“Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.” – Ben Franklin
Recent incidents involving suspicious mail highlight the need for an effective mail center security plan, paired with ongoing training. In Kansas City, MO, a suspicious package that smelled like ammonia sickened several people at an IRS building. In Queensbury, NY a suspicious package delivered to the courthouse was sent through an X-ray machine, and officers observed an object that appeared to be a hand grenade.
Security in your mail center is always important, 365 days a year. Increased volumes in packages due to internet shopping can lead to a lax attitude. Managers must take a proactive approach towards security and awareness by reinforcing the basics, reexamining current plans, and increasing the amount of training.
Review your security plan and make certain that it includes measures to protect your employees from harm and safeguard the mail that you handle. Examine the physical layout of your mail center. Ensure that all access points are secured from unauthorized entry. Prohibit non-mail operations employees from entering the mail center to pick up mail or packages. Construct a service counter to handle queries from your customers (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 are used to help protect them from harm. Open, honest communication is essential for a security plan to be successful.
You must 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 Wrapped
- Excessive Tape or String
If feasible, purchase an x-ray machine, which can easily detect the components of a letter bomb. Train all employees on how to properly use the x-ray machine, and how to react if they detect a threat. The best equipment is useless without a properly trained and alert operator.
Communicate and post procedures on how to handle an envelope or a package that contains either a threat of a biological or chemical agent, or an unidentified powdery substance. The United States 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 mail bomb, biological or chemical agent threat: don’t panic. Rash actions can lead to even more harmful consequences. Bombs sent through the mail don’t usually have ticking timers, and biological agents don’t spread rapidly on their own.
- Cordon off the area and follow the established procedures:
- Isolate the package. Don’t have people gather to look at the package. This procedure holds true for any suspicious package.
- Don’t “test” the package by shaking it, or tasting a substance.
- Don’t use your smartphone – don’t make any calls, don’t send texts, and don’t use it to take a photo of the package.
- Alert other employees that a suspicious package has been found, and that they should remain clear of the area.
- Note the specific points that make this package suspicious.
- Write down all available information from each side of the item (names, addresses, postmarks, labels, markings, etc.).
- Have someone call 9-1-1 from a landline. Tell the dispatcher what you’ve received and what you’ve done with it. Also, contact your firm’s security office.
- Call your local postal inspector.
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water for one minute.
- If you suspect a biological agent, don’t allow anyone to leave the office that might have touched the package.
- When emergency responders arrive, they’ll provide further instructions.
Be prepared to answer many questions from the emergency responders. 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 threat.
The actions you take during a threat have an immediate impact on the safety of everyone in your mail center. 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. Information is the counter to ignorance. And understanding is the precursor to 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, you must 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 human resource departments to schedule ongoing training for all current employees. Make mail security a mandatory briefing for all new employees.
As always, use the resources of your local postal officials. The United States Postal Inspection Service has been tracking and solving letter bomb crimes since the early 1900s. Postal inspectors were on the front lines of the investigations into the 2001 anthrax attacks. Also, they’re developing countermeasures to reduce the vulnerability of the United States Postal Service and the mail.
The security of your mail center is important – every day. While the threat to you or your staff may be 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.