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Trainer’s Corner: May 2010

This column will be somewhat of a review. Samuel Johnson, a writer in the 1700s, said “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” I trust these reminders of the dangers of dealing with meth labs will benefit your department.

April 26, 2010
By Ed Brouwer

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This column will be somewhat of a review. Samuel Johnson, a writer in the 1700s, said “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” I trust these reminders of the dangers of dealing with meth labs will benefit your department.

The following is a report on a scenario CanWest Fire just ran during our SOO HOT weekend for the Boston Bar / North Bend Fire Department. This was our fourth weekend with this department in as many years. It’s a volunteer department under the leadership of Chief Ernie Ferguson, Deputy Chief Eric Phibbs and Asst. Chief Crystal Baughman. 

This year our weekend began with a bit of a twist. The department members met at Hall One while we set up at Hall Two. The officers and firefighters expected to come for orientation and some theory, however we used their dispatch to call in a “reported smoke” and “alarm sounding”. 

When the first truck arrived on scene they discovered actual smoke coming from the eves of a large one bay wooden structure. There was a smoke detector sounding from inside. We had posted “No trespassing” signs and blacked out the windows along with boarding up the back entrance. There were garbage bags and cans out at the front entrance. As the crew put on their PPE, the IC did a size-up and one member established a manpower staging area. As other apparatus arrived, firefighters reported to staging. The size-up revealed little if any heat on the front door and a light grey / white smoke coming from the attic vent and some of the eves. A search team was established to make entry. The front door was checked and safely opened. Team members entered and informed the IC they were doing a right-hand search. To their credit, the team did look left behind the door before proceeding (you would hate to miss a victim within easy reach of the entry team).

As search members continued, they crawled over lots of garbage and broken furniture.  As they entered the second room (we had built this within their fire hall) they discovered a 45-gallon drum with a corrosive chemical placard attached to it. One firefighter informed the IC of this while the lead firefighter – who had just discovered a propane tank with a plastic hose leading to a large pot under a table – reached to shut of the propane tank. As he did that, his partner called out, “Something doesn’t look right . . . ”  Our instructors – watching through the theatre smoke – felt the firefighters had disturbed the scene enough to initiate our explosion. We ignited a “cannon” cracker and dropped it through the safety lid on the 45-gallon drum. Although the explosion was much louder during our rehearsals, we knew we got our desired results by the loud exclamation of “Oh crap!” Both firefighters were considered down and now RIT was called on.  

It was perhaps a bit mean spirited for us to do this first thing Saturday morning but at least they won’t forget this for a while.

The following points were addressed during our debriefing.
 
Explosions
The most dangerous stage is called the “cook”, the final heating or chemical-reaction step, which may take up to 48 hours. It is not unusual for lab operators to set up a cook and then leave the lab until it’s done. This is the time when a lab is most likely to blow up. 

Many meth lab explosions have been the result of anhydrous ammonia or phosphine gas tank explosions; liquid ammonia stolen from agricultural supply houses is loaded into small propane tanks by lab operators.

Red phosphorus has been banned from commercial sale for years, but lab operators have discovered that it can be extracted from wooden match heads. A coffee can full of match heads has the same explosive potential as a small pipe bomb.
 
Flammable chemicals
These can be stored in every type of container imaginable and hidden in closets, under stairs, under tables or even out in the open. These include common solvents such as acetone, methanol, benzene, toluene, Freon and ether. Other solvents that might be present include kerosene, petroleum ether and chloroform.
 
Booby traps
One lab had a trip wire that dumped a jar of acid into potassium cyanide crystals, releasing hydrogen cyanide gas on unsuspecting responders.
 
Toxic chemicals
In the early stages of an incident, firefighters may be exposed to sufficient concentrations of toxic chemicals to cause severe health problems, damage to the lungs, chemical burns and / or freezing (exposure to anhydrous ammonia), severe injury to eyes and blindness.

Iodine crystals are used to form hydriodic acid, a key component, along with red phosphorus, in the conversion of pseudoephedrine to methamphetamine. When heated even slightly, iodine crystals convert to a gas. This purplish iodine-containing gas is highly toxic and can cause intense eye and mucous membrane irritation.

You may discover lithium batteries stripped apart to extract the lithium metal, which is used in one of the chemical reactions.

A final class of chemicals in the meth lab will be acids like sulphuric acid (muriatic acid or battery acid), hydrochloric acid along with drain cleaner (sodium hydroxide), potassium hydroxide and ammonium hydroxide.

Touch nothing. Meth labs contain all sorts of hidden hazards. The risk of explosion is great. Do not turn off any heating devices or hot plates (too rapid cooling can lead to adverse chemical reactions). Don’t even turn off lights – they could be booby trapped.

Get out as quickly and safely as possible. Relay any and all pertinent information to the IC. Move apparatus, equipment and staging to a safe zone.

Keep in mind that a meth lab is a crime scene. It is a responsibility of the fire department to preserve evidence.
 
Meth lab update
Meth cooks have come up with a new, one-pot method. Also known as “shake and bake” this method takes less time, leaves less mess and the result is just as strong and addictive as the meth produced in bigger meth labs.

With ingredients small enough to fit inside a backpack, this new method eliminates the ammonia odor, the usual tell-tale signal that a meth lab is present.

Meth cooks are using this method because it is quicker (about 30 minutes) and less traceable. It is extremely dangerous and very popular now, because of the crackdown of traditional meth labs by law enforcement. Often done in a vehicle or motel room, this method involves mixing pseudoephedrine and ammonium nitrate in a plastic two-litre soda bottle.

Law enforcement officials claim the new shake-and-bake process is even more dangerous than the old makeshift meth labs. If the bottle is shaken the wrong way, or if the cap is loosened too quickly, the bottle can exploded into a giant fireball.

When the old clandestine meth labs caught fire the cookers would just run away. But with the shake-and-bake method, they are actually holding the bottle when it explodes.

The new method can be carried out in any size or type of vehicle. These mobile labs can explode while driving in traffic or parked near a school. Trash from these mobile labs is usually thrown into the ditch along the highway. These discarded containers the meth is made in contain a poisonous brown and white residue and can explode. Recyclers could now be at great risk.

The old labs were somewhat mobile – indeed, firefighters responding to MVIs have discovered small meth labs in the trunks of cars. In August 2006, investigators in Brigham City, Utah, found meth in a the tractor of a semi trailer along with pots and pans used to cook it. A hazmat team was called in to decontaminate the officers and suspects. More recently, in February, deputies in Mississippi arrested two suspects in connection with a mobile meth lab. Deputies pulled over the suspects after they noticed a strong chemical odour coming from the SUV.

These new shake-and-bake labs they can be found anywhere. I urge you to remind your members of the hazards revolving around meth production.

On a side note I was surprised that I was able to purchase everything I needed to fill my crystal meth recipe (old style), including cooking equipment, at our local hardware store – no questions asked. After speaking with management we agreed to drop off a list of products used in meth production.   

Please, train like their lives depend on it, because they do. 


Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in
Osoyoos, B.C., and the training officer for West Boundary Highway
Rescue. The 20-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden
with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland interface fire
suppression instructor/evaluator and a fire-service chaplain. Contact
Ed at ed@thefire.ca


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