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WCO class

by WCOs Jeffrey A. Barber and Thomas H. Edwards Jr.

The civil service announcement for testing of waterways conservation officers appeared in 1998, and some 500 applicants applied for the position. About 100 survived the written exam and made it to the interviews, which took place in Harrisburg and Somerset. From this hundred, and after extensive background investigations and physical fitness evaluations, 15 were selected for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission 15th Waterways Conservation Officer Cadet Class.

The selection process began an extensive 51-week training period for the cadets. During the training process, cadets were constantly evaluated by the training officer, Bureau of Law Enforcement Assistant to the Director Guy A. Bowersox, and other instructors and field-training officers. The training featured a wide array of Fish & Boat Commission instructors as well as instructors from outside the agency, who provided specialized training.


Training began in August 1999 with a two-week orientation at the Commission's H.R. Stackhouse School of Fishery Conservation and Watercraft Safety. When these 15 people from around the state finally met, they found that their backgrounds were different. The two-week session was meant to introduce each cadet to the Commission's mission as well as to create a team for the upcoming challenge of the Act 120 Municipal Police Officer's Academy.

On August 30, 1999, the 15 members of the 15th WCO class were joined by representatives of DCNR's Bureau of State Parks and the State College Municipal Police Department to complete basic municipal police officer's training, also known as Act 120. Collectively, the group became known as the 52nd Basic Municipal Police Officer's Training Class.

All 15 Commission cadets successfully completed the 16-week course, which culminated in graduation on December 17, 1999. Training covered such topics as Pennsylvania's Criminal and Vehicle Law, judicial system, constitutional law, crime scene management, police tactics, traffic stops, searches, mechanics of arrest, investigative techniques, firearms training, first aid, physical fitness and other law enforcement training. This training was designed to prepare new police officers for their careers in law enforcement, and lay the foundation for the cadets in their careers as waterways conservation officers.


photo-WCO Joe Russell

 Cadet training­and testing­included fish, reptile and amphibian identification and handling, and aquatic ecology.

Act 120 took place at the Pennsylvania State Police Southwest Training Center, near Greensburg, PA. The training was a challenge scholastically, physically and mentally. Several members of the class were in their thirties and forties and had not been students or on a fitness program for some time. With the encouragement of fellow classmates, everyone successfully completed the course. Members of the 15th WCO Cadet Class earned several awards for accomplishments during Act 120.

Although proud of the accomplishments that had already been made, every cadet was ready for a break before returning to the Fish & Boat Commission training. The cadets were then at the same training level as new police recruits.

WCO trainees

Following a 45-day layoff, cadets were recalled to the H.R. Stackhouse School of Fisheries Conservation and Watercraft Safety on January 31, 2000. The vigorous, varied training program included Fish and Boat Law, aquatic ecology, basic boating instructor training, firearms training, unarmed self-defense, fishery management, pollution investigation, reptile and amphibian identification and various other technical and complex topics followed by weekly exams, which required many off-duty hours of study. WCO cadets must achieve a minimum passing score of 80 percent on each exam to become a WCO. Classroom training was occasionally mixed with field trips to places and activities such as the Raystown hydroelectric plant; a wetlands site; strip mine; deep mine; housing development sites for pollution and encroachment investigation; fly fishing; ice fishing; Bellefonte Fish Culture Station tour; sewage treatment facility; public speaking assignments; and small-boat, canoe and personal watercraft operations on the Juniata River.

The highlight of everyone's training had to be ice rescue. Ice rescue training involved cutting a 4-foot x 4-foot hole in the ice and putting on what we called the "Gumby suit." The Gumby suit is a cold-water survival suit, which helps insulate the body against the effects of cold water, such as hypothermia. Everyone had a chance to enter the frigid water more than once. The problem with ice rescue training was that the Gumby suits were not altogether waterproof.

With warmer weather on the horizon, the cadets could not wait for their first field training assignments. The first field training assignments started two weeks before the opening of trout season. Cadets were released from Stackhouse School and assigned to regions of the state for three weeks to work with experienced field-training officers. The field-training officers were selected for their excellence in doing their jobs as well as for their ability to teach new officers. The assignments lasted one week in each district and gave the cadets hands-on training in the duties of a waterways conservation officer as well as a perspective on the various regions located throughout Pennsylvania.

During field training, cadets were able to enforce fishing and boating laws and regulations, participate in stocking assignments and learn the day-to-day activities of a waterways conservation officer. After this three-week assignment, it was time to return to Stackhouse school for more classroom instruction to prepare for boating season field assignments.

The break between field assignments lasted four weeks and included a full week of instruction in boating-under-the-influence enforcement. This four-week training also included boat accident investigation, Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code and regulations, practical boat operations and handling, patrol boat operations, boat boarding, Fish and Boat Law, rules of criminal procedure review, map reading and orienteering, and firearms training. The cadets were then sent back to various regions for four weeks with the field-training officers to experience work conditions during the boating season.

By this time in the training, the cadets were beginning to feel the pressure of the training requirements and the difficult task of being separated from family and friends. The training director was trying to develop independence in the cadets to prepare them for their needed ability to work on their own in the field, but teamwork was still a factor in dealing with the separation from family members.

After the four-week training session with the field-training officers, it was back to the Stackhouse training school for a one-week session. Cadets were then assigned to their home regions for a nine-week assignment and a one-week return to school for classroom instruction on water rescue, hazardous materials, death notification, Spanish language for field officers, and review of Commission policy on conduct.

Cadets returned again to the Stackhouse training school for final instruction, review and preparation for an extensive final examination. The significant value of mixing hands-on field training with classroom training became apparent to the class at this time. This "mixing" allowed cadets to apply their recently received classroom training to actual field implementation, and then to return to class to resolve any questions that arose.

The cadets had one more major hurdle to overcome! The final examination consisted of a four-hour written exam and a day-and-a-half of practical skills performance examinations. The written exam was lengthy and technically challenging.

The training program culminated in a graduation ceremony held at the newly constructed headquarters building on Elmerton Avenue in Harrisburg on September 15, 2000.

Training Teaching kids

photos-WCO Joe Russell

Cadets practiced, and were tested in, unarmed self-defense. Cadets (photo at right) also honed their public speaking skills at a local elementary school.

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November/December 2000 Angler & Boater

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