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Students join Fort Bragg in crisis simulation

By Amanda Hickey

When faculty member George Harrison learned that the Mass Communication students had an opportunity to work with Fort Bragg during a crisis simulation, not only was he excited, but flattered as well.

Photo courtesy of George Harrison
Mass Communication students from front row left Angelia Taylor, Tashieka Hammond, Brad Crawford, Christian Felkl and Bryan Stewart take notes during the Orbit Comet mock press conference. The students acted as a real life press corps interviewing the panel of subject matter specialists, second from left, Commander of Womack Army Medical Center Terry Walters, Director of Emergency Services Greg Johnson, with Public Affairs Officer Tom McCullum.

“In my opinion, Fort Bragg being Fort Bragg, they could have asked any one to help,” Harrison said. “With all the universities within an hour or two of Fort Bragg, we feel honored to be selected.”

This is the largest exercise of its type in the Department of Defense.

Students role
The participating students acted as real world media during a crisis. They received e-mail alerts and attended three press conferences on Nov. 6 and Nov. 7: one for simultaneous attacks on Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg, one following up the the attacks and one for a hostage situation.

“I think we, as a faculty, thought it was an excellent opportunity to give our students as realistic as possible an experience of a press conference during a crisis communication event. That’s why we as a faculty encouraged our students to participate,” Harrison said.

Preparing to strike
Upon arrival at the Stryker Golf Course just outside of the Fort Bragg gates, students prepared for the first conference.

Around a set of tables in the snack bar, with coffee and sodas in hand, students read the press releases that had been sent out and prepared lists of questions that would, hopefully, help them when it began.

After the initial briefing, when Fort Bragg Public Affairs Officer Tom McCullum asked for the first question, it took a minute for students to get their bearings and begin asking questions.

Warming up
After that minute, however, many of the students made sure to get their questions answered.

Comfort zone
“It took our students a while to become comfortable in that setting,” Harrison said. “They did feel much more comfortable by the third press conference, or so they told me… I was told that the intimidation factor was greatly reduced by the third press conference.”

Students were asked to introduce themselves by their first and last names, and the media organization they worked for.

Junior Robert Kelley, who was portraying a reporter from USA Today, signed up for the event solely for the learning value.

“I thought it would be a great learning experience and would look very nice on a resume,” Kelley said. “It helps both the Public Affairs Officers and the students, so it’s really a win-win for everybody.”

The panel
The panel consisted of subject area specialists, including Commander of Womack Army Medical Center Terry Walters, Director of Emergency Services Greg Johnson, Pope Vice Wing Commander Col. John McDonald, Chief Pat Davenport of Fort Bragg Fire Department, directorate of emergency services Tim Sain and Shannon Lynch of Womack Army Medical Center.

Many of the participants from Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base commented on the quality of the questions students asked.
“They were overall pleased with the performance of our students,” Harrison said.

Learning opportunity
The Orbit Comet press conferences served as a learning opportunity for Fort Bragg, Pope Air Force Base and the Mass Communication students who attended.

“I hope they [students] learned how to improve their interviewing skills and I hope that the public relations students that were there learned by observing the public relations work that was done,” Harrison said.

“I hope they got a further appreciation of the important role of a free press in a democracy. I hope that the fact that Fort Bragg officials wanted the press corps — the Orbit Comet Press Corps, the students — to ask questions, that they expect the media to ask tough questions, underscores the important role that the media plays in ensuring an open, honest communication with government organizations and how critically important that is in a democracy,” Harrison continued.

For Kelley, the feedback was the best part of the event.

“I thought the feedback that everyone involved gave back to us was very helpful, like being aggressive with your questions, ask follow ups and bringing some sort of recording device,” Kelley said.

“It’s a great learning tool. It’s a great event to go to, and provides nothing but benefits,” Kelley continued.

Past comparison
The first time UNCP students participated in Orbit Comet was in the summer of 2006 when six students traveled to Fort Bragg for a press conference.

“It went a lot better than a year and a half ago. This second experience showed great improvement over the first experience. It was interesting to see that,” Harrison said.

“I saw both in the number of students participating and the quality of questions. This year was a lot better than the first,” Harrison continued.

Rare opportunity
Senior broadcast major Marquita Brazier participated in Orbit Comet both times the opportunity arose.

“With all of the tight security on the military bases, how often is it that civilians get to participate in military training exercises?” said Brazier.

“Participating in project Orbit Comet also gave me the chance to practice my media and networking skills,” Brazier continued.


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Updated: Wednesday, November 14, 2007
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