What are the risks and inherent dangers when firefighters are facing a blaze that resulted from a meth lab? What should firefighters do when they suspect a fire has been caused by the existence of a meth lab? Are clandestine meth labs more prevalent then they were a few years ago? These questions and others will be addressed in this paper.
What States' Firefighters have the biggest Threats from Meth Labs?
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (and the Drug Enforcement Agency) the states with the most meth labs (as of 2011) are Missouri (2,684 busts in 2011), Indiana (1,364 busts in 2011), Kentucky (with 1,084 busts) and Tennessee (1,130 busted meth labs). Other states that have a great deal of meth lab activity include Oklahoma (916), Michigan (365 labs busted), Mississippi (269 labs shut down) and Iowa (380 labs busted) (DOJ, 2012).
These states have had labs dating back to the early 2000s, and though the law enforcement authorities have found and shut down labs, they spring up again. In 2004 there were 1,173 labs discovered in Illinois and in 2011 there were another 579 labs busted, according to the Department of Justice.
Zeroing in on Methamphetamine -- Dangers & Cautionary Steps
Clandestine methamphetamine laboratories make up more than 90% of "…all illegal drug seizures in recent years in the United States," according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (Division of Public Health). In the year 2002, 34 clandestine meth labs were busted in North Carolina. Street names for meth include: chalk, crystal, Hawaiian salt, pep pills, wire, glass, crank and meth (among other names). One of the reasons that accidents happen in meth labs (and that first responders such as firefighters are called to the scene) is that making meth "…requires minimal training and limited amounts of equipment and chemicals" -- most of which are not expensive (NC H&HS).
The dangers are not just present in the process of heating the mixtures; rather, there is danger also in the waste left over because it is toxic. For each pound of meth that is produced, five or six pounds of toxic waste are left over as a by-product.
And besides the danger that is part and parcel to the production of the drug, the suspects that are involved in the production can be dangerous, the North Carolina web site explains. Meth "cooks" might be armed and they might themselves be under the influence of meth, which can make them paranoid, trigger-happy, and even delusional about the situation they find themselves in. The drug cooks may actually leave "explosive devices" as a defense mechanism; hence, firefighters entering the building know to be a drug lab should be extremely cautious. Also there could be "unsafe electrical devices" that could cause an explosion, the NC H&HS report explains. Additionally, the meth lab cooks may have a vicious dog on the premises and there may be alarm systems that alert armed defenders of the illegal labs.
In particular, there are dangers associated with the drugs. The chemicals used to produce meth can cause fires, explosions, and the chemicals themselves are toxic and may be kept in containers that "incompatible with [the] contents" (NC H&HS). For example, a firefighter should not be pouring water over unknown substances, because there can be a violent reaction when water hits sodium or lithium metals. The exposure to methamphetamine chemicals can cause "…shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, dizziness, lack of coordination, tissue irritation, and burns of the skin, eyes, nose and mouth" (NC H&HS).
There can be more to a Meth Lab than Illicit Drugs
Even though firefighters and other emergency responders face new dangers often, Tim Hadlock writes in the site Fire Engineering that "…it is the obscured dangers of clandestine laboratories that have become the most dangerous to emergency responders" in recent times (Hadlock, 2010). As was mentioned earlier, there can be traps set by the suspects for law enforcement and firefighters; Hadlock is speaking of "improvised explosive devices" that present a challenge to firefighters. Once an explosive device is ignited, there is always the danger that the hazardous chemicals in the building could explode violently and suddenly, causing a huge amount of damage and injuries to first responders.
Also, it is noted that these meth labs are usually operated by people who are addicted to the drug, and hence their behavior when pinned down as to their activities is totally unpredictable and indeed they may have weapons and while under the influence of this insidious drug, they may use weapons as a last resort (Hadlock, p. 1).
What Hadlock mentions on page two of his essay what is vitally important to firefighters who may be sent to the scene of a fire where meth lab activities are suspected to be going on. "Illicit drugs are not the only items manufactured in the clandestine labs," he writes. "Toxic and biological substances, improvised explosive devices, incendiary weapons, and radiological weapons…" are also known to have been produced in these labs (Hadlock, 2). Who would be producing radiological weapons in a meth lab? Hadlock says this could be done (and has been done) by "domestic and international terrorism" and indeed, anyone with access to the Internet can download the instructions as to how to make meth and weapons.
As previously mentioned, meth lab operators often use "protection devices to ambush law enforcement officers or unwanted intruders"; sometimes a trip wire, for example, will alert the lab workers that law enforcement is in the building (or trying to enter the building) and that gives a warning that gives the suspects ample time to escape (Hadlock, 2). Besides trip wires, meth lab individuals have been known to use "land mines, guard dogs, acid bombs, and concealed traps"; meth labs can be found in vehicles, as noted, but also in farms, rental properties, storage units, hotels or motels, apartment buildings, vacant structures and single family dwellings (Hadlock, 3).
Entering a suspected laboratory a firefighter should look for certain tell-tale signs of meth production. Those include: propane tanks, high-pressure cylinders, turkey basters, rubber gloves, hot plates, Pyrex or other cooking dishes, mason jars, soda bottles, rubber tubing, coffee filters, aluminum foil, measuring cups, solvent and various chemicals (Hadlock, 3).
Some of the Chemicals Used in Meth Labs
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services offers a list of chemicals that may be present in a meth lab, whether it is a small lab or a large facility. Those chemicals include: flammable and volatile solvents like methanol, ether, benzene, methylene chloride, trichloroethane, and toluene. Some more common chemical include muriatic acid, sodium hydroxide, table salt, ammonia, anhydrous ammonia, red phosphorous, iodine, and reactive metals (Wisconsin Department of Health Services).
Although it is nearly certain that firefighters already know this, the Wisconsin DHS also suggests that firefighters should wear "at a minimum" protective eye wear, protection for hands and feet. Also disposable gloves are important (of latex or nitrile) and if available a disposable jumpsuit (by Tyvek) can protect first responders.
The Wisconsin DHS reminds first responders that in terms of the clean up, and the process by which the building can be made safe (assuming it did not burn to the ground in the fire or explosion that brought the firefighters in the first place), the building must be aired out "for several days." And the plumbing must be inspected (waste products that may be toxic can be dumped into sinks, toilets and drains).
"Trust Your Instincts" -- If it looks and smells like a meth lab, it probably is one
In the web site Fire Chief, journalists William Lindsey and Michael DeNicola explain that the number of clandestine meth labs is "on the upswing," and for law enforcement and first responders that means trouble and danger (Lindsey, et al., 2010). Lindsey explains that the Southeast has recently been "hit hard by the meth scourge" and the Southeast is by way of becoming the fastest-growing area of the country for clandestine meth labs (according to the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Agency).
For firefighters, the probability is that there may be a meth lab (with all its dangers) that will present a challenge to them, no matter where they live but in particular if they live in the Southeast, Lindsey wrote. The most common materials to be found at clandestine meth labs include: hazardous materials; "various types of cylinders"; corrosive and flammable materials; and "large amounts of trash and debris" (Lindsey, p. 1). When a firefighter arrives on a scene and sees these items and materials, being able to properly identify them could mean the difference between life and death "…when a fire or explosion occurs at a meth lab" (Lindsey, 1).
Of course first responders are well trained in terms of how to handle emergencies, but even the most well-informed, well-trained firefighters can be "challenged" by the clandestine meth lab, the authors explain. And when a meth lab…