By Grant Cameron
When arriving at a suspected illegal cannabis grow-op or drug lab, firefighters should quickly size-up the outside of the building and be on the lookout for hazards before going in, says Dale Moore, fire protection specialist at the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management.
“Size-up is so important when firefighters go to a suspected grow-op home,” he told an audience at a session on grow-ops and drug lab hazards at the 2019 conference of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs held at The International Centre in Mississauga, Ont., in May.
Grow-ops are fraught with difficulties and traps that can kill firefighters who are not careful, he said.
Moore spoke for an hour on the topic and gave a rundown on what firefighters should look out for as well as the dangers they face when they are called to extinguish a blaze at a grow-op. He spoke from experience as he once found himself in the basement of a grow-op.
Years ago, firefighters didn’t have to worry about grow-ops but they are a big hazard now, he said.
Moore told the audience about two Philadelphia firefighters who died in the line of duty at a fire that started because of wiring and lamps used to grow marijuana in a basement.
He said grow-ops are found mostly in heavily-populated residential neighbourhoods but are also sometimes in agricultural and industrial areas.
He noted that one grow-op in a $600,000 townhouse was discovered because an adjoining unit had mould.
“They are now going out to smaller communities, figuring they’ll never catch on in a rural area, but police are finding them.”
Moore presented a series of photos to drive his point home. One photo showed a grow-op home that looked normal from the outside. Others showed homes with wiring all over the place.
One photo showed a camper trailer that had been demolished by a butane-extraction explosion, with a massive debris field. Yet another showed a camper trailer in Caledon, Ont., that had a butane can embedded in the wall, the result of another blast.
“That’s compressed gas,” noted Moore. “They’re going to fly all over the place.”
Moore said there are sometimes telltale signs of a grow-op, while other times there are none.
Coloured smoke from a fire scene, compressed gas cylinders in the yard, or vicious dogs, are indicators of a grow-op, he said.
Darkened or covered windows, humidity in the windows, multiple locks on doors, steel-barred outer doors, a lot of roof vents, staining around the windows or eavestroughs, and empty butane cans strewn about the outside are other telltale signs of clandestine operations.
If firefighters see a lot of pails wrapped in cellophane they should get out of the area immediately because there could be lethal chemicals on site, he said.
Moore said he once went with a warrant to a house that had a three-car garage and found barrels of toluene and acetone which, if there was a fire and water was added, would cause problems. Turns out, the owner of the house was making meth for the Russian mafia.
If firefighters end up inside a grow-op, Moore said they should be on the lookout for entanglements, weakened structures and possible electrocution hazards.
“I can’t stress to you the importance of situational awareness,” he said.
In a grow-op, firefighters have no idea what’s in the ceiling, he said, and there could be fans with shrouds that can fall and cut firefighters, and ductwork with wires that cause entanglement.
He showed examples of how electrical bypasses are set up, which pose safety problems for firefighters, because they might put their hand into live wires in a heavy-smoke situation. Lamps used in marijuana grow-ops also have wires which can entangle firefighters.
Meanwhile, said Moore, firefighters should also be on the lookout for booby traps which are often set up at grow-ops to protect them – not from the police – but from rival drug dealers.
Firefighters at a grow-op shouldn’t turn anything on or off, he said, and just get out of the building, as dealers can set up a trip wire that closes a circuit and sends a current to a blasting cap which will explode. Even a mouse trap can be set up to trigger an explosive charge.
“Get out the way you came in,” he said, noting that shotgun shells on a floor could also indicate a booby trap.
Upon exiting a grow-op, Moore said firefighters still have another very important task to perform.
“When you come out the first thing you should do is an emergency decon,” because if there’s toxic mould in a home a firefighter might carry it and end up contaminating a fire truck.