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Last Updated

26 May 2003

Source: Washington Post, May 26, 2003

Postal Anthrax Testing to Expand

New Security System to Undergo 30-Day Trial at 14 Sites

By Michael Zimmerman, Special to The Washington Post

The U.S. Postal Service plans next week to greatly expand the testing of a new security system to detect against bioterror agents, the direct result of the anthrax attacks of October 2001, when two employees lost their lives at the Brentwood postal facility in Northeast Washington.

The system, which runs a continuing analysis on the mail, has been tested successfully for about nine months in Baltimore, said Thomas G. Day, the Postal Service's vice president of engineering. On June 1, the test will be expanded to 14 postal sites across the country, including those in Dulles and Capitol Heights. After a 30-day trial, postal officials will determine whether the system is good enough to deploy nationally.

Day, at a briefing last month, said the biohazard detection system (BDS) was developed and tested after consulting with the military, federal agencies and other experts. Northrop Grumman Corp. and partners designed the prototype BDS, which Day said "performs a rapid, on-site DNA test for anthrax by testing the air surrounding mail-handling equipment for anthrax particles."

The system performs 10,000 tests a night, so if there is a positive match for anthrax DNA, the network computer will provide immediate on-site notification, alerting local and national officials. An emergency response plan would then be activated.

"In approximately 30 days, we'll have the results of various test sites and hopefully, this will lead to the validation of the new BDS system," Day said.

Postal officials declined to provide the cost of the system; they said the biohazard operation is funded by appropriations. The system has proved reliable, accurate and very sensitive, Day said.

But many postal employees, angered by what they thought was a lack of concern from management at the beginning of the anthrax attacks, are a little wary about the Postal Service's efforts, including the new detection equipment being tested, to protect them.

"Anything is a help, but how effective, I'm not sure, and I don't trust them," said Helen Lewis, a processing clerk with the Postal Service for almost 30 years. She was a friend of Thomas L. Morris Jr. (case 15), one of the employees who died of anthrax inhalation. The Brentwood facility was renamed for Morris and Joseph P. Curseen, (case 16) the other employee who died.

Dena Briscoe, head of Brentwood Exposed, a support group of employees, said the BDS looks like a good idea but "the employees need to be assured that safety is a top priority." She has been a postal clerk for 22 years and works out of the Calvert facility in Hyattsville.

According to the Postal Service, in the event of another anthrax attack, all personnel would be evacuated and mail centers would shut down. Alan Ferranto, director of Safety and Health for the National Association of Letter Carriers, said they have learned a lot since 2001; one of the most important courses of action, he believes, is communication.

"There is a task force that meets continually," he said. "The union and management meet, and they are looking at the protocols that are in place."

"Employees are happy to see that something is being done. However, they still remain concerned because no system is foolproof," says Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, which represents postal clerks, drivers and maintenance employees.