An elderly woman’s husband recently died. He was a World War II veteran and an eccentric in militaria. She decided to clean out his work shed located behind their suburban home. In a worn wooden box she found an item she surmised to be a bomb. She called the police and reported that there was a bomb in her backyard. A news reporter overheard the call and notified his bullpen to dispatch a team to the site. The police ordered an evacuation of nearby homes. A nervous neighbor at the cordon line exclaimed that the exclusion zone could not possibly be big enough as her son had served in Iraq and told her about bombs. Someone else pondered aloud if the “coot” was working with anthrax. Another wondered if the bomb was on a timer.
The situation creates many communication issues found in areas involving risk, or “the sum of hazard plus outrage” as defined by Peter Sandman. The populace doesn’t know the actual risk and outrage has been built by a series of incomplete messages. Dr.
Beverly Sauer’s Risk and Rhetoric addressed these notions in the
technical and bureaucratic entanglements of coal mining disasters. Mine collapses and fires tend to leave few living witnesses and no single source of engineering knowledge, experience, or political
expertise to create a solution. Instead, the written answers and related regulations are developed by vying interests like unions and corporations, hard and political scientists, and engineers laboring against internalized miner hunches. She stresses the value of decoding witnesses’ mimetic or analytic recreations, non-verbal cueing, and dissecting their frame of reference to discover the true nature of risk.
Let’s go back to the bomb. The team from a distant Army base arrives two hours after the call. They gather initial data from the only witness and make an approach. They identify the item in Army Technical Manual 43-0001-29 as the Mk 2 fragmentary hand grenade. It weighs 21 oz, is 4.5 inches tall, and has a diameter of 2.25 inches. It is filled with 2 oz of TNT, flaked or granular. Affixed to the grenade is a M204A1 pyro delay-detonating fuse with a M42 primer and lead azide detonator. The hazard area is 15 meters but partially mitigated by the stout work shed. The safety pin is a bit loose so the team leader places a piece of tape over the top to secure it. He braces the grenade in a firm metal container, placards his truck for transportation, and leaves the site with the grenade for eventual disposal. The hazard is now gone.The bomb disposal team would “define and evaluate levels of risk different from non-experts” per Scwartzman, et al. The stated solution is not to “dumb down” the issue nor expect local expertise. Instead experts need to recognize stakeholder demands, in this situation property and life, and address the populace. Sauer recommends that responders and investigators learn about the facets of human communication. I recommend expanding explosives identification education to the families of elderly veterans. The seemingly disparate areas of hazard awareness and rhetoric do have a common ground.
For further reading check out Schwartzman, Ross, & Berubes’ article “Rhetoric and and Risk” and Sauer’s book, The Rhetoric of Risk, both available from fine scholarly online databases.
Plug “bomb squad” into a Google news feed see the frequency of similar events.