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Mailrooms join the front lines of civil defense

By Joanne Viviano

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Several local businesses have contacted the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency for suggestions on how to safely operate their mailrooms.
YOUNGSTOWN -- With bioterrorism threats surfacing in letters and packages across the United States, workers in mailrooms may be the first line of defense for employees at their companies, the head of Mahoning County's emergency response team said.
Walter Duzzny, director of the county's Emergency Management Agency, said anxiety levels of mailroom employees have increased because of the sheer volume of mail they handle daily.
Duzzny said a number of businesses and companies have called his office for tips on how to handle mail and are attempting to make changes.
I think everybody is attempting to develop some sort of plan," Duzzny said. "I think there's frustration because this may be the first time a company has been involved in a national security issue."
In the Mahoning Valley, many businesses and institutions are starting by informing their employees about the threats and relaying all government warnings.
"We're raising awareness and trying to educate our work force as much as we can," said Tom Mock, a General Motors spokesman at the Lordstown assembly plant. "The key thing now is raising awareness and talking to our team. Everybody's got to be careful."
At YSU: Leon Stennis, news editor in the university relations department at Youngstown State University, said mailroom workers sort mail for delivery to various departments. All employees, he said, have been instructed to stay alert and informed of how to spot suspicious packages based on a memo circulated by president David Sweet.
At the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, clerks are also being more cautious and are in the process of putting together a plan, said Clerk of Courts Anthony Vivo. He said the office receives a great deal of mail each day, but without space for a mailroom, it comes to a front counter where two or three clerks open it.
At the St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown, workers in the mailroom have been discussing their new role, said spokeswoman Sally Rood. Rood said the employees are instructed to use extra caution and keep watch for suspicious mail and packages based on U.S. Postal Service recommendations.
"There's a heightened awareness," she said. "Generally, we're keeping an eye out for things."
With anthrax-tainted mail having shown up in various press offices in Florida and New York, press outlets there have beefed up security measures.
At the Clear Channel Communications radio offices in Boardman, William E. Kelly Jr., vice president and area marketing manager, said the company is not commenting on any security measures it might be implementing.
Duzzny said businesses and companies must address the way in which they deliver mail to their employees and be more vigilant in looking for envelopes or packages with strange addresses, severe damage or leaking substances.
Precautionary measures: There also are a number of policies businesses can implement to reduce the chance that any contamination or bombing attempt will cause drastic harm.
"A lot of us are going to find ourselves doing a lot of things we never did before," Duzzny said.
Besides public safety, Duzzny said tightened security can have an economic impact. Preventing contamination of businesses and employees can avert medical and decontamination costs or avoid a shutdown.
He said it is important for any business to develop a plan to address the threats that are surfacing. Besides preventing damage from a possible bioterrorism attack, such plans can prevent damage caused by a disgruntled employee or dissatisfied customer.
"It's easy to say, 'That's not going to happen here,'" Duzzny said. "But that's just not acceptable."