U.S. Postal Service:

Guidance on Suspicious Mail Needs Further Refinement

GAO-05-716: Published: Jul 19, 2005. Publicly Released: Aug 8, 2005.

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In October 2003, an envelope marked "Caution: Ricin Poison" was discovered at an airmail facility in Greenville, South Carolina. Ricin is a poison that, in certain forms, can cause death. The U.S. Postal Service has emphasized to its employees to be on the alert for "suspicious mail" that may pose a threat and has developed guidance for them on how to identify and respond to such mail, in order to protect them from harm. Postal inspectors and emergency responders help in the responses to suspicious mail by performing an initial assessment of the threat it poses. This report describes (1) actions taken by various agencies, in responding to the incident, to protect the health of postal employees and the public; (2) Postal Service guidance related to suspicious mail in place in October 2003 and the extent to which it was followed during the incident; and (3) subsequent changes made in this guidance and the extent to which current guidance addresses issues raised by the incident.

Postal Service personnel identified the envelope in question as suspect and took some initial actions in response, such as moving it to a room away from employees. However, personnel did not speak with postal inspectors or emergency responders about the envelope until 12 hours after its discovery. Subsequently, a multiagency response took place. Key efforts included testing of the envelope and its contents, monitoring the health of employees and the public, sampling the facility for contamination, and communicating information to employees and unions. At the time of the 2003 incident, the Postal Service had in place several guidelines on identifying and responding to suspicious mail--which emphasized steps to take, such as not moving an identified envelope or package, to protect employees. However, during the response, postal personnel did not fully follow this guidance, and a lack of consistency and clarity in the guidance may have been a contributing factor. For example, the instructions in the suspicious mail guidelines were not consistent, and it was not clear whether one guideline applied to nonanthrax scenarios. In addition, the Postal Service had some guidance on communicating with employees and unions regarding suspicious mail incidents, and its efforts to inform them about this incident generally followed this guidance. However, a lack of specific instructions on who should provide and receive information and when may have contributed to some communications issues that arose. Since the incident, the Postal Service has made a number of changes in its guidance that have improved its consistency and clarity. For example, it issued new, simpler uniform guidelines on identifying and responding to suspicious mail and has emphasized these guidelines in monthly talks to employees. However, current guidance does not fully address issues raised by the incident because some key elements are lacking. For example, training for managers does not present all the guidance they may need to decide whether a piece of mail is indeed suspicious and response actions are warranted. Also, the Postal Service has not provided managers with explicit guidance on communicating with employees and unions regarding suspicious mail incidents. Such guidance is important to ensure that employees and unions are kept informed, particularly when a mail piece is suspected of posing a biological or chemical threat and is sent for testing.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2006, USPS provided guidance to employees on responding to mail that has characteristics of both suspicious mail and mail containing hazardous material by revising standard operating procedures for handling and processing mail containing or believed to contain hazardous material. These procedures instruct employees to use suspicious mail handling procedures if they identify a mailpiece that has characteristics of suspicious mail.

    Recommendation: To help prepare postal personnel to respond to future incidents involving mail that may contain biological or chemical agents, the Postmaster General should have the Postal Service provide guidance to employees on the response actions to take in the event a mail piece has characteristics of both suspicious mail and mail containing hazardous material.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USPS completed the development of several types of suspicious mail training for managers and supervisors in August 2006, including an instruction packet with several suspicious mail "service talks" (talks given to employees by their supervisors), an on-line course and training video. The packet and on-line course both include exercises on identifying suspicious mail that is not leaking a powder, as well as the correct response actions to take. In addition, all three training tools emphasize that the inspection service should be called immediately after a suspicious mailpiece is found. For example, the on-line course covers the appropriate response to a suspicious letter or package and states the following: "The following is very important. The supervisor or manager is required to call the Postal Inspection Service as the first notification in an incident involving suspicious mail and unknown powders or substances." In the training video, the announcer states that "if a suspicious mailpiece is discovered, it is vital to contact the Inspection Service immediately." Finally, in October 2005, USPS revised the existing suspicious mail exercise for managers and supervisors to include contacting the postal inspection service as one of the initial immediate actions managers and supervisors should take.

    Recommendation: To help prepare postal personnel to respond to future incidents involving mail that may contain biological or chemical agents, the Postmaster General should have the Postal Service expand its suspicious mail training for managers and supervisors to include (1) exercises for responding to various scenarios involving suspicious mail pieces, including scenarios in which a mail piece is suspicious but is not leaking a powder; and (2) instructions on how soon inspectors should be called after the discovery of a suspicious mail piece.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, USPS has provided explicit guidance to managers on communicating with employees and unions regarding incidents in which a mailpiece is sent for testing. This new guidance stipulates when information should be provided and to whom and what types of information should be shared. Specifically, in August 2007, the USPS revised its online training to supervisors and managers on responding to suspicious mail incidents to include this more explicit guidance on communications. The training states that "the Postal Service is committed to providing prompt information to employees and their unions. The installation head is responsible for managing the communication process. He or she will...develop timely stand up talks that will be given throughout the phases of the response as they unfold..." The guidance also specifies the types of information that should be provided, including information about precautionary actions being taken as a response progresses.

    Recommendation: To help prepare postal personnel to respond to future incidents involving mail that may contain biological or chemical agents, the Postmaster General should have the Postal Service provide explicit guidance to managers on communicating with employees and unions regarding incidents in which a suspicious mail piece is sent for testing. This guidance should specify when information should be provided and to whom and what types of information should be shared.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

 

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