Securing the corporate mailroom

Industry experts discuss key methods and technologies to detecting threats received in the mail

Since letters containing anthrax spores were sent to several media outlets and the offices of two U.S. senators in 2001, implementing mailroom security procedures and technologies has been one of the biggest challenges for security directors.

Numerous so-called "white powder" scares are reported across the country every week and target a variety of sectors including government offices and corporate facilities. Industry experts say the costs of these scares on the bottom lines of businesses can be staggering, especially if they fail to invest money and resources in securing their mail facilities properly.

"There is an expense (to secure the mailroom), but when you compare that expense against the cost of an evacuation... it is negligible," said Rich Coakley, director of solutions development for Pitney Bowes Management Services, which provides mailroom screening services to large corporate entities in the U.S. and the UK. "

White powder scares resembling anthrax attacks are only the tip of the iceberg, however, when it comes to threats that can be sent via the mail. Potential explosive devices, as well as other chemical and biological agents, such as Ricin, also pose a threat.

Ronald Heil, assistant vice president and senior security consultant for TranSystems, an independent consulting and security systems design firm, said that one of the things his company advises clients to do to help mitigate mail threats, no matter what form they take, is to have their mailroom separated from the rest of the corporate campus. However, if a company has their offices in a high rise complex and the mailroom cannot be separated, Heil says it should be located on a ground floor, preferably on an outside wall.

Securing the heating and air conditioning system of a building must also be a key consideration when creating a mailroom security plan, as chemical and biological agents could quickly spread throughout the workplace if the proper safeguards are not in place.

"It doesn't even have to be a terror attack. It could be your basic shipping and receiving," Heil said. "You occasionally could get deliveries of certain volatiles or combustibles or in a lab environment, you could be getting pathogens of some sort, so you do not want the HVAC system to assist in spreading any of those (agents) throughout your facility."

Ideally, Heil said that mailrooms should have their own HVAC systems. If that is not possible, then an emergency shutdown or automation system may be good alternatives.

If an organization feels it may run the risk of receiving a bomb through the mail, Heil recommends that companies take steps to harden their mailrooms against blasts by reinforcing interior walls and building blow out walls so that an explosion will not create such a powerful upward force.

On a basic level, nearly everyone agrees that companies should conduct an exterior inspection of their mail for threats, which includes closely examining the letter or package for things such as a lack of postage, improper address and exposed wiring or grease on the package. Click here for more mail screening tips from the Baltimore Police Department.

If you feel that your organization is at an increased risk of receiving a mail threat then experts say having some form of X-ray screening system is paramount.

One company that offers a myriad of screening technologies for the mailroom is Smiths Detection. Jim Viscardi, director of critical infrastructure for Smiths Detection, says that the type of screening solution deployed really depends upon the perceived threat by the organization implementing the technology.

"For the most part, the perceived threat in our client base starts with explosives. They are also looking for weapons, including knives and guns. In the case of correctional facilities, they are looking for contraband such as drugs and cell phones," he said.

Typically, Viscardi says businesses start out with X-ray equipment and then upgrade to explosives detection solutions which may be used in conjunction with one another considering the threat level of the business.

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