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iBerkshires.com Columnist Section

Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Hot Spot: Meth Lab Training For Firefighters

By Susan Bush
06:33AM / Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meth labs may look like this [law enforcement photo]
Pownal, Vt. - When the threat is a methamphetatmine laboratory, the leadership of the Pownal Valley Volunteer Fire Department and the Vermont Police Academy prefer a proactive stance.

A 40-firefighter contingent that included firefighters of the Pownal Valley and Bennington Village fire departments as well as the Pownal Protective Fire Association department spent about two hours Monday evening learning the specifics of meth labs and the special risks they pose to emergency responders and the community. The session was presented by police academy Training Coordinator Cindy Taylor-Patch.

Vermont is not known as a hotbed of meth activity. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin have a much tighter grip on addicted residents, said Taylor-Patch. But the items used to concoct methamphetamine within home-made "meth labs" are flammable and explosive, and the trash generated by a working lab is also extremely hazardous, she noted.

"We want to be proactive in this state," she said. "We don't want to wait until we have an abundance of meth labs. So many states already have experience with meth addiction epidemics."

More Than Meets The Eye

Vermont law enforcement officers have encountered two meth labs since 2000; one lab was detected in 2004 and another in 2005. But while those discoveries indicate a low incidence of meth and the labs that create the drug, Taylor-Patch said that there is risk in becoming complacent.

"As we all know with any drug, there's more going on than we know about," she said.


Pownal Valley Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Joel Howard [iberkshires file photo]
Recent legislation approved in numerous states that limits the sale of key meth ingredients, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, found in cold medicines, has helped reduce the national meth problem, she said. But meth and meth labs are far from extinct and the presence of either is a genuine danger any community.

"EMS workers and firefighters are among those most likely to be exposed [to risks]," Taylor-Patch said, and noted that EMS staff may be called to lab when those trying to make meth are burned by the chemicals involved, and firefighters may be called when the chemicals ignite or explode.

Mason Jars And Chemicals

Labs may be built in residences and may be as basic as a Mason-type jar, some tubing and a hot plate, or may be erected in old barns and garages and consist of sophisticated glassware, heating elements, and resemble scientific facilities.

All the equipment and chemicals needed to launch a meth lab may be purchased legally, she noted. The chemical list includes dry gas, lye, particularly Red Devil lye, acetone, and Coleman fuel, she said.

Firefighters were given instruction about the labs and the variations of appearance during the education session.

"You'd probably see a lot of buckets and tubes, and it really doesn't have to be high-tech," Taylor-Patch said.

One reason for the extra effort about meth education is the proximity of the problem; both New York and New Hampshire have experienced more significant instances of meth labs. A New York man was recently arrested after law enforcement agents discovered the man was having certain items shipped to a Vermont post office box. The man was collecting the items from the PO box and using them in New York, Taylor-Patch said. He was caught with several ounces of methamphetamine, she added.

Occupational Hazards

There are meth lab risks posed to utility meter readers, U.S.Postal Service workers, trash collectors and a slew of other individuals who may have legitimate reasons for being near a meth lab and be unaware of the dangers.

"That's why we involve so many people in our trainings," she said. "We want people to recognize the signs of meth addiction - there's actually a condition called 'meth mouth' - and we involved nurses, doctors, and dentists in our training. Because the garbage from a meth lab is toxic, we've involved the [state] Agency of Transportation and private trash collectors. For every pound of meth created, there is about five or six pounds of toxic garbage left behind. [Meth addiction and creation] hits so many professions in so many ways. And while we in Vermont have a low incidence of meth labs, it is not a zero incidence."

Every Bit Dangerous

PVFD Assistant Fire Chief Joel Howard arranged for the training. Howard is also the elected town constable. The PVFD Fire Chief is Jerrod Lillie.

"There is a possibility that local firefighters could encounter this and I wanted to get the training," he said during a telephone interview. "Until the training, I didn't realize how dangerous even a small lab could be. Every bit of one of these labs is dangerous."

If area firefighters were to encounter a meth lab, next steps would include contacting the state police, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and a hazardous materials removal team [Haz-Mat].

"It could be a big deal," he said. "So now, since the training, if we come upon something, we know what we're looking at and what all the components might be."

Additional Training Planned

Howard plans to schedule additional firefighter training sessions. One session may involve search and rescue techniques and include some work with a VSP canine search unit.

Additional trainings about rescues involving hybrid vehicles are being planned, he said. Hybrid vehicle fire and rescue training is necessary because the vehicles use both traditional vehicle fuel and electricity as power sources and require different rescue and flame extinguishing strategies, he said.

"The hybrid vehicle trainings are important," he said. "Everything about those vehicles is different."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or 413-663-3384 ext. 29.
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