HEIDELBERG, Germany - Garrison leaders here found themselves responding to a hostage taking and explosions during a realistic exercise that assessed leadership reaction while under fire.

The training was part of the Installation Force Protection Exercise, a new Installation Management Command program designed to test garrison staffs' antiterrorism response and crisis management capabilities.

The March 5-6 exercise was the second part in the two-step process that began with a seminar in December. The seminar offered a forum to discuss force protection and possible terrorist threats; then last week's exercise gave the garrison commander the opportunity to see his staff in action.

A team of role players gathered from organizations across Heidelberg to simulate contacts and agencies the staff would need or encounter during a crisis, including higher headquarters offices, host nation emergency responders and local and national media outlets.

When calls started coming in early the first day, the staff gathered in the Emergency Operations Center, jumping into action to manage a situation involving two simulated explosions.

"This rehearses and exercises the staff and stresses them as close to reality as possible," said Col. Robert J. Ulses, U.S. Army Garrison Heidelberg commander. "We were able to implement our procedures and make them routine, so we're not learning while in a real situation."

The IFPEX, which is part of IMCOM's leader development program, focuses on exercising the entire staff instead of just the first responders, which is where the focus lies in many full-scale exercises, Ulses said. To ensure the scenarios played out as close to reality as possible, only two people in Heidelberg knew what was to come.

"I checked to make sure the scenarios were realistic," said Mark Pickett, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives operations specialist who served as one of the two "trusted agents." "I was privy to what the scenarios were, and I kept others from being able to plan ahead."

Ulses said the exercise was as close to a real-world situation as possible because each staff element had to immediately decide how to respond and then physically take action. The staff members coordinated with other offices just as they would in a real situation; a few key leaders even had to go on camera during a simulated press conference to discuss the scenario's events.

"I feel more confident that we are capable of handling a crisis - small or large," Ulses said after the exercise.

A seven-member team sponsored by the Army Management Staff College ran the IFPEX and evaluated the staff's response to the scenarios. The garrison commander used the experience to discover the strengths and weaknesses of his staff as a whole and in individual directorates.

"The lessons learned from the exercise will help us improve for the future and ensure we are prepared for any situation," Ulses said.