HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Written in large letters over the lobby of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Advanced Training Center's main building is "Training America's Front Line."
"We train the trainers," said James W. Cobb, 50, center director. "It's an integrated effort," he said, explaining that the sprawling Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility on U.S. 340 falls under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security.
While primarily training CBP's 40,000 agents, the center also trains agents from federal agencies outside DHS, plus, at no cost, officers from area police departments.
Between 250 and 300 trainees attend classes at the center at any given time, Cobb said. Some stay for just a few days; others are there for up to six weeks.
"This year we expect to graduate 3,800 CBP agents and another 1,200 from state, local and federal agencies," he said.
The center has about 120 full-time employees and another 50 or so contract workers.
"Those numbers are expected to grow," Cobb said. "We are an emerging facility. We're maturing every day."
Under construction with completion scheduled for 2011 is a 60,000-square-foot leadership complex. Other pressing needs are a dining hall and dormitories to house trainees.
At lunchtime there is a major exodus of trainees, faculty and employees, who fan out into local eateries, Cobb said.
Trainees have to find lodging at local hotels and motels, and at those as far away as Winchester, Va., and Frederick, Md., he said.
Set to open next month is a red 50,000-square-foot storage building that's clearly visible to motorists at the intersection of W.Va. 230 and U.S. 340.
The building will hold supplies and equipment books, computers, protective clothing, uniforms, bulletproof vests whatever agents need to perform their duties. Half the building will supply the training center, while the other half will handle CBP needs around the country.
Training takes place in classrooms, computer labs, a resource library, spaces designed for hand-to-hand fighting classes, and ultramodern indoor and outdoor firing ranges. Cobb said more learning occurs in "scenario-based structures designed to simulate the agents' own work environment in real-life situations."
The mock buildings include a motel, a customs checkpoint at a border crossing and an airport with a baggage carousel. There also is a small pond where trainees can learn water safety and practice boarding boats to perform interdiction skills.
CBP works closely with the National Conservation Training Center outside Shepherdstown, W.Va., and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, whose land abuts the center, Cobb said.
"Our land ends at School House Ridge where (Confederate Gen.) A.P. Hill stood with his army in 1862," Cobb said.
A Civil War re-enactor, he said he moved to Gettysburg, Pa., to be close to the battlefield there.
The U.S. Department of the Interior gave CBP its initial 66 acres. Additional acres were bought to bring the total to 224 acres.
So far, more than $100 million has been spent on buildings, facilities and equipment, Cobb said.
The center is one of five in the CBP network, including a Border Patrol academy in New Mexico, a field operations academy in Georgia, and two K-9 training facilities in Texas and Virginia.
Cobb started his law-enforcement career as a police officer in his native Covington, Ky. He retired as a U.S. Secret Service agent who, among other duties, guarded Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.