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Outdoors Alma Mater

WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Unique in Southern California, the OC Parks Park Ranger Academy prepares recruits for the real-world challenges of being a park ranger.

Recruits Andrew Ogden and Tyler Vu are involved in a scenario where campers had a reservation for a campsite and other campers intruded in their space.

The only thing standing in the way of a 13-year dream is one test: a simulation compiling every grueling, stressful and rewarding experience from the last 15 weeks into a single moment.

And 21-year-old Mark Rinus, of Orange, is ready. The family camping trips to Yellowstone, the involvement with the junior ranger program, and finally, the training received at Southern California's only comprehensive training program for regional park rangers have paid off. Rinus is one step closer to becoming a park ranger.

“It feels like a huge accomplishment,” he says. “I’ve personally grown a lot in this academy.”

The OC Parks Park Ranger Academy focuses on preparing recruits for most of the challenges that face current and future park rangers. The 16-week program exposes them to a number of possible real-life situations, including getting pepper sprayed, driving off-road on rugged terrain and performing CPR.

The comprehensive final takes the 25 recruits one at a time into a simulated scenario, based on what they might face on any given day in the field. Breaking up a loud party, confronting an owner of a dog off its leash and settling a campsite dispute are just a few examples of what participants have to handle.

“The test focuses on how they are going to deal with all of these high-stress situations,” says Supervising Park Ranger Jackie Velasquez, “from accidents and people bleeding to the more run-of-the-mill situations.”

Once the trainees arrive, Department of Fish and Game wardens, Sheriff’s Explorers, Ranger Reserves, and Adopt-a-Park volunteers all pose as actors and actresses to provide authenticity. Evaluators stand nearby to grade the recruits’ performances on how they handle each situation.

“The biggest tool we have is our brain,” Velasquez says. “And to be able to think on our feet in critical situations.”

OC Parks, the co-creator of the academy with Santa Ana College, covers nearly 60,000 acres of parks and open space, meaning park rangers have a variety of duties to keep the environment – and its roughly 12 million visitors - protected.

In order to help teach recruits techniques in managing the daunting number of tasks, the OC Parks Ranger Academy applies about 260 hours of instruction to its trainees. The commitment can be big, and has lead to dropouts.

This year’s class is the third to go through the program, and after graduation, Velasquez says it should serve as a significant resume booster for the people involved.

Some graduates are already park rangers in the area who were looking for additional training. However, only a lucky few will get offered jobs in the immediate area.

Rinus will be starting his career in the Ranger Reserves, but he won’t forget the academy and the friendships he forged there.

“The teamwork we’ve developed has become unbreakable,” Rinus says. “No matter what, we’ve got each other’s backs.”

Rinus was eight when he decided he would one day be a park ranger. And after taking him on dozens of vacations to natural parks throughout the years, Rinus’ parents watched their son graduate from the OC Parks Ranger Academy in May.

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