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SJUK Exclusive: The intricacies of postal security


Jason Wakefield, Sales Director and Martyn Stanley, Business Development Manager, Todd Research, describe how technology can mitigate the danger of postal attacks.

Although severe postal attacks are not that common, even small incidents can lead to serious personal injury and damage to property or, at best, disruption to businesses. It is therefore crucial to properly assess the risks and, if necessary, adapt appropriate measures to detect and deal with threats.

The new face of terrorism

The first major postal attack recorded in UK history dates back to 1947 when the Zionist Stern Gang sent letter bombs to high ranking British officials Sir Stafford Cripps and Ernest Bevin. 

Since then, there have been many attacks, notably by the IRA, who carried out a prolonged postal bombing campaign through the 1970s and 1980s as well as numerous incidents involving incendiary devices, sharp objects or biological weapons inside letters or packages. 

What all these earlier attacks have in common is that they were centred around political grievances, however, other motives are becoming increasingly more common. Animal rights groups and environmental activists are now sometimes turning to violence to push home their messages, sending either real or false threats that both ultimately lead to the disruption of daily life.

Risk assessment

Figuring out if your business is at risk is a challenge in itself as statistics and trends regarding postal attacks are difficult to find. The reasons behind this lack of data are that many incidents are not reported to the police and that there is still no true consensus on what qualifies as a terrorist attack. 

A common definition is a violent act fuelled by governmental, political, racial or ideological motivations. However, if the incentive behind the attack stems from a psychological disorder, criminal intent or from personal reasons, it is labelled as a ‘criminal act’ rather than terrorist related. 

The organisations that are more likely to be targeted are government buildings, critical national infrastructure, high profile sporting organisations, bioscience and pharmaceutical companies as well as the banking, defence, energy, media and aviation sectors. The risk of postal attacks is not strictly limited to this list, though, and every organisation should perform its own safety evaluation.

X-ray vision

X-ray cabinet scanners have become common sights in mailrooms, ensuring that larger dangerous items – such as incendiary devices and sharp objects, including needles and knives – as well as tiny amounts of hazardous powders – ricin, anthrax – are spotted and apprehended before they reach the intended recipient. 

These instruments have evolved throughout the years to suit the very unique requirements of scanning postal items and can now provide extremely high resolution, to the point where they generally give far clearer images than the equivalent conveyor models used in airports. They also operate at a much lower power than their airport counterparts as it is easier to penetrate letters and cardboard compared to suitcases and are often equipped with smart software and added functionality that makes it even easier to spot suspect packages. 

Nonetheless, many machines still struggle with powder detection and, while most manufacturers say that their instruments are up for the task, very few have a truly low detection limit. Powder attacks are becoming increasingly common and an informal poll conducted by Todd Research showed that nine out of ten postal attacks were powder related, with a majority of them being a hoax. A plausible reason behind this trend is that the sender is never at any risk and will, most of the time, not face any repercussions. 

In reality, many of these threats constitute tiny amounts of powder but substances such as ricin and anthrax are harmful even at a minute level so it is still critical that they are discovered before they are released into the environment. For this reason, some companies have developed systems that are able to spot as little as 3g of a substance, even when scanning whole bundles of 50 letters or more.

What happens next?

Once a suspicious device has been spotted, then it is really important to have a clear plan of what to do next. For example, despite the fact that many of the powder attacks are false alarms, it is still crucial to treat every incident like a real treat. Historically, organisations that have received postal threats in the past have reported that it is critical to escalate accurate information to the appropriate authorities as quickly as possible to enable safe evacuation of the area at risk. 

Apps are now available that do just this, helping organisations to take control of situations and minimise damage. For example, the Callmy Emergency Messaging Service efficiently sends information, including the initial scan images, between the first responders and the teams tasked with critical jobs in case of an emergency. 

This program can be of great help if a lockdown or evacuation is required as it can send a mass notification. In addition, Callmy can send geo-targeted messages to personnel on site, repeating them until a reply is received, and pushing the information through even if the status has been set to silent. 

To move or not to move

The jury is still out on what should happen next after the authorities have been notified and as critical event planning starts to kick in. According to the PAS 97 document from Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, the device should be left inside the X-ray scanner until the emergency services arrive. However, if a bomb explodes while still in the instrument, the blast will intensify and, on top of that, the X-ray scanner itself will become shrapnel, causing substantial damage to the surroundings and endangering people nearby. 

In contrast, one could argue that, since the package has survived a long and bumpy postal journey, then there is an opportunity to place it in a blast containment device to make it easier and safer to handle and deal with – a policy that is recommended by several government sites.

Damage limitation

There are many different types of device containment products to choose from for this eventuality and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. The safest option is a box-type container that, when properly sealed, can completely absorb the blast from anything up to 500g of explosives. As most postal devices contain between 230 to 260g of explosives, this solution makes it easy for the bomb squad to transport the device away from the scene and investigate it or conduct a controlled explosion in a safer location.

Another option is putting a safety circle around the device and cover it with a bomb blanket, which would not contain the blast but would certainly limit the damage it might cause. The benefit of this solution is that the circle and blanket take up minimal space and are easy to store in any facility, fitting on a shelf or in a cupboard. Alternatively, some organisations hold an airtight, hermetically sealed glove box on site that can be used to open envelopes that are suspected to contain powder.

Be prepared

The lack of data regarding postal threats makes it hard to discern if your business or organisation is at risk, but there are various technologies available – including X-ray cabinet scanners and device containment solutions – that can provide additional safety measures if they are required. Scanners with high resolution, able to detect as little as 3g of powder, are an ideal choice for busy mailrooms that are high profile targets as are blast containment units and bomb blankets. 

However, perhaps the most important way to thwart attacks is to be prepared; whether that’s putting security equipment and policies in place, training operatives or establishing efficient means of communication in the face of a live incident, forward planning is essential in order to keep employees and the public at large safe and protected and prevent the disruption that perpetrators crave.

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This article was originally published in the May edition of Security Journal UK. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.