynco, Ga. Dowdle said the federal government estimates having a select number of sites across the nation offer the classes could save taxpayers more than $40,000 per government employee.
Macon County Schools donated the modular units to SCC, and county commissioners last week agreed to spend $17,500 from the county’s contingency fund to pay to move them. They were previously used by two of the county’s schools for additional classroom space. Macon County has been building new schools and no longer needs them.
“It services the whole region, even the nation,” Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said of the center.
Steve Stinnett, chief ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, agreed that the training center plays an important role.
“The center has been very helpful to us,” said Stinnett. “They’ve really made it available.”
In addition to having access to a pool of qualified applicants when hiring, Stinnett said the National Park Service receives a professional boost because rangers working on the Parkway or in the Smokies are sometimes tapped to teach at the training center.
“People who teach something tend to do it better,” he said.
In addition to classrooms, a computer lab and more, the center has a driver-training course, shooting range and a 4,100-square-foot, three-story building used to train fire and rescue workers.
Each modular unit will provide an additional 864 square feet of space to the training center.
Simulators for emergency medical service workers will be set up in one unit. A use-of-force simulator for law enforcement officers will be housed in another, as will exercise equipment. One unit will add general classroom space.
But it’s doubtful the four units will provide adequate room for long. In addition to seeking the federal accreditation required to train fulltime federal law enforcement officers, Dowdle and SCC are considering other expansions.
Two, 30-member academies for training the seasonal federal workers are currently offered. The academy starting in January has a waiting list; 15 men and women already have signed up for the second academy, which isn’t until August of next year. SCC, in response to the demand, is considering holding three academies each year.
Federal Law Enforcement Training Center officials did not respond by press time to an interview request.
“If we grow, we want to grow smart,” Dowdle said, emphasizing the community college’s need to weigh each expansion carefully.
An academy lasts four months. If another one is held, SCC — which under state law cannot operate student housing — will need to find more places for the students to live. The students now rent directly from people in the community.
“We must find more housing, unless we have an investor come forward who wants to put something up,” Dowdle said.
A state-of-the-art firing range is also being considered. This would be an outdoor range similar to one used by the federal government in Glynco. A bullet trap system would collect the lead, protecting both people and the environment. The firing range currently used by SCC is behind the water-treatment plant in Sylva. It has no trap system and just 10 lanes. That’s a problem when the community college is trying to train 30 cadets at a time, Dowdle said.