November 5, 2001
Post office operating on heightened sense of awareness and security
by Deborah Stone
WOODINVILLE - To combat the threat of anthrax moving through the mail, post offices around the nation have taken many steps to ensure employee safety and calm customer anxieties.
Even in Woodinville, thousands of miles away from the epicenter of the recent crises, postal employees are operating on a heightened sense of awareness.
According to Woodinville Postmaster Jim Walters, all 63 employees at the Woodinville Post Office have participated in mandatory information and training sessions on specific procedures for handling anthrax and other biological agent threats.
"They have been given a series of talks on anthrax and its infections and treatments, what to look for, what types of packages and letters to be suspicious of, how to physically inspect the blue mailboxes, what steps to take when they discover something unusual and how to protect themselves. About 90 percent of them are now wearing protective gloves when sorting and handling the mail and some are also wearing the face masks.
"They are told to wash their hands every two hours as an additional precaution."
In addition, the post office has instituted several new rules that directly affect customers.
Parcels that have been metered or stamped cannot be thrown over the counter, as in the past, without customers having a face to face meeting with a mail clerk. Clerks now question customers as to the nature of the contents in their packages.
The building itself is more secure, as the back dock doors are locked at all times. Customers have to ring a bell to get an employee to come out and help them with their large items.
"There's a deep concern here among the employees," comments Walters. "The response to the recent deaths of the two postal workers in D.C. was very emotional for all of us because we're like a large family. I, myself, was stunned by the news. But I wouldn't characterize our response as one of fear.
"Everyone here is handling the situation calmly, but with a definite sense of seriousness and commitment to safety for their fellow workers and their customers."
Walters feels that it is important not to cause undue alarm in the community and not to overwhelm the 911 system, but rather to be aware and cautious when handling suspicious mail.
Some clues to help the public identify suspicious packages and letters:
€ excessive postage;
€ incorrect title(s), but no name;
€ misspellings of common words;
€ loose sifting material;
€ threatening message;
€ oily stains;
€ discoloration or odor;
€ excessive weight;
€ no return address;
€ lopsided or uneven envelope;
€ excessive security material;
€ a city or state in the postmark that does not match the return address or is marked with restrictive endorsements such as "personal" or "confidential."
If people feel there is something suspicious about their mail, the best action is to isolate the package without further contact and to leave the area. It's important to prevent others from entering the isolated area and then to wash hands with soap and water. Follow up with a call to 911.
"I've had customers tell me that they have received mail from people they don't know," says Walters, "and they want my advice. I tell them they have three choices as to what to do with the mail. They can throw it away, open it if they think it could be something important or mark it "refused" and the post office will return it to the sender.
"But once the mail is opened, the post office cannot do anything further. It is best to contact the local authorities if you suspect a problem."
In his 25-year tenure with the U.S.P.S., Walters has never seen a situation such as the current one.
For him, this state of national heightened security is new and alarming, but he knows that the best reaction and response is one of calm. "People need to be informed and to be alert, but they shouldn't panic. We are taking every step possible to protect the mail and our employees and to ensure that the mail keeps moving because that's our job."