Mail Center Security Post 9/11

With an estimated 40,000 white powder hoaxes since 2004 – more than 1,100 per month – chemical, biological, and explosive substances sent through the mail system still pose an all-too-real threat.

On April 10, the Charles County Courthouse in La Plata, Md., was evacuated after a sheriff’s deputy and a courthouse employee discovered two suspicious envelopes, one containing a white powder substance, and the other a bomb threat.

The result was pandemonium, as adjacent streets to the courthouse were blocked, canine units dispatched and hazardous materials teams searched the building and parked cars. Five people were taken from the scene in ambulances to be treated for exposure to the potentially lethal substance.

Continued Risk, Rising Cost

Six years since anthrax-laced letters introduced a new form of terrorism, this danger seems to have slipped out of American consciousness. Many times, it doesn’t even make today’s list of security concerns. With an estimated 40,000 white powder hoaxes since 2004 – more than 1,100 per month – chemical, biological and explosive substances sent through the mail system still pose an all-too-real threat. Hoaxes, while not physically harmful, are incredibly costly. When 800 employees of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection lost 2 days of work due to a white powder hoax, the estimated cost was an astounding $1.5 million.

Since the United States Postal Service unveiled a $971 million biological detection system in 2005, many people have felt a false sense of security. Although the implementation of such a system is a step in the right direction, deficiencies still exist, leaving organizations and security professionals vulnerable to attacks. Currently, the system checks standard, envelope-sized mail, allowing boxes, flats and non-standard envelopes to pass through unsearched. Additionally, in its current configuration, the system only analyzes for anthrax, although it can be modified to detect other pathogens. Though anthrax has been the chief pathogen of concern, other substances exist that are equally lethal and can be just as easily sent through the mail, including ricin and sarin.

Ricin is a toxin extracted from castor beans, and is the world’s most potent plant toxin, believed to be twice as deadly as cobra venom. It is easy to obtain, and the average lethal dose in humans is 0.2 milligrams, easily placed within the contents of a small envelope.

Sarin is an extremely toxic nerve agent, usually in the form of a colorless, odorless liquid. If packaged with an improvised explosive device, it can be transformed to a gaseous state. Attacking the nervous system, sarin can cause death within as little as 1 minute after direct contact if antidotes are not administered.

Developing a Mail Center Security Plan

Given the variety of substances that can be sent through the mail system and their potentially lethal consequences, creating a comprehensive Mail Center Security Plan is vital to the safety of a facility and the people who work there.

A well-conceived mail center security plan achieves a balance between effective security and carrying out business as usual. The plan also should consider its potential impact on the people, process and technology of the organization. In larger organizations with multiple offices, mail center security plans should be developed at the headquarters level and tailored specifically to the smaller mail centers throughout the operation. Single-facility organizations, on the other hand, should develop a plan according to the physical layout of the mail center. Ultimately, mail center security plans should be integrated into an organization’s overall security design.

Such a plan incorporates a number of critical elements. Some of the most important are: risk assessment, operating procedures and a training, testing and rehearsal plan.

Assessing an organization’s risk is one the first steps that needs to be taken, and will help determine the shape and scope of its mail center security plan. This kind of assessment can be reached by asking a number of critical questions about the organization and its status, such as:

  • How critical is the mailroom to the activities of the organization? How much would a mail-borne threat cost the organization in time, productivity or business?
  • Does the organization deal internationally, have foreign affairs officers or offshore suppliers or been the primary focus of a recent crisis or event that might have garnered public interest?
  • Who are the organization’s adversaries?
  • Is the organization doing business where there is political/social unrest?
  • Has the organization undergone recent downsizing, reduction in force or hiring freezes?
  • Has anyone in the organization received an employee threat recently?
  • Is the organization involved in research, products or services that lend themselves to public controversy?

Knowing the answers to these key questions can help an organization effectively prioritize its security needs and as a result allocate resources accordingly. (For additional questions see the GSA Mail Communications Office’s third edition of the Mail Center Security Guide).

An organization’s operating procedures will be based on the knowledge achieved during its risk assessment. These operating procedures prescribe such things as how to handle incoming mail. For instance, depending on the level of risk, the organization may decide that all incoming mail should be x-rayed, including those items from couriers and small package carriers.

This mail also should be inspected for suspicious characteristics in a separate area away from the rest of the mailing center, and a process should be outlined for how suspicious packaging will be treated. Personal protective safety equipment, including gloves and masks, always should be available, and employees should clearly mark inspected packages using a stamp or label. Mail center employees also should pay special attention to mail addressed to senior officials or those individuals with greater public visibility.

Preparing for a potential attack through training, testing and rehearsal can have a substantial effect on how efficiently employees handle a threat when it arises. All employees should be educated and aware of the current safety measures in place, and a complete training program that provides this education should be available. Such a training program would include instruction on how to respond to a biological threat, how to respond to a bomb threat and how to develop an occupant emergency plan, among other things. Testing these plans can help reveal any deficiencies, and their rehearsal will help ensure that employees are familiar with and capable of performing all necessary tasks in the event a threat arrives by mail.

The Post 9/11 Paradigm

As organizations across the country continue to face an average of over 1,100 monthly white powder hoaxes, political events like the upcoming 2008 primaries and elections present even greater opportunities for these threats. Since announcing his candidacy for president, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards already has received two suspicious packages containing powdery substances sent through the mail, causing major disruptions and requiring extensive security measures to be taken.

In the face of these consistently surfacing dangers, organizations cannot afford to become vulnerable to potentially lethal terrorist acts. Through a comprehensive mail security center plan and the implementation of the proper tools, an organization can protect itself and begin to move closer to making these threats security issues of the past.

Dan Prather is a mailroom security and air quality expert. He is the vice president and a managing partner of DualDraw LLC, a premier provider of homeland security and air quality equipment. For over a decade, DualDraw’s products have been utilized worldwide, protecting workers from everything from biohazards and explosives in mailroom settings to toxic fumes generated during industrial processes.

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