News & Politics

We Asked DC’s Crisis-Management Team To Get us Out of an Escape Room

Could the former CIA analysts solve this fake-terror scenario?

HSEMA’s Tim Spriggs, Nicole Peckumn, Chris Rodriguez, and Chris White. Photograph of Escape Room by Evy Mages

One recent evening at the Wharf, a couple of former CIA analysts were digging into a plate of crabcakes and some pepperoni flatbread. “When the world’s coming down around you, you need to be focused,” said Chris Rodriguez, who used to work at the Agency’s counterterrorism center. “While the District isn’t a war zone, we are dealing with serious issues and it’s important to have that mindset before, during, and after a crisis.” Across the table, onetime intelligence analyst Chris White nodded, along with a third man, former Army logistics expert Tim Spriggs.

When they aren’t enjoying fresh seafood, this impressively credentialed trio spends its time protecting DC with the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. (Rodriguez is director, Spriggs is acting deputy director, and White is assistant director of intelligence.)

What they do is serious business, but they’re also a surprisingly fun bunch, and for some reason they agreed to test their skills at a not-exactly-Langley-approved training facility: Georgetown’s Escape Room Live.

So after finishing off their dinner, the three men found themselves inside the escape room’s simulation of a scary scenario: Trapped aboard a subway car that’s been remotely hijacked, they had to solve a series of puzzles to stop the train and defuse a bomb. They managed to halt the subway pretty quickly (after asking for a couple of clues), but the explosive device proved more difficult. Time was running out, and they had no idea what to do.

In real life, they’d be far better prepared. A branch of the city government, HSEMA is in charge of coordinating the District’s response to a crisis: anticipating possible problems, keeping residents informed, and making sure the right responders are handling events as they unfold. “I enjoy operations because it’s a puzzle,” says Spriggs. “You just have to make it work.”

But those problem-solving skills were being sorely tested by the bomb situation. As the clock ticked down to ten seconds, the team was frantically rearranging wires, trying to find the configuration that would defuse the device. For the first time that evening, you could sense their anxiety.

Only about half of all teams manage to solve the puzzle, but just when time was about to run out, the HSEMA group finally figured it out. Two seconds were left. “Jack Bauer, CTU-style!” White said. The subway was saved.

After a few fist pumps and high-fives, the team left the escape room and headed back to reality. Spriggs immediately called into the office, and after some clipped chatter, he said he had to run. There was an apartment fire on Minnesota Avenue, and at least 20 people had to be evacuated.

This article appears in the August 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Jackson Knapp
Assistant Editor