By the beginning of December, the Postal Service expects to have installed Biohazard Detection Systems at 282 mail-processing facilities around the country, said Don Crone, USPS manager of mail-processing protection systems. These detection systems are the Postal Service's front-line defense against an anthrax attack through the mail system.
Planning for the anthrax detectors started immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, predating the anthrax attacks that killed five people later that year, Crone said.
"From the engineering side, we immediately went out and started looking at technologies, what was available, talking to the experts, and of course we had a lot of people knocking on our doors with all sorts of ideas and things," Crone said.
The result of the push was the Biohazard Detection System. Developed by Postal Service engineers, the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command and Northrop Grumman, a prototype system was installed in Baltimore in June 2002.
The Baltimore system "wasn't a completely automated system like the final version, but had at least assembled most of the technologies and put it into a cabinet," Crone said. "I'll call it semiautomatic at the time. But we were trying to prove out the system."
The completed system combined existing technologies in a new way that allowed individual pieces of mail to be tested for anthrax. A hood positioned over the processing system collects air samples from each piece of mail that are taken into an aerosol collector. In the collector is a cartridge that holds the samples. This cartridge is then inserted into a polymerase chain reaction unit that conducts a DNA test to determine if anthrax is present.
Crone said, however, that the lag time between collection and testing is not a concern. The Postal Service has developed protocols to keep mail from leaving a facility under anthrax testing is complete. Procedures are also in place to track individual parcels that have left the site.
"The idea is to detect it early and contain it in that originating facility so we don't contaminate other places," Crone said.
Each system costs about $175,000, but installation and site preparation push the cost to $250,000. Once installation of the systems is complete, 282 facilities will be equipped with 1,373 machines at a cost of $375 million, Crone said.
The systems have been installed at all large mail-processing facilities around the country. Crone said smaller rural facilities are getting the system as installations come to an end. As of October, 218 facilities have received the system.
Once installed, Northrop Grumman is responsible for maintaining the systems, Crone said. The only interaction postal workers have with the system is to replace cartridges that collect samples. The systems are designed so that Northrop employees are notified immediately if there is a problem.
"The systems actually put out their own alert, so if something goes wrong with the BDS, the diagnostics will send out a message through our network automatically," he said. "A field service rep will get a message right on their Blackberry, directly from a machine."
Crone said the system has so far proven to be perfectly reliable. He said 27 billion pieces of mail have been screened without a single false positive.
If a system were to detect anthrax, the facility would be evacuated and the Homeland Security Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be notified immediately. The sample that tested positive for the pathogen would be retested. If the result were positive, all employees present at the facility or who had contact with the infected batch of mail would be put on a five-day regimen of the anti-anthrax drug Cipro.
Crone claimed the Biohazard Detection System is the most advanced system for detecting anthrax transported through the mail in the world.
"This is the front line. And it's pretty much cutting edge. To our knowledge there's nothing else in the world that matches this," he said. "The technology all existed, but this is really the only system that we've really taken and completely automated, which is what's unique about this system."
Local postal officials and postal union officials share Crone's enthusiasm for the system.
Workers have been happy with the system, said Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the 330,000-member American Postal Workers Union. She said when the machines first arrive at processing facilities, workers generally need time to integrate them into their workplace. After a short time, however, workers become comfortable with the technology, she said.
"I think the reaction is generally positive," she said.
"It's been operating flawlessly," added Baltimore post office spokesman Bob Novak. He said the system had not slowed down operations and has presented no difficulties to workers.
"The good news is that it's never gone off," he said.