Aug. 10 2006 11:23 AM

The events of recent months have focused attention upon mail center security with an intensity that is unprecedented in the United States. The realization that harm and death can be delivered with the mail, following so closely behind the World Trade Center attacks, has had a profound effect. It may be possible to avoid airports and high-rise buildings. The mail, however, reaches every office building, home, school and individual in the country. How can mail safety be ensured?


Some companies have tried to avoid mail or, at least, reduce its quantity. Some firms have advised vendors that they will no longer accept their mail; invoices must be faxed or e-mailed. Other firms are paying large fees to outsiders who will receive and open mail for them off-site. Most firms are introducing or upgrading mail center security programs.


Mail center security measures currently being implemented, which are new to many U.S. Postal customers, have been in place in the UK, Europe, Asia and the rest of the world for years. Why has it taken the US so long to wake up to the need for protection from attack by mail? What has changed for the mail center, and what changes do mail centers need to consider?


Risk is not new to mail centers. Mail center managers and staff have been on the frontline for years. The easiest way to defeat physical security is not through the walls, roof, doors or parking garage, it is through the mail or courier services. An effective attack can be delivered anonymously, without physical confrontation or risk of retribution, at a cost of 34.. One stamp, effectively utilized, can evacuate a building and cause all productivity and profitability to grind to a halt. Successful anthrax attacks have been rare, but mail containing suspicious powders, bomb components, razorblade booby traps, threatening notes, broken glass, excrement or disturbing hoaxes have not been uncommon. It is the mail center that stands between the attacker and the target.


If risk is not new, what is? Publicity, to name one thing. Prior to September 11, attacks by mail were either not widely publicized or else buried in the back pages. That has changed, and we can expect publicity will likely generate mixed results. On the one hand, it can raise awareness of a problem and focus attention upon solutions. On the other hand, it can and does inspire copycat incidents that contribute to the broadness of the problem. It can trigger fear and stress that diminish morale and productivity. It may invite panic or overreaction. Building evacuations have become more common in recent months. An evacuation for a hoax or one due to overreaction is just as costly and disrupting as a legitimate threat.


What has publicity meant for the mail center? It's brought significant changes to the working environment. It's put a spotlight on it. It's altered perceptions of the mail center's role. The mail center is still under pressure to receive, process and distribute mail in a timely fashion. It is necessary now, however, for the mail center to accomplish that mission while also strengthening and making visible its role as the company's first line of defense. The mail center · must protect its staff and all other employees or building occupants. It must avoid unwarranted, costly and disrupting evacuations. It must have a visible mail screening operation in place that demonstrates to all employees that management is committed to their safety. It must boost employee morale and reduce stress by providing reassurance to all employees that the mail is safe to open. It must have a mail center security program that is sufficiently effective to protect the company against any litigation by unions or individuals, which suggests that the employer had not taken proper measures to keep its employees safe while at work.


If there is a silver lining for the mail center manager, it is that the mail center budget may become less frustrating. It was common in the past for budget items related to mail center security equipment to be denied. The knee-jerk response was that such expenditures did not contribute to the bottom line. It is more likely now the long-needed purchase of security equipment will be properly regarded as an investment. An effective mail center security program can provide immediate and long-term benefits and will protect the people, property and profits of a business. It will demonstrate the company's commitment to employee welfare and will encourage a productive environment in which common sense and measured reaction are the rule.


A mail center security program will effectively screen incoming mail and deliveries to identify all suspect items. It will provide reassurance that the balance of material is safe for distribution and for recipients to open. Such a program requires awareness, procedures, screening equipment and training. It will require a commitment of time and money.


Step One Increase Awareness

If you were to say "terrorist" to an American, he would likely think in terms of the stereotypes today: beard, turban, accent and wild eyes. A terrorist, however, is anyone who sends anything through the mail with intent to frighten, disrupt, injure, etc. It could be an animal rights activist or an environmental radical, a pro-rights or pro-life extremist, a disgruntled employee, an angry spouse, disappointed fan or an insurance claimant who has been refused. It could be anyone. It might be a neighbor. A terrorist may have a specific target, or he may not. He may be passionate for a cause or be totally without conviction or involvement. He may be the kid who found out how to build a postal bomb on the Internet and decided to do it just to see what would happen. It is easy to send hazardous items through the mail and impossible to predict their route and timing once mailed. Your company may not be a target. You may not be a target. But you don't have to be a target in order to become a victim.


Awareness can be raised by displaying posters, clippings and Internet stories. Keep them clean and fresh. Update them. Demonstrate ongoing concern. Circulate information. Hold short, regular informational meetings. Many people who have been injured over the years assumed that any threat had disappeared with the capture of the Unabomber. There had been no widespread reporting of the hundreds of incidents that were not Unabomber-related. Use the Internet: posts regular reports on mail attacks around the world.


Step Two Procedures

Defined and implemented procedures are the most important component to mail center security and are commonly overlooked, ignored or cut short. Procedures must be developed, communicated to all staff and rigidly implemented to assure that screening of mail is performed properly and effectively. Good procedures that are properly implemented will reinforce, rather than replace, commonsense. Develop procedures consistent with mail volume, space, staff, etc. Define responsibilities at every step. Work out a procedure for identifying suspect items. Remember that deliveries also arrive by courier, UPS, FedEx, etc. Identify the steps in either reassuring that the item is safe or in confirming that it remains suspect. If the return address and recipient's name and address are proper, this may be relatively easy. Define a procedure and place to isolate the suspect item. Determine when an outside resource should be notified and by whom. Review any isolation procedures with the appropriate bomb or hazardous materials agency to ensure that your procedures mesh with its procedures. Don't make the work more difficult. And make an evacuation plan.


Step Three Equipment

It is difficult to effectively implement mail center security without the assistance of technology. Throwing money at the biggest, fanciest, most expensive equipment, however, does not constitute mail center security. Equipment supports, it does not replace, procedures and commonsense. Money spent for equipment that is used without proper procedures or that is inappropriate in terms of available staff is money thrown away. This is particularly common with the use of X-ray equipment. It is not unusual to see mail center staff run an entire tub of mail, packed tight, or an entire mail sack into a huge X-ray unit and expect that the weary operator or the sophisticated software will, in a brief time, sort through the images and "see" any hazards. This is not a realistic expectation and often results in a false sense of security. Just because mail has been exposed to X-ray does not necessarily mean that it has been reliably screened and is safe to open. Ask the judge who lost three fingers after his package that had been through the X-ray equipment twice exploded · in his hands. All X-ray examination must be done thoroughly and deliberately. The effectiveness of X-ray equipment can be greatly diminished when mail is examined in bulk or by X-ray operators who have been working steadily without regular breaks.


When it comes to mail screening equipment, bigger and more expensive is not necessarily better. Set aside preconceived notions, and determine what equipment would be most effective in the hands of your staff. Match staff, budget and mail volume to stretch your dollars to satisfy the requirement for both timely and effective screening.


A combination of different types of equipment may be the most effective, efficient and money-wise approach. Relatively inexpensive desktop electronic mail screening equipment that automatically alerts you when potentially hazardous items are encountered can reliably screen large volumes of mail quickly. Such equipment can screen, by the handful or bundle, an entire tray or sack in less than a minute. Moreover, this task can be easily accomplished by an operator with only basic skills. The equipment either alarms or it doesn't, depending on the contents of the mail. There is no subjective evaluation required.


Although the electronic mail screener provides an alarm, it doesn't indicate what might be in the envelope or package. Any item that has caused an alarm can be further evaluated by investigating the return address and the designated recipient. Alternatively, it can be examined with X-ray equipment. The X-ray equipment in this example is used only on items that have caused an alarm, which may be suspicious for other reasons or may be too large for the electronic mail screening equipment. The examination, therefore, is likely to be very reliable because the X-ray operator will not have been fatigued by examining a large volumes of mail. He will be clearly focused because he knows he is examining an item that has already caused an alarm, and he will be effective and thorough because he is only examining one or a few pieces at a time. And this example utilizes relatively inexpensive equipment and staff to perform the large volume screening and then utilizes the more expensive equipment and staff in a way that is cost-effective and security-effective.


Often, it is a common mistake to overbuy X-ray equipment. The X-ray equipment may not need to be as large or expensive as initially planned. It may not need a conveyor. Your staff may be more comfortable working with a cabinet-style X-ray that has no moving parts. The time to process mail, if done properly, is not diminished by using a conveyor rather than a cabinet-style X-ray. A proper investment strategy does not purchase size that is not necessary, features that are not required or moving parts that do not provide advantages and that will cost future dollars and time to service.


Companies with multiple locations may not require identical equipment at each location. Match equipment to needs. Size and features cost money that could be better invested elsewhere. Satellite locations or campus environments may be able to use inexpensive electronic mail screening equipment at decentralized points with relatively expensive X-ray equipment located in one central location to provide support as needed.


Step Four Training

Training at any level is worthwhile. To the greatest extent possible, positions in the mail center, in terms of the mail screening process, should be able to be filled by any staff member. On the other hand, no position should be filled by anyone who is not currently trained and competent in its requirements. For example, stations using electronic mail screening equipment can interchange staff easily without compromising security. Staffing at X-ray stations is significantly less flexible due to the higher degree of training required for the operator to effectively use the equipment. Equipment used improperly is either useless or dangerous. Exposing mail to equipment is not the same as screening mail with the equipment.


All staff should be well-versed in the procedures. Regular refresher training is recommended. When procedural training is not reinforced, short cuts may develop. Keep all procedures documented and posted and be sure to keep all posted items clean, dusted and looking new. Constantly reinforce the message: "The mail center is the first line of defense. Security starts here."


Marc Lane is vice president of Marketing and Sales for Scanna MSC, Inc, an international manufacturer and provider of mail center security equipment and services. For additional information, visit the Scanna Web site at, e-mail inquiries to or call 410-532-2275.