General Services Administration Mail Communications Policy Office Mail Center Security Guide

III. Training, Testing, and Rehearsal

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III. Training, Testing, and Rehearsal

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 agency. 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. Employees need to 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.
Through training, you can develop a culture of security awareness in your operation. Through rehearsal, you can ensure that critical lessons have been learned and retained. A union representative or other employee representative will ensure employee confidence in their safety in developing and giving training. Managers should consider security training and rehearsal a critical element of their job.
In addition to educating the employees who work for you, you should educate the employees who work for your agency. Employee awareness of the measures you’ve taken leads to confidence in the safety of the packages that are delivered to their desktops.

The importance of testing the plan

One key to performance during an emergency is testing of the plan in advance. Test contingency plans in a way that does not alarm employees but follows the steps to take if there is an event. The dress rehearsals reinforce the training and in the event of an emergency can more easily be followed.

X-Ray training

Training is necessary to qualify someone to inspect letters and packages by x-ray. You should ensure that all of your personnel and any contractors who staff the x-ray machine have sufficient training, and that they keep their training current.

Contents of a complete training program

  • Basic security procedures

  • How to recognize and report suspicious packages

  • Inspecting letters and packages by x-ray

  • Proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE)

  • How to respond to a biological threat

  • How to respond to a bomb threat

  • Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP)

  • Occupant Emergency Plan (OEP)

To be effective, any training must be ongoing. This is especially true with security issues. Schedule brief update sessions with your employees on a regular basis. Maintain a log of all mail center employees and training attended, including the date completed.

IV. Managing Threats

Suspicious letters and packages

Because the mail center is a first line of defense for your agency, you should examine every piece of mail before you do anything else with it. You should inspect it with an x-ray machine, and look for suspicious characteristics. Figure 5 is a standard list of characteristics that you and your staff should be looking for.

Characteristics of suspicious packages or letters

  • Excessive postage, no postage, or non-canceled postage

  • No return address or obvious fictitious return address

  • Packages that are unexpected or from someone unfamiliar to you

  • Improper spelling of addressee names, titles, or locations

  • Unexpected envelopes from foreign countries

  • Suspicious or threatening messages written on packages

  • Postmark showing different location than return address

  • Distorted handwriting or cut and paste lettering

  • Unprofessionally wrapped packages or excessive use of tape, strings, etc.

  • Packages marked as "Fragile - Handle with Care", "Rush - Do Not Delay", "Personal" or "Confidential"

  • Rigid, uneven, irregular, or lopsided packages

  • Packages that are discolored, oily, or have an unusual odor

  • Packages that have any powdery substance on the outside

  • Packages with soft spots, bulges, or excessive weight

  • Protruding wires or aluminum foil

  • Visual distractions

  • Suspicious objects visible when the package is x-rayed.

Figure 4

Train employees. Mail Center employees should be trained to recognize and report suspicious packages. Characteristics of a suspicious package or letter vary, depending upon the types of mail that your operation routinely processes. That is, what is suspicious in one mail center is not necessarily suspicious in another. However, anything from the following list that is unusual, in terms or your normal mail, or multiple items from this list, should draw the attention of your employees.

Post examples.

Copies of a “suspicious letter” poster should be displayed in every mail center. These posters are available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the USPS. We have worked with the FBI, USPIS, and other authorities to develop the standard list shown in Figure 5. Phone numbers of who to call should be filled in.

Rehearse scenarios and test contingency plans with employees to ensure that, in the event of emergency, they will know how to respond. Do this in a way that does not alarm employees. These rehearsals will help ensure that the lines of communication function as planned and that everyone knows their role. Hold post-test meetings to address problems, and resolve them before the next test.
Question every suspicious letter or package.
If you can stabilize an unopened suspicious letter or package, with some confidence that it presents little immediate threat, try to determine whether the addressee or sender can identify and explain the contents. The following is quoted from GSA National Guidelines:
Whenever a mail center worker identifies an unopened package or letter as “suspicious”, a mail center supervisor or specially trained employee should examine the mail piece to confirm that it meets the criteria established for the location. If confirmed, do not open it. A supervisor or designated mail center worker who is trained to confirm the identification must be available during all working hours.
Next, determine if the mail piece is addressed to a person who actually works in the facility. If so, and if the addressee can be located in a reasonable period of time, contact the addressee and ask him or her to identify the package. If the addressee recognizes the package and is certain it is not threatening, deliver it. If the addressee does not recognize the package, or if you cannot locate the addressee, attempt to contact the individual listed on the return address to verify the contents of the package. If you successfully contact the sender of the package, ask them to provide a description of the contents, intended addressee, and the reason it was mailed to your location. Provide this information to the addressee for further verification.
If the addressee does not recognize the package, or if you cannot locate the addressee, do not open it. The supervisor or designated mail center worker should call the previously designated first responder (that is, the organization you have identified as the right one for the specific threat in hand). This first responder will be responsible for opening the package in a controlled environment and following the appropriate protocol for evaluation of the threat. A “controlled environment” may be a glove box, hood with negative airflow and HEPA filters on the exhaust airflow, or a similar device. When identifying the first responder who will open suspicious letters or packages, make sure they have such a device available.
Mail that contains an unidentified secondary container: If x-ray inspection shows a secondary container that may contain an unknown material, or if you open a letter or package and discover such a container, do not open or otherwise disturb the secondary container. Treat the secondary container as suspicious, unopened mail. As above, first call the addressee and see if they can identify the container. If he or she cannot be located, then call in the first responder designated to open suspicious mail.
The procedures for examining letters and packages, identifying suspicious ones, and calling in an expert to when necessary are part of managing threats. GSA and other authorities have developed and refined procedures for mail centers to follow if you decide that a package or letter is suspicious. The initial triage, or sorting and allocation of treatment to individuals according to a system of priorities for any threat situation must consider all hazards.
The first responder should assess for the presence of radiological threats, explosive devices, dangerous chemicals, or biological threats. Many different threats can be sent through the mail. The initial triage, or sorting and allocation of treatment to individuals according to a system of priorities for any threat situation, must consider all hazards.
In the event that a trained first responder, after reviewing the situation, determines that a possible threat may be present, the first responder should take steps to determine the nature of the threat. A radiological, bomb, or dangerous chemical threat is immediate and requires swift, crisis-level responses. A biological agent is any biological material capable of causing:

  • Death, disease, or other biological malfunction in a human, an animal, a plant, or another living organism;

  • Deterioration of food, water, equipment, supplies or material of any kind;

  • Harmful alteration of the environment.

Dirty bombs are regular explosives that have been combined with either radiation-causing material or chemical weapons. While most news reports talk about radiological dirty bombs, chemical agents may be used as well. A blast from this type of weapon normally looks like a regular explosion and the contamination spread is not often immediately noticeable. When it is safe to do so, seek shelter inside a building, putting as much shelter between you and the potential contaminant as possible. Limit the amount of exposure by leaving the area when it is safe to do so, or wait for the directions of first responding organizations.

In chemical attacks, a toxic gas or liquid is used to contaminate people or the environment. The prevalent symptoms are tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, blurred vision, stinging of the eyes, or loss of coordination. If you witness a suspected chemical attack outdoors, move upwind and away from the area as quickly as possible. If this is not possible, move to a safe location inside a building and shelter-in-place. If you suffer any of the symptoms mentioned above, try to remove any clothing you can and wash your body with soap and water. Do not scrub the area, as this may wash the chemical into the skin. Seek medical advice as soon as possible. If the release is inside the building, leave as soon as possible and go outside moving upwind and away from the area as soon as possible.

Some significant differences exist between biological and other threats, as exemplified by the following table:




Release Site of Weapon

Difficult to identify, possible time delay in defining area of attack unless overt

Quickly discovered, possible to cordon off contaminated attack area(s)

Manifestation of Symptoms

Delayed, usually days to weeks after an attack (except toxins)

Rapid onset, usually minutes to hours after an attack

Distribution of Affected Patients

Widely and rapidly spread; contagious versus non-contagious

Downwind area near point of release


Typically no characteristic signatures immediately after an attack

Easily observed (colored residue, dead foliage, pungent odor, dead insects or animal life)

Medical Countermeasures

Antimicrobial treatments, vaccines or immunoglobulins for some agents

Chemical antidotes for some agents

Casualty Management &


Patient isolation and/or quarantine crucial if communicable disease is involved

After decon, no further need of protective measures or risk of further contamination

As opposed to chemical and radiological agents, biological agents are not as immediately recognizable and consequence management may be delayed, for example by therapy or vaccination, not traditionally performed by first responders. However, effective countermeasures are available against many of the bacteria, viruses, and toxins that might be used. If we develop a solid understanding of the biological threats we face and how to respond to them, many effects may be prevented or minimized.

Additional information on dealing with the other types of threats may be obtained from sources listed in Appendix B. This document may be used to help develop a better understanding of the biological threats we face and the steps to take if a biological agent is suspected. As the anthrax bio-terrorism events in 2001 illustrated, mail supervisors sometimes need to make judgments about mail that relate to their security in receiving it.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with a letter bomb, biological or chemical agent threat is: don’t panic. Rash actions can lead to even more harmful consequences. Biological agents, for example, can spread more rapidly when improperly handled.
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.

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