Last Monday evening, a cadre of police and fire vehicles arrived at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s parking lot, but they were not responding to an emergency. Instead, the Baltimore Jewish Council had brought together local agencies for community training in “How to Handle Suspicious Mail and Packages.”
“This was put together largely in response to what happened at Beth El back in December,” said BJC Executive Director Howard Libit about a suspicious letter received at the synagogue Dec. 16. “There was a recognition that this was an area of training we hadn’t offered before, that hadn’t been a big part of the community. So, we were able to get a lot of different law enforcement agencies, the health department and fire department to come together, to try and address these issues.”
In the wake of the October Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, KKK flyers discovered around the Baltimore-metro area in October and November and again in February of 2019, plus the rash of bomb threats to JCCs in 2017, a heightened sensitivity to unusual mail was not surprising. And although Baltimore County Fire Department personnel ultimately tweeted that “nothing significant” was detected” in the Beth El matter, the question of preparedness remained for area Jewish institutions.
Inside BHC, more than 50 people, including police, fire and health officials, residents and staff people from institutions such as the JCC and area schools, gathered to give and get information on the best ways to respond when something odd shows up in the mail.
Longtime community activist Judith Berger and her daughter Leslie, of Lochearn, through it was important to attend.
“I think there’s a public issue. There’s been a lot of violence and I think it’s important for everybody,” Judith said.
“Particularly in light of Pittsburgh and the anti-Semitism and the KKK flyers,” Leslie said. “I’m concerned about security and safety when you go to events at Jewish institutions. And you worry, how safe is it?”
After three hours of presentations by the Baltimore County police hazardous device team, the fire department’s hazardous materials team and a county public health emergency preparedness coordinator, attendees were versed in the three-pronged county response, what they should look for and what they should do with suspicious mail or packages.
Baltimore County Police Cpl. Robert Conroy, of the Hazardous Devices Team, ran through assessing and responding to phone, verbal or written bomb threats and suspicious mail and packages and how the hazmat team handles such calls. He urged businesses and institutions to be prepared by establishing a Bomb Threat Response Plan, including designating a person of contact, or Site Decision Maker, to interface with emergency responders. A thumb drive on a key ring that includes building plans, photos and other pertinent information and keys to the property should be part of an emergency “tool kit,” so time is not wasted finding needed information and access to the property.
People who find or receive a suspicious package or letter should not touch, tamper with or move the item and immediately contact the Site Decision Maker and call 911.
“Do not move the package; move the people,” Conroy said.
Conroy told the story of a local candidate’s office receiving a strange shoebox-shaped package from overseas with wires sticking out of it. Not sure what to do, the staff left the item in the office for two weeks. Someone finally called police.
“We were able to X-ray and clear it. It wasn’t a bomb,” he said.
But Conroy urged people when confronting a suspicious package or letter to call 911 and notify the Site Decision Maker, clear the immediate area, limit access to the building, offer a detailed description of the item and its location to responders and to not operate electronic devices near the item. The Site Decision Maker should then brief emergency personnel when they arrive and stay available in case they are needed.
In 2018, the county’s Hazardous Device Team clocked 179 responses for service, including for improvised destructive devices, incendiary devices, bomb threats, suspicious items, pyrotechnics, ammunition and even military ordnance. Maryland was fourth in the nation in the number of bomb threats reported in 2016, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Meanwhile, the fire department’s hazmat team discussed what makes for a suspicious package, including excessive tape or string around the item, a rigid or bulky, lopsided or uneven package, protruding wires, oily stains, discoloration or crystallization on the wrapping, inaccurate or odd names on the address or return address labels or a strange odor.
Terry Sapp, coordinator of public health emergency preparedness for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said an emergency public health response is triggered for a number of reasons, including when a suspicious or unknown substance is found, with or without a threat letter, when people experience unusual or atypical illnesses or symptoms without explanation and when a bio-detection system alarm is triggered notifying local, state or federal agencies.
Because biological agents, including anthrax, botulism, plague and small pox are easily dispersed in the air, Sapp urged people to be cautious. When receiving a suspicious package, Sapp said to call 911, not handle or walk around with the item, not move shake, open, immerse, taste or smell the item and isolate the package and turn off ventilation systems if necessary.
“The best thing you can get out of this presentation is the face time… so that when we show up, we can work together,” Conroy said. “Ultimately at the end of the day, the contacts, that’s what’s really important. We want to plan. We want to prepare.”