Capital Response Squad Tracks Real, False Alarms


The mail facility at Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport shut down for 90 minutes last month after a grainy, green powder spilled from a package from Ethiopia, raising fears of a biological hazard. It turned out to be ground-up dried peas, reports the Washington Post.

A local subway station was shut down after something mushy was spotted; it was chicken and brown rice. Traces of a white substance were found on a package at the Pentagon; an analysis showed that the mystery material was Alfredo sauce. Since the deadly anthrax mailings 2 1/2 years ago, the FBI’s National Capital Response Squad has responded to thousands of false alarms involving suspicious substances or packages. Lately, the squad has handled an average of five to 10 incidents a week, but the numbers can jump much higher. “In the very beginning, it was hard not to think every time you roll out the door that it’s the end of the world,” said FBI supervisor Jim Rice, who heads the squad. “Then you get a lot of historical perspective. We still treat each one like it’s real until we prove that it’s not.”

Nearly every case has turned out to be a false alarm. Agents still are attempting to determine how traces of ricin wound up in a letter-opening machine in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The squad, created in 1999, more than doubled in size in fall 2001 to handle the spike in calls generated by fears about anthrax. It now has 15 agents, all of whom are hazmat specialists, bomb or crime evidence technicians or SWAT team members. The Post gives examples of how the team responds to reports of suspicious substances.


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