Dec. 29 2006 10:55 AM

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent anthrax letters forced many organizations to seriously evaluate the strengths of the security measures used in their mail centers. The Unabomber attacks of the '90s hinted that any organization is vulnerable and anthrax-laced letters reaching the offices of the U.S. Senate in 2001 proved it. Whether it's coming from foreign or domestic sources, mail terrorism is a reality that can't be overlooked by today's security professionals.


Even when compared to floods or fires, the risk of injured personnel or damaged property from mail terrorism is very low. Security professionals should take time to get up to speed on the threats, understand the vulnerabilities in current security and evaluate the numerous emerging technologies available to combat biological, chemical and explosive terrorism. Here is an outline of strategies and technologies that security professionals should be aware of when evaluating their organization's mail processing security.


First Steps

So, where does the security professional go to get started? In the wake of the anthrax letters of 2001, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service published Mail Room Security, Addressing Biological & Chemical Threats and Mail Bombs. This is a fairly comprehensive handbook dealing with many frequently asked questions and is a familiar document among many security professionals.


One key point worth mentioning from the Postal Service's guide is the need to perform a vulnerability assessment to determine if your organization or a particular employee is a potential target. For this, you may require a consultant trained in performing vulnerability assessments, building protection and emerging technologies and their applications to mail screening. Such a consultant can provide specifics of how to screen mail for a known chemical or biological agent, but such information, as with any other security initiatives implemented in your facility, should be treated as confidential information.


Basic Considerations

Since most of us are not chemists or biologists, there is a high potential to make bad choices that could have negative impacts to the daily operations of your mail facility. It is said that one objective of the terrorist is to disrupt our way of life. Therefore, the best solutions for your mail center security are the ones that have the least impact on your operation on a day-to-day basis. This does not mean that there will be no disruption to the operation to shore up mail center security, but once daily operations resume, the impact to the personnel in the mail center should be minimal.


The other area of primary concern is to minimize the impact to the flow of mail as much as possible. The level of additional mail screening for chemical, biological and explosives can greatly impact mail flow, sometimes delaying deliveries by as much as a day. The challenge is selecting the right level of screening based on the degree of the threat and estimating the financial or logistical impacts to your organization if you are the target of a tainted letter or package.


Are You a Target?

The targets of the tainted letter or package could either be a specific person, disruption of facility operation or cross contamination with a tainted letter during postal handling. The source of the threat may be no different than those currently known to your organization. The level of hate mail received by your organization is an indicator that you may be a target for hoax letters. It is important to keep up-to-date with the source of the threat because it can change with the dynamics of your company. A layoff, the release of a disgruntled employee or special interest groups having issues with your products or services will typically heighten security concerns. The risk of getting hoax letters is also heightened in these times.


Hoax Letters

Since the hoax letter is benign in nature, there is a higher probability of receiving one. The sensitivity of biological terrorism has taken common, everyday powdered materials and elevated them to the same level as an anthrax letter. We are in a time of being safe rather than sorry. A hoax letter · is the equivalent of receiving a bomb threat meant to instill fear, panic and shut down the facility. If you have a current policy for dealing with bomb threats, it should be updated to include the handling of suspicious letters and packages. As you respond to a hoax, intentional or fabricated, you should be asking, "Are we a target and what is the likelihood that this is a real threat?" In this day, the need to detect a hoax is increasing even though there is no risk of life or health. Much of the biological detection technology available today for mail screening is focused on detecting and identifying specific agents. In this case, hoax materials will pass through the screening process and end up on the desk of the addressee. Promising new trigger technologies are becoming available which can be added to the biological detection screening to help identify hoax letters.



When it comes to explosive detection, the threat is frequently the package that is hand-placed in the facility or put on the ground and is not delivered through the mail. In this case, the security screening of visitors coming into the facility needs to be addressed. For most facilities, security is more interested in what is being removed from the facility rather than what is going in. All packages going into the facility need to be visually inspected.


For mail screening, x-ray and explosive trace detection technologies utilized by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) at airport terminals have been very effective in screening for explosives and other suspicious objects. All mail and packages can be x-rayed and screened for trace explosives prior to moving to subsequent screening methods. X-ray systems come in many sizes from small packages to handling large freight. Choose a machine that provides image analysis software to help direct the operator to suspicious objects. Some x-ray machines also provide real-time training to test the operator by creating phantom threats and grading the response.


Attention should also be given to the ergonomics of the system and how it will fit into a particular mail center operation. Trace explosive detection based on Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) technology is currently being utilized by the TSA for screening baggage. The technology requires a sample collection to be taken from the surface of the package using a swab. Based on the level of security, the package may be opened and swabbed on the inside surfaces. The swab is inserted into the trace detector for analysis. The analysis time is less than 10 seconds. IMS technology is also a good tool for detecting narcotics.


Chemical Warfare Agents

Chemical Warfare (CW) agents do not constitute a high level of threat for mail delivery due to their rapid effect on anyone exposed. This greatly reduces the probability that the chemically tainted letter would make it to its intended target. Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TIC) typically require larger volumes in order to cause serious health consequences. CW and TIC are terrorist threats that may still be a security concern for your organization, but the probability of this threat being introduced through the mail is not very high when compared to the biological threat. This is more of an external threat where the point of attack is the outside air intakes to the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system. These intakes should be moved to locations with limited access. Chemical detectors can be used to monitor the air intake CW and TICs in order to shut down the HVAC system in the event of detection. IMS is once again the technology of choice due to its maturity and low false alarm rate. For monitoring HVAC systems, the detector should be able to operate 24/7 without oversight. If more than one detector is required, they should be networked to a centralized monitoring station in the security office. The detectors can be programmed to detect multiple CW agents and TICs. The chemicals being monitored will depend on the organization's vulnerability assessment, which would include the presence of TICs within the facility and its proximity to chemical holding tanks or highways and railways, which are transporting chemicals.


David Karmel is director of Commercial Products at Smiths Detection. He oversees the development of mail screening products that detect biological warfare agents, as well as handheld chemical and biological detectors for military and security personnel and emergency first responders. Smiths Detection is the leading provider of chemical, biological and explosive detectors and x-ray systems. For more information about these products, contact Susan Cooper at 973-830-2131 or visit