Published in the Current
Scarborough’s police and fire departments have dealt with several suspicious packages in town, and though they have not yet encountered anthrax spores, they are ready.
In the past two weeks, as anthrax scares have occurred in Westbrook and Portland, four suspicious packages or envelopes have arrived in the mail at Scarborough addresses, including Town Hall. None of them actually contained hazardous material, said Police Chief Robert Moulton.
Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams said only one suspicious letter has been reported to his department. It turned out to be a thank-you note from a local resident. Another situation in which a postal carrier was concerned about a skin condition turned out to be a damp magazine cover that rubbed against his arm and shredded, Williams said.
He said the police will typically respond first to a report of suspicious mail, “to determine why it’s suspicious.” A contaminated package or area would be dealt with by the town’s fire department, Williams said.
People should respond differently to this new type of threat, Scarborough Chief Moulton said. It’s a big change from the “pull the fire alarm and leave” response people have traditionally had to an emergency.
Instead of evacuating a building that could be contaminated, Moulton said, the procedure should be to isolate the people within the area.
“You go to a lockdown state, when everybody stays where they’re at.”
While it could be hard on people who are quarantined and for their loved ones, who may want to see them, Moulton said the isolation of possibly-exposed people is to prevent the spread of any contaminant and does not pose a risk to those isolated.
“You’ve either been exposed or you haven’t,” he said. But a contaminant on someone’s clothing could be spread if the person evacuated the building and came in contact with other people.
Once a substance or package has been identified, Moulton said, it will be contained and removed by the police or firefighters.
In the case of the Town Hall package, it was still sealed and not leaking. It was suspicious, however, because it was sent from India with excessive postage and was about the size of a hardback book.
The police evidence technician went to Town Hall, Moulton said, and sealed the package in several layers of plastic before coming back to the police station, where it was examined in a contained environment.
The Town Hall packet was found to be from a civil engineer in India looking for business.
“It was junk mail, basically,” Moulton said.
When a package is opened or if a substance escapes from it, the incident would be treated as a hazardous materials event, Moulton said. Firefighters would show up in protective gear to contain the substance and collect it.
If a powder or residue needs analysis, Moulton said, it would be contained in several layers of plastic and sealed in a canister before being taken to the Maine State Police lab in Augusta. It would be taken in a town police car, which could use its lights and sirens along the way, Moulton said.
When you encounter a suspect package or letter, Moulton said, leave it alone and call 911. The dispatcher will ask you a series of questions to help determine the appropriate response. Among those questions will be: Is the package opened? What kind of area is it in? Is anything leaking or protruding from it? Is it irregularly
Depending on the answers to those and other questions, the police and fire department will respond with appropriate personnel and equipment, Moulton said.
The most important thing to remember is after you call 911, don’t evacuate, but instead stay put until authorities say it is OK to leave. This is counter to fire-safety training, and even the opposite of the normal response to a bomb threat, Moulton admitted, but he said it is a very different sort of threat.
“It’s a different mindset than we’ve been used to,” he said.