Aug. 10 2006 11:20 AM

"Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge."

Ben Franklin


Security in your mail center has always been important, but recent events demand that you take a closer look. Biological agents are only one type of threat that impacts the mail. It's imperative to conduct a comprehensive security review.


The first step is to develop a security plan (if you don't already have one), which includes measures to protect your employees from harm and safeguard the mail that you handle. The surge in patriotism seen throughout the country hasn't reduced the crime rate. It's just that crime doesn't appear on the front page at the moment. You must remain alert at all times to all threats.


Examine the layout of your mail center. Ensure that all access points are secured from unauthorized entry. Prohibit the practice of anyone entering the mail center to pick up mail or packages. To handle queries from your customers, construct a service counter (an inexpensive and effective solution is to put a table in front of your mail center).


The service counter and all doors should be monitored by surveillance cameras, an excellent deterrent. However, surveillance cameras make some people uneasy. Inform your employees that the cameras aren't for tracking their movements but for protecting them from others. Open, honest communication is essential for a security plan to be successful.


Openness with your employees should be easy because you should have already conducted a background check on your employees before they were hired. Work with your human resources (HR) representative to establish a screening process for all employees. If you use an outsourcing vendor, require background checks on its staff as well.


Train your employees to recognize a suspicious package or envelope. The characteristics of a potential hazard include:

  • No return address

  • Excessive postage

  • Misspelled words

  • Protruding wires

  • Strange odor

  • Oily stains/discoloration on wrapper

  • Excessive tape or string


    If feasible, purchase an X-ray machine. Letter bombs don't fit in a flat envelope. X-ray equipment can easily detect a letter bomb. Train all employees on how to properly use the  machine and how to react if they detect a threat.

    Communicate and post procedures on how to handle an envelope that contains either a threat of a biological/chemical agent or an unidentified powdery substance. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service uses the acronym "SAFE":

    Safety comes first.

    Assess the situation before taking action.

    Focus your efforts on the hazard, avoiding contact and access.

    Evaluate the situation and notify authorities.


    The most important thing to remember when dealing with a letter bomb, biological/chemical agent threat is not to panic. Rash actions can lead to even more harmful consequences. Bombs sent through the mail don't have ticking timers, and biological agents don't spread rapidly on their own. Isolate the area and follow the established procedures:


                1.         Be sure to immediately isolate the package. Don't have people gather to look at the package. This holds true for any suspicious package.


                2.         Do not "test" the package yourself by shaking it or tasting a substance.


                3.         Alert other employees that a suspicious package has been found and that they should make sure to remain clear of the area.


                4.         Take note of the specific points that make the package suspicious or threatening.


                5.         Write down all available information from each side of the item (names, addresses, postmarks, labels, markings, etc.).


                6.         Call your local postal inspector.


                7.         Have someone call 9-1-1. Tell the dispatcher what you've received and what you've done with it. Also, contact your firm's security office.


                8.         Make sure to wash your hands with soap and warm water for one minute.


                9.         Don't allow anyone to leave the office that might have touched the package.


                10.       When emergency responders arrive, they'll provide further instructions.


    Be prepared to answer many questions. The police and postal inspectors have extensive knowledge of bomb and biological threats. Their questions and your responses will help determine the next steps for handling the package.


    The actions you take during a threat have an immediate impact on the safety of everyone in your mail center. And, the actions you take before a threat have a lasting impact on the safety of everyone in your company. Preparing your mail center and your employees to handle a threat is an obligation you must meet every day.


    Education and awareness are the essential ingredients to preparedness. Most people have a fear of the unknown. At this time, the "unknown" is the threat of biological/chemical agents. Information is the countervail to ignorance. And understanding is the precursor to staying calm. However, being calm isn't the same as being casual. Employees must remain aware of their surroundings and the packages they handle. You must carefully design and vigorously monitor your security program to reduce the risk for all.


    In addition to educating the employees who work for you, educate the employees who work for your company. Employee awareness of the measures you've taken leads to confidence in the safety of the packages that are delivered to their desktops. Work with your company's security and HR departments to schedule training for all current employees. Make mail security a mandatory briefing for all new employees.


    When you develop your security program, contact local police and emergency departments to review the plan, and if possible, ask them to conduct training for your staff. Request additional materials for training as well. Ensure you have the correct telephone numbers for the closest HAZMAT unit.


    As always, use the resources of your local postal officials. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has been tracking and solving letter bomb crimes for nearly a hundred years. Responding to 177 different threats and hoaxes involving biological agents from 1999-2000, the postal inspectors are on the front lines of the investigations into recent anthrax attacks. Also, they're developing countermeasures to reduce the vulnerability of the USPS and the mail.


    The security of your mail center is an important issue. While the threat to you or your staff is minimal, it's real. Don't fall prey to fear or take rash actions that may create a crisis. Instead, educate yourself and your employees. Develop a sound plan and have it reviewed by experts. Remain vigilant and conduct regular evaluations. Be safe.

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