Hugh O'Rourke

Since the anthrax attacks of 2001, where five Americans were killed and 17 were sickened, we have been acutely aware of the risk posed by mail-borne threats. Yet still too often, mailroom screening programs fail to reach the critical standards necessary to protect personnel, infrastructure and brand from today’s heightened threats.

In 2021, the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) analyzed 263,000 pieces of suspicious mail and investigated more than 6,300 mail threat incidents. These numbers are significant and signal that terrorists and bad actors will continue to utilize the mail to reach high-profile targets. Let’s examine a few key steps in implementing a best-practice mail screening model that delivers greater all-hazards protection capability.

Assess the risk level. First question: How vulnerable is your organization to mail threats? The level of risk is continually evolving so it is important to perform regular and comprehensive assessments. Weak security links and outdated processes can go unnoticed until it is too late. Areas continually at high risk for mail-borne threats include government agencies, public-facing organizations like financial institutions and legal entities, high-profile or controversial organizations and large-scale facilities with high employee counts.

Know the broad range of hazards.

  • The most common mail-borne threat is an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) or incendiary device easily concealed inside packages. A widely publicized 2018 attack involved 16 packages containing IEDs that were received at multiple locations in New York, Washington, D.C., Florida, Delaware, California and Georgia, and delivered to well-known politicians, lawmakers and media outlets.
  • Biological agents such as ricin and anthrax can be quietly released into the air as a fine powder and are deadly when inhaled.
  • Radioactive substances can be sent through the mail with the intention to harm people through radiation poisoning or other toxic effects. They are often combined with an IED to facilitate a wider dispersion of the hazardous material.
  • Chemicals like cyanide can be carried in vials and hidden inside mail packages, where miniscule exposure can cause serious injury and death.

Design and execute a plan.  Partner with an industry expert who is well equipped in assessing current vulnerabilities and providing end-to-end solutions that will prevent, mitigate and respond effectively to potential threats. It is critical to smartly organize a mail screening program with the personnel, technology and protocols to best address the above mentioned variety of threats.

Screen mail offsite. Better protect critical operations, key personnel and c-suite executives who may be the target of bad actors by maintaining offsite mailroom screening. This also reduces the opportunity for hazmat situations that require evacuation and restricted access for extended periods. The Hart Senate Building was closed for months following the opening of an anthrax-tainted letter by a Senator’s aide in the 2001 attacks.

Consider HVAC adjustments. To limit the spread of airborne contamination by chemical, biological or radiological (CBR) agents after an internal release, the mail screening area should have a separate HVAC system, exhaust fan, sealed full-height boundary walls and low-leakage doors and dampers. These rooms should be kept at a slight negative pressure relative to the other areas of the building. If harmful vapor spores release into the room, the higher pressure outside will help prevent permeation throughout the building.

For full CBRE protection, establish multiple screening rooms. Different screening approaches are required depending on the hazard. Maintain radiological detection at the front entrance of the loading dock. Technology using sodium iodide crystals will detect anything arriving to the facility that is emitting a gamma radiological signature.

The next area should screen for explosive devices and weapons with the use of X-ray and MSA’s SmartTech® technology. This patented solution works with existing X-ray equipment and allows screeners access to the trained eyes of MSA’s bomb technicians at the touch of a button should they be uncertain of a suspicious image.

The final room at the back of the line should manage chemical and bio detection using chemical trace detection and bio-aerosol collection and identification. As mail and packages process through and clear these rooms, the normal sorting process resumes for distribution throughout the campus. This is a real-time and rapid process that when properly conducted can take only minutes and not impair throughput targets.  

For greater peace of mind and security, organizations must remain focused on improved screening processes throughout their facilities, especially within the mailroom where volume and activity are consistently significant. It is an essential component of a non-negotiable and layered security plan designed to protect people, property and assets.

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