Over a nearly three-week period, 23-year-old Mark Conditt terrorized the Austin area with a series of package bombs that claimed the lives of two victims and left many others wounded. Many of the bombs were made using common household items — nails, “mousetrap” or “clothespin” switches, and other materials that are readily available to the average consumer. Though his motives remain unknown, one thing is certain: the residents of Austin will never look at their mail quite the same way again.
While it could be tempting to write the actions of this serial bomber off as an isolated incident, history tells us that businesses should be increasingly vigilant in the coming months and years as they watch out for suspicious packages.
Though you may already have response procedures in place to deal with an active shooter or other incidents of workplace violence, taking action to address this potential threat could also have a life-saving impact.
Why should businesses be on the alert if the events in Austin have come to a close? Unfortunately, high-profile crimes often generate more than their fair share of copycats. Individuals see the fear or damage that others caused and want to achieve the same level of notoriety and “fame.”
There is already precedent for this in the tragic realm of school shootings. In a 2015 study published by Mother Jones, a known 74 copycat cases had been reported in the years following the 1999 Columbine massacre. Many of the threats and attacks showed a disturbing obsession with Columbine: “at least 10 cases cited the Columbine shooters as heroes, idols, martyrs or God,” while “14 attacks were planned for an anniversary of the Columbine attack.”
The copycat effect isn’t limited to high-school age students. The perpetrator of the 2015 mass shooting at Umpquai Community College in Oregon left behind a manifesto in which he cited other mass shooters as “ones who stand with the gods.”
While these disturbing incidents are generally associated with mass shootings, there is little reason to doubt that the recent events in Austin could easily provoke copycats who attempt to use similar tactics. Whether it is a drive for media attention, a desire to get “revenge” against supposed wrongs or another sinister motive, history shows that copycats will more than likely come.
As a business owner, you aren’t as likely to be in a position to identify potential copycats and enlist the help of law enforcement before they act out (though you should still be aware of how you can mitigate workplace violence). But you are likely to become a target — and this makes learning how to deal with suspicious packages a top priority.
Any time an unexpected package arrives at your facility, you should exercise additional caution. As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security notes, however, suspicious packages and letters often share key identifying traits, such as being left behind at your doorstep without being delivered through normal means. This is exactly how Mark Conditt started his reign of terror.
Even when delivered through a legitimate carrier, a suspicious package can often be identified by issues with the labelling. Dangerous packages frequently lack a return address and are addressed to a generic business title rather than referring to an individual by name. Unusually restrictive messages, such as “do not x-ray” or “personal” are often written on the package — and many common terms could be misspelled.
The packaging itself can also reveal when there is a danger. Be on the lookout for excessive tape keeping the package shut, as well as oil stains, protruding wires or a strange smell. All of these could indicate that the package contains a bomb or another dangerous substance.
By helping your employees know what to look for, you’ll be better prepared to take appropriate action if a suspicious package arrives at your doorstep.
The cliche saying “better safe than sorry” is always applicable when it comes to these potentially dangerous situations. You should never try to investigate the package yourself to determine whether or not it is dangerous. Even minor tampering could be enough to set off an explosive device.
If you’ve already begun opening the package and recognize that something is wrong, don’t open the package any further or attempt to empty it out. Instead, set it gently on the closest flat surface. If the mailing appears to contain a toxic substance that could circulate in the air, shut off any nearby fans.
While carefully covering the letter or package may seem like a good idea, you don’t want to risk bumping the parcel and setting off an explosion. Instead, you should immediately call 911 or another local authority and evacuate the area. Be sure to warn everyone in the building — having an emergency response plan already in place will allow you to get the alert out quickly and effectively.
When leaving the building, keep in mind that you may not be able to return for quite some time, especially if the package really does contain a bomb or a dangerous substance. When possible, take your keys, purse and phone with you as you exit so you can avoid getting stranded. You likely won’t be able to re-enter the building until authorities deem it safe to do so.
Anyone who handles mail should be trained on how to identify suspicious packages, as well as given the resources to quickly report a potentially dangerous arrival to their supervisor. A prompt response is essential for protecting everyone at your business, and establishing proper reporting procedures now could help you save precious minutes during an actual emergency.
There’s no telling how soon we might see copycat bombers begin their own attacks on commercial and residential locations in other parts of the country. It only takes a determined person a brief period of time on the internet to become an operational bomb maker.
But while you may not be able to control the actions of certain deranged individuals, you can control your level of preparedness. By making sure that your entire team is trained to identify and appropriately respond to suspicious packages, you can keep your company safe and avoid a tragic outcome. Nobody wants the guilt of being the supervisor who failed to prepare their team.