PITTSBURGH – The park ranger’s neck turned red and his ears burned even after he washed pepper spray from his face. The burn came in waves. First a tingle in his mouth and nose, and then the fire spread across his eyes, biting like chili pepper everywhere the spray had touched.
“It just kind of sits there, and it also burns your skin and your back and sides and in front of your neck. [It all turned] red and in a lot of pain, and I think I got some in my ears because my ears turned purple yesterday,” said Matt Balas, a park ranger from Youghiogheny River Lake with two years on the job.
Balas is one of eight rangers who attended training to earn badges and citation authority at Crooked Creek Lake, Pennsylvania, for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Eventually, his eyesight returned after showering, but it took a while for the pain to subside.
“I’ll never take for granted the ability to see ever again. Ever again,” said Balas with good humor, who completed the five-day course hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District.
Pepper spray training was just one segment of the overall Visitor Assistance Training. Balas didn’t have to go through the pain of pepper spray to earn his badge – it was optional – but he wanted to.
He wanted to experience it personally first if he ever pulls the spray on someone else in self-defense. Most people still have a fight in them for a few seconds before the burn kicks in.
“I felt like I was Superman because it didn’t hit me immediately. And then I opened my eyes and took a breath, and I was, yeah, no, it was bad. I was like, ‘Nope. I’m not Superman. Not at all,’” he said laughing.
In addition to pepper spray, the eight rangers completed SPEAR training, an acronym for Spontaneous Protection Enabling Accelerated Response. SPEAR is a close-quarter defensive training to protect against an aggressor. It uses the natural human flinch response to block an attacker and get away.
The training took place in mid-June at Crooked Creek Lake in Ford City, Pennsylvania.
“These were all worst-case scenario situations. I’d rather be prepared for the worst-case scenario and never have to use [these skills]. Most of our day consists of helping people out,” said Balas.
The course is titled Visitor Assistance Training because it emphasizes the park ranger’s role in serving the public.
Whenever visitors see Balas, he wants them to think, “Oh good – a park ranger – you can help me!” Using elbows and forearms to fight off a drunken bear hug or spraying campers in the face with liquid capsaicin are not daily encounters of a ranger’s life.
“Park rangers for the Corps are a jack of all trades. We’re interpreters. We’re educators. We do a little bit of everything. Our job is to educate people on the Corp’s mission, such as flood risk reduction. We have resources we have to protect, and we have people we protect with those resources,” said Brian Holtzinger, a park ranger at Crooked Creek Lake who organized and hosted the training locally.
Visitor Assistance concluded with four roleplaying scenarios in which rangers dealt with difficult or unruly visitors. Rangers dealt with a disruptive camper playing music too loudly, a kayaker who refused to wear her lifejacket, a woman drinking and littering beer cans on the beach, and two visitors fighting over a pavilion reservation. Senior rangers played the role of unruly visitors based on real encounters they have faced before.
“I love being a ranger. You go into work every day, and you don’t really know what you’re going to get into. You can do anything from dealing with the public, campers, to going on boat patrols,” said Kyle Toms, the southern area ranger for the Pittsburgh District.
Rangers felt more confident in their jobs after completing the course, Balas said. They learned communication and negotiating skills to diffuse situations and gained better knowledge of park regulations and ranger authority. Although rangers graduate with citation authority, issuing a ticket is the last resort.
“We’re trained to assist visitors. We’re not law enforcement officers. We’re regulatory enforcement officers,” said Vincent Klinkner, who has been a ranger for 11 years with Youghiogheny ever since graduating high school.
All rangers completed CPR certification and first aid training. They learned the history of the Army Corps of Engineers, the role of park rangers, responsibilities, policies and their legal authority under Title 36 – which covers rules on federally-owned parks and forests.
“Our regulations are common-sense safety items. Our job is to keep visitors safe while they’re enjoying our parks, and we want people to continue to come out and continue to enjoy these resources,” said Holtzinger.
Visitor Assistance Training is typically held at the national level twice a year. However, the pandemic caused a registration backlog and logistical issues prevented the district from sending rangers to Alabama to attend the course.
The Pittsburgh District course covers the same materials as the national course, but the citation authority granted is valid for only three years. Rangers will need to complete the national training hosted by USACE Headquarters to extend their citation authority, which would not expire after that.
In the meantime, this locally hosted course equipped newer rangers to continue doing what they love.
“We all love the outdoors. We love coming out and recreate in the outdoors. We love having those opportunities for folks to be outdoors. We want to make sure rangers are able to conduct their jobs safely and help out the public,” said Holtzinger.