Firefighters get training on meth lab identification

Published 5:00 am Friday, October 16, 2009

With the production of methamphetamine becoming more of a dangerto local emergency responders, Lincoln County and area volunteerfire departments are taking the first step to make themselves moreready to respond safely in meth lab situations.

This week, firefighters from Ruth, Hog Chain, East Lincoln,Zetus and Friendship volunteer fire departments attended a drug laband hazardous materials response class held at Ruth Volunteer FireDepartment on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The first two nights’discussions also touched on radiation and pesticide safety, but themeat and potatoes of the class was clandestine drug labresponse.

“There are a lot more meth labs in this state than you realize,”said Mississippi State Fire Academy instructor John Pope. “Meth hasreally become a problem because it’s easily made and veryaddictive. It’s ruined a lot of families and lives.”

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Ruth Fire Chief Teresa Lawrence said her department asked tohost the class because it is a chance to learn about things thatcould save their lives.

“There are so many meth labs out there around us,” she said.”You really don’t know what you’re going to happen upon at a call.We need to be aware.”

On Thursday night, Southwest Mississippi Narcotics EnforcementUnit Agent John Whitaker visited the class to show firefighterswhat to look for when responding to a fire. Using several props, heshowed the group basic signs of meth lab activity.

“When you walk out this door, I want you to be able to look at ascene and say, ‘That’s a meth lab,'” he said. “This is training alot of cops don’t even get.”

Pope and Whitaker told the group of the dangers of the differentkinds of methamphetamine production, including the fact thatoftentimes meth users have become so dependent on the drug thatthey don’t take normal precautions in the process.

“I’ve caught people making it in their house with the kidssitting right there,” he said. “Fifty percent of the time, that’show it is.”

And the fact that once people begin to produce the killer drug,it becomes a whole way of life for them is especially disturbing,Whitaker said. He explained that the mindset of a meth user becomesmore and more delusional and paranoid.

“They learn how to make this stuff, and they get proud of it,”he said. “They start thinking they make the best dope in theworld.”

In addition, oftentimes meth users will booby-trap their labs,so that law enforcement or fire service personnel that come acrossit are in danger for their lives, Whitaker said.

The instructors used the props, a system of bottles withsimulated methamphetamine production items in them, to explain howsometimes all that has to happen to cause an explosion is for abottle to be knocked over. He also emphasized the importance oftreating meth lab components with the utmost respect. Just sniffingthe contents of a bottle can make that the last breath you take, hesaid.

“If it looks in the least bit suspicious, back up and give thisman a call,” said Pope while referencing Whitaker.

Red phosphorous labs are especially dangerous, the instructorssaid, because the deadly phosphane gas produced in an explosiongoes to the floor, and people are taught to crawl below the smokewhen escaping the house.

Meanwhile explosions are often caused by improper storage ofanhydrous ammonia, which can explode if not kept in the right kindof container.

“Most people don’t know these things, but it’s important thatyou do,” Whitaker said. “You can go to that house fire at any time,and it could be started by this or this could just be there.”

Zetus Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Robbie Fauver said he wasglad to be a part of the class because the information given couldsave his life or the lives of others in his department.

“It’s good to know what’s in the area so you don’t go into ascene and inhale something and then you die,” he said. “It’s niceto know the different signs to look for.”

And Pope said while the public is not always educated to thedangers of meth production, it could actually be the differencebetween living and dying for firefighters.

“This is important because you’re on the front line in a lot ofrural areas where meth is a very prevalent drug,” he said. “Anyfire could have it, and you don’t know what’s behind that nextdoor. Volunteers make up most of the fire service and it’simportant for them to have this kind of training so they’reprepared in a life-or-death situation.”