All of the packages were crudely wrapped, and some contained no return addresses or misspelled delivery addresses and were marked "Urgent: Open Immediately."
All of those are danger signs that the packages may contain explosives, a special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Thursday told the local office staff of Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg.
And the first rule for dealing with suspicious packages, Gerard M. O'Sullivan told nine Quinn staffers, is: "Do not touch them."
As Quinn returned to Buffalo following the closing of the House of Representatives to test the Capitol for anthrax, his staff was getting a refresher course from O'Sullivan and Buffalo Fire Department explosives expert Lt. William Dill.
Though the transmission of anthrax through the mail is the current security issue on many people's minds, the talk by O'Sullivan and Dill reinforced the point that it isn't the only threat public officials have on their minds.
Quinn said that the talk was one law enforcement officials have periodically with his staff, but that this session was expedited in light of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and the anthrax scare.
"We have a lot of changeover in the staff, and we figure 1 1/2 years (since the last talk) is a good time to update everybody," Quinn said.
O'Sullivan and Dill brought several suitcases filled with displays of what explosives, both civilian and military, look like, as well as examples of how easy it is to turn a small package into a deadly bomb.
He held up a cardboard delivery envelope like the kind commonly used to ship documents by express mail. Inside it were a thin sheet of mock plastic explosive and thin batteries, along with the wiring and trigger needed to detonate it.
"This is another example of how you can pack a sophisticated device into a relatively small package," O'Sullivan said.
What makes a package or letter suspicious? A number of things, including excessive -- or no -- postage, a rigid or bulky envelope, oily stains on the wrapper, incomplete or badly written or typed address information, restrictive or unusual markings like "Personal" or "A Gift for You," a funny smell and protruding wires.
If they get a package with any of these tip-offs, or a package that is unexpected, O'Sullivan advised Quinn's staff to immediately call 911.
Quinn said his staff is taking precautions in dealing with the mail. They've been issued plastic gloves, and all mail is now being opened in one room.
It's an extension of the rigid security Quinn said is now in place in Washington, including the full-scale examination of the Capitol.
"It's a little stressful, but we have to continue doing the work we have to do," he said. "I'm more alert than I've ever been. It's hitting pretty close to home. (But) I'm more resolute than ever."
He said the House has had three practice evacuations since Sept. 11, the first such evacuations he could recall in a number of years.
"During the evacuations (on Sept. 11), it was a mass of confusion," he said. "There was no plan."