While it would be paranoid to expect a version of Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Jesse Pinkman wreaking havoc in every community, illegal drug labs do exist — and they are hazmat situations.
Granted, incidents of these labs reportedly dropped after a 2006 law requiring certain over-the-counter medicines that can be used to make methamphetamine be put under pharmacy control. As one would expect, the lull didn’t last. For example, in 2012 North Carolina investigators reported 328 clandestine drug labs uncovered in 2005. That number dropped to 197 in 2006, but shot back up to 344 by 2010.
As recent as this past November, Greensboro, N.C. authorities uncovered a drug lab in an apartment complex. Hazmat units were on scene for that incident. And further dispelling the myth that these labs are confined to either remote, rural areas or to southern border towns in California, New York City police and fire uncovered and responded to a drug lab in an otherwise vacant Bronx apartment.
It is important to remember that in addition to law enforcement and fire incidents, these are hazmat threats. Here are three ways to keep your hazmat crew — and fire, EMS and police on scene — as safe as possible.
Be prepared to do air monitoring from the onset. These labs often have poor-to-no ventilation, partly due to covering windows and such to conceal the operation. The labs can contain quantities of raw materials, processing materials — such as propane, urine, lye, ammonia nitrate, anhydrous ammonia, sulfuric acid and lithium — and the finished product. Often this process leaves behind both explosive and highly toxic gasses.
Use a multi-gas meter, or photoionization detector, to measure for volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene and acetone — all commonly found in labs. These instruments can simultaneously monitor for volatile organic compounds with low vapor pressures while measuring for combustible, toxic or oxygen-deficient atmospheres.
Prepare for unconventional decontamination. We are used to performing decon on firefighters or exposed civilians. However, in these situations that decon can include suspects in police custody. It can include police equipment like ballistic vests, firearms and tasers. And police are often reluctant to hand over these items. K-9s used for ferreting out criminals, drugs or explosives will also have to be decontaminated. This can be especially tricky depending on the K-9’s level of training and how it responds to being manipulated by those other than the dog’s primary handler. If you are looking for a different hazmat training option, practicing decontaminating police dogs is a great way to build trust, see where the problems lie and spend some time with really cool work animals.
We all grumble about how much better police are funded. They have access to more grants, bigger budgets and lest we forget the asset forfeitures that pour in after a big conviction. The grass always seems greener on the law enforcement side. And this issue is a chance for fire-based hazmat teams to play on their side of the fence. Work with law enforcement agencies on ways to share in their funds for hazmat training and equipment that will be used on clandestine drug lab operations.
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