This is the second of a two-part article. Part I appeared in the February 2002 Mailing Systems Technology issue and outlined the four general steps involved in mail center security. As presented in Part I of this article, the four fundamental components of a Mail Center Security Program are: Awareness, Procedures, Equipment and Training. Part II provides a more in-depth look at Technology (Equipment and Systems) and Training.


The events of September 11, subsequent anthrax attacks and mailbomb scares have exposed our vulnerability and demonstrated the risks that may be present in our day-to-day activities. Mail center managers have been on the front line for years and have received little recognition for their concerns regarding the safety of the mail. Recent events have compelled American businesses to consider the mail center's role in the protection, safety and well being of staff and employees.


It is difficult to effectively implement mail center security without the assistance of technology. Too often, however, the knee-jerk response has been to purchase the biggest, most expensive and sophisticated equipment available and then rely upon the equipment to solve the problem. Equipment is meant to augment, not replace the efforts, common sense and instincts of the personnel. 


Mail center security equipment can be placed into two broad categories: detection and protection. Detection equipment alerts the mail center to potential risks and assists in the identification of hazards. Within this category, are found metal detectors, X-ray equipment, electronic mail screening equipment, explosive and chemical trace detectors, etc. Protection equipment includes bomb blankets or pouches, bomb containment devices, biohazard isolation devices, irradiation and sterilization equipment, etc. Our focus in this article is detection equipment.


Generally speaking, handheld or walk-through metal detectors have little value in the mail center. They have been used to detect bomb or hazard components (batteries, circuitry, detonation caps, razor blades, etc.) but they will also alarm on so many common items, such as paperclips and staples, that they lose any value as a credible detector.


High-quality electronic desktop mail screening equipment, however, can provide significant value. Such equipment is widely used and highly regarded for its ability to provide reliable and automatic detection of bomb components, razor blade booby-traps and other hazards while ignoring harmless items such as paperclips or fasteners. Electronic mail screeners can process large volumes of mail quickly and reliably, are relatively inexpensive and can be effectively operated by personnel with little training.


Chemical and explosive detectors (trace detection equipment or sniffers) also have limited application in a mail center. Such equipment samples the vapors or particulate matter · in the vicinity of a parcel and performs an analysis of its chemical composition to determine its hazard potential. Not only does this equipment require highly trained operators, but it can also be relatively slow in its operation. It is not unusual for 45 seconds or more to be required per piece sampled and tested. This is a significant technological achievement, but it certainly would not be suitable for a mail center that processes thousands of pieces per day.


X-ray equipment falls within three basic categories: conveyor, cabinet-style and portable. Conveyor X-ray models, such as those used at airport security checkpoints, utilize the conveyor to conduct items to be screened into the inspection chamber. The X-ray image is viewed on a monitor. Conveyor units can be provided with auto-detection software and other enhancements. They usually require 6 to 8 feet or more of floor space and will, because of the conveyor, require regular service. Conveyor units can be sized for mail center applications or even large enough for pallet inspection. It is counter-productive, in terms of performance, to use too large a unit for the application. In other words, a unit sized for the loading dock will not provide an optimal image for typical mail screening. 


Cabinet-style X-ray models do not include a conveyor. Items to be screened are placed within the inspection chamber by the operator. Higher quality models display the X-ray image on a monitor and provide image enhancements and other features to assist with hazard identification. Cabinet-style units are simple and safe to operate; they have no radioactive source, and an X-ray cannot be generated unless the cabinet door is fully closed. They require little floor area.  Some offer the advantage of being able to be used on a mobile basis and can be moved from the mail center to other locations as needed.


Portable X-ray units typically consist of a handheld X-ray generator, a camera box and a means to capture an image. The X-ray generator is placed on one side of the item to be inspected, and the camera box is placed on the other side of the item. An X-ray is generated, and the image is captured on film or on a laptop computer. These models are less useful for mail screening than either the conveyor or cabinet X-ray units. They are slower and require a high degree of training. Their most common use is to inspect suspicious packages without requiring that the package be handled.


The single biggest failure associated with the X-ray inspection of mail is not in the equipment but rather in the procedures and application of the equipment; asking the equipment to do more than it is capable of doing.  Regardless of brand, model and features, most X-ray units sold for mail-screening applications provide an adequate image for effective inspection. Conveyor units tend to have more penetrating power than cabinet units but, also for this reason, cabinet units can be more effective in detecting powder that conveyor units penetrate through without "seeing." There are differences between models and types in software, image enhancements and auto-detection features. On the one hand, such features can be useful; on the other hand, they can encourage operator complacency · and a dependency upon the technology rather than upon training and observation. There is little, if any, difference in the time it takes to properly screen mail whether a conveyor or cabinet X-ray unit is used.


Most faults related to X-ray inspection have no relation to the equipment; they occur due to working too quickly, not taking the time to be thorough and inspecting too many items at once. Hazardous items can be difficult for man or machine to detect if they are stuffed into a full mail sack or packed tightly into a mail tub. It is not unusual to see busy mail centers loading full mail sacks or tubs into the X-ray unit, allowing the hurried operator a cursory inspection and then stamping the entire batch as "Inspected" and sending it on its way to be distributed.  Exposing mail to X-rays is not the same as inspecting mail using X-ray equipment. One mail center manager at a New York City brokerage sensed that his operators were relying too heavily upon auto-detection software. Tubs of envelopes packed tightly on edge were being fed into the conveyor X-ray and designated as safe to open when the tubs emerged from the inspection tunnel. The manager inserted a letter bomb simulation device into one tub and observed the screening process. The tightly packed tub emerged from the X-ray unit and the contents were designated safe to open because neither the operators(s) nor the auto-detection software noticed the letter bomb simulator. The device had been vertical and tightly packed; the circuitry, battery and "explosive" could not be seen because the image shown was of the edge rather than of the flat of the envelopes.


Reliable X-ray inspection can be achieved only when the equipment is operated within its capabilities and the operator is alert and focused. Spending more money does not · relieve these conditions. Several years ago, a judge lost three fingers when he opened a book that contained a bomb. The parcel that contained the book bomb had been within a full mail sack that had gone through a conveyor X-ray and had been inspected in bulk. The operator hadn't seen it. Authorities later constructed a replica of the device and found that it was reliably and automatically detected by untrained operators using desktop electronic mail scanners, which cost one-tenth as much as the X-ray equipment.


Equipment purchasers should set aside preconceived notions and determine what equipment would be most effective in the hands of available staff. Match staff, budget and mail volume. Stretch available dollars to satisfy the requirements for rapid and reliable 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 alarms 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. This task can be 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 or that may be suspicious for other reasons or may be too large for the electronic mail screening equipment. The examination of the envelope or package, therefore, is likely to be very reliable because the X-ray operator will not have been fatigued by examining a large volume of mail they will be focused because they know that they're examining an item that has already caused an alarm and they will be effective and thorough because they're examining one or a few pieces at a time. This example utilizes relatively inexpensive equipment and staff to perform the large volume screening and then, in turn, utilizes both the more expensive equipment and trained staff in a way that is not only cost-effective but also security-effective.


Companies with multiple locations may not require identical equipment at each location. Match equipment to needs. Size and features cost money that may 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. If X-ray equipment is required at all locations, it may be that cabinet X-ray units would be just as appropriate as conveyor units and provide savings in both initial and operating costs.


Mail screening and X-ray equipment are just components of a comprehensive mail center security program, but it is possible that they will constitute the largest initial cost of the program. The success of the program, its ease and effectiveness, are influenced heavily by the compatibility of the equipment with the requirements of the mail center and the resources in terms of available staff.  When purchasing equipment, it will pay to remember that equipment can only do what it has been designed to do and can only work as well as it is operated by humans.


Which brings us to training. All mail center staff needs thorough training in at least four areas: company mail center procedures, hazard recognition without equipment, equipment operation and capabilities, hazard recognition using the equipment. If this training is done once, it won't stick or, over time, may be cut short. Refresher training must be made available regularly and on company time.  All procedures and training materials must be documented and available to all staff for reference or review at all times. Procedures should be put on posters. The posters should be kept clean, dusted, prominent and be replaced whenever they show signs of age. Training can be videotaped and reviewed in brief sessions on a regular basis. Encourage staff to provide comments and suggestions and use that feedback to keep the procedures dynamic and relevant. Have the equipment supplier in occasionally for coffee and questions. Share concerns and let them research solutions. The security of the mail center is enhanced by equipment, but it is made effective by humans. Keep the humans fully involved they are the front line and the most critical components of a mail center security program.


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. Scanna's desktop mail screening and X-ray equipment is in use in more than 15,000 installations. For additional information, please visit, e-mail or call 410-532-2275.