When many people think of Orange County, California, they picture surfers, sandy beaches, and year-round sun. But the Southern California county of 3 million residents is also filled with rolling canyons, scenic vistas, a hardy trail system, and nearly 60,000 acres of regional parks and open space.
With so much land to watch over, OC Parks, which manages parks for the County of Orange, needs top-quality and well trained park rangers to keep the 12 million annual visitors happy, safe, and satisfied. Yet no comprehensive training programs existed anywhere in the United States to teach county park rangers, who are peace officers but do not carry firearms, the unique skills they need.
So OC Parks created one.
“Rangers serve as ambassadors for the parks. They help children understand and appreciate the natural world around them. They guide visitors to sights they’ve never seen before or let them see those sights in a brand new way,” says OC Parks Director Mark Denny. “This is why our new rangers need the best possible training designed specifically for their job.”
In 2010, OC Parks partnered with a local community college, Santa Ana College, to create the OC Parks Ranger Academy–the only academy in the United States specific to the role of unarmed county and regional park rangers. In the past, OC Parks had relied on local law enforcement academies to help train recruits. This only provided some of the needed training and didn’t let the OC Parks fully guide its curriculum.
The academy, now in its third year, still covers basic law consistent with P.O.S.T. standards enforcement but also conservation, preservation, and education about the natural world. Training at the OC Parks Ranger Academy includes customer service, presentation skills, natural resource management, emergency response, first aid, CPR, AED, off-highway vehicle operations, Laws of Arrest, basic fire suppression, and more.
Instructors include trainers from OC Parks, Santa Ana College, the National Association of Interpreters, and other contractors. The overall cost to the county for the program each year totals just under $100,000. Santa Ana College spends about an additional $10,000.
Training is rigorous and standards are high in the OC Parks Academy. The academy consists of approximately 260 hours of instruction in a moderate-stress environment. College credit is provided and tests and quizzes are given during the academy. Recruits must maintain a cumulative score of 70 percent or higher. Recruits spend approximately 20 hours per week outside of academy time completing homework, uniform preparation, and memorization.
So far, 13 graduates of the 16-week program work as full-time OC park rangers. Additionally, three current full-time park rangers are enrolled in the third OC Parks Ranger Academy Class. Sixteen graduates currently volunteer as OC Parks Ranger Reserves, and another three OC Parks Ranger Reserves are enrolled in the academy.
Rangers hired throughout the year attend the annual academy, but anyone may apply and pay for his or her own enrollment. Only the top candidates are selected by OC Parks staff to attend the academy and completing it doesn’t guarantee a job. But it does give potential rangers the background they would need at other county parks agencies.
Due to the intensive nature of the academy, OC Parks seeks to reach applicants who are most likely to be motivated and successful. To that end, OC Parks created a special section on its www.ocparks.com website just to provide information to potential applicants. OC Parks reaches out to local media and uses social media such as Facebook and Twitter to publicize the recruitment and posts videos from each graduating class on its YouTube page. The clips show recruits having simulated contact with the public in a park setting, marching in formation, getting first aid instruction, putting out small fires, learning in a classroom, and engaging in a variety of other activities. This helps recruits self-select and decide if they want to take on the challenges of the academy.
Each academy class has seen an increase in interest: from 30 responses for the first class, to 85 for the second class, to 220 for the third class. The first academy class had 10 graduates and the second had 25; the third class is currently in session.
“This was the most challenging and rewarding program I have ever been involved with,” says OC Parks Ranger Joe Noval. “This includes my military boot camp, military flight school, and even a basic police academy. We took a group of 25 individuals, and transformed them into a cohesive unit, strong in leadership and dedication, and working together as a team. I have developed relationships that will last my lifetime.”
Marisa O’Neil is OC Parks Public Information Officer.