Hazardous mail. A large machine snakes through the Philadelphia distribution center. It stands out from the other complicated machinery because of its size and its color—bright purple. “This is the induction point for all mail that goes through this facility. This is the biohazard detection system,” says Wallace. “We call it Barney.”
Its real name is the biohazard detection system (BDS), and its job is to detect suspicious and dangerous mail that might pose a biological or chemical hazard.
Equipped with sensors to test for chemicals, explosives, and radioactive materials, the BDS was designed as a response to the 2001 anthrax attacks. BDS units are installed in 271 postal processing plants and can rapidly provide an analysis of suspicious materials. All mail goes through the BDS, which takes a small sample from each letter or package and tests it in a matter of seconds. A positive test is followed by an immediate retest.
Specially trained postal inspectors respond to an alert from the BDS. The inspectors are trained to retrieve samples, document for evidence, and then send the samples out for lab testing.
To ensure that they will be prepared if there is an incident that requires evacuation, the PIS coordinates with local first responders to conduct several drills each year. The drills include fire officials, emergency medical personnel, the police, and local FBI agents. This is critical because any alert from the BDS requires that the inspector shut down the facility and secure the building. “A BDS alert means that the building is a crime scene,” says Wallace. “It has to be secured for the safety of the public and our employees.”