News | Dec. 20, 2018

Situation room exercise tests Western Regional Command’s crisis management

By Luis Delgadillo Western Regional Command

“I can reassure this nation and a watching world that the American government is functioning fully and effectively. We've had full and complete communications throughout the day.”

- Vice-President George H.W. Bush

The late president Bush spoke these words just hours after President Ronald Reagan and three others were shot by a would-be assassin in Washington D.C. on March 30, 1981. The statement helped bring an end to a brief period of uncertainty.

Historians still debate the appropriateness of the actions in the immediate aftermath. Today, leaders have the chance to study those tense moments by stepping into key roles at a training complex in California. Earlier this year, Defense Contract Management Agency Western Region leaders seized the opportunity to simulate steering the nation back from the brink of a constitutional crisis.  

On Aug. 16, 2018, DCMA West Region leaders tested their teams during a crisis management scenario at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum’s Situation Room Experience, in Simi Valley, California.

 “The situation room experience engages the participants to collaborate and communicate during a constitutional crisis with numerous challenges and obstacles to overcome,” said Carol Cohea, public program specialist with the library. “What is so transformative about the experience is there is minimal guidance on the part of the proctors.” 

The situation room exercise was the culminating event of a three-day team building workshop for 37 West Region headquarters staffers.

Larry Adams, West Region mission support office director, said the first part of the workshop featured small group exercises facilitated with the help of instructors from the Defense Acquisition University.

“It was designed to start building some synergy with the new staff because we had between 30 and 50 percent turnover,” said Adams. “DAU did some exercises with us that began as team building in small groups and then it went out to the larger group until the entire staff was interacting with a couple of different scenarios that they gave us to work through.”

Adams said the second part of the training included work more specific to staff internal processes.

In contrast, the training approach of proctors at the Reagan Library was noticeably more hands-off. Once organizers assigned roles, participants were given prompts within the crisis management scenario that mirrored the actual events of March 30, 1981. The teams had to figure out on their own what they were supposed to do.

“I was awed by the responsibility because there were so many things that were happening and information was flowing so quickly for my role that I couldn’t keep up,” said Henry Pandes, director of quality assurance for the West Region. Pandes’s role was that of secretary of state, which historically was one of the more active and scrutinized roles.

Pandes said he and others melted into the scenario. Also contributing to the attendees’ engagement was the scenario’s realistic environment.  

Some participants in the exercise were inside the actual Whitehouse situation room. The situation room, as it existed during the Reagan administration, was disassembled and reassembled at the presidential library as it would have appeared in 1981. 

The environment, the people role-playing members of the news media and the separation of the different teams maximized the realism.

“I was able to go around to each one of the compartments, from the situation room to what was the hospital, and even to the television news centers,” said Adams.

Cohea said that the exercise can also be tailored to different groups from the same organization by changing critical pieces upon which decisions are made. “So if an agency brings several different teams, the endings will be different for each one,” she said. 

While the scenario could be considered a little beyond a crisis DCMA employees may handle, Adams said mission support offices and command teams all over the region often respond to emergency situations with similar urgency.

“Even though at times I got a little flustered with people demanding certain answers and different suspenses and deliverables needed at a moment’s notice, I still enjoyed it,” said Pandes. “It makes you rely on accurate information and good communication, which includes not just talking but listening and prioritizing.”

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