Some exterior structural indicators you may see during your initial windshield survey: covered (plastic) or painted windows, chemical odors, and homemade bars on doors or windows, chemical containers and glassware (indoors or outdoors). Stains on walls and ceilings, corrosion of metal surfaces, unusual pipes or ducts coming from windows or walls, fans in inappropriate places, portable generators for outdoor sites, propane tanks with unusual valves or attachments or other types of pressurized containers with unusual valves or attachments. Look for objects and people that seem out of place for the location or time of the call -- if it looks suspicious it probably is. All the above indicators are not proof that you have discovered a clandestine drug lab; they should raise a red flag for the responder to be more aware of their surroundings and the situation they are dealing with.
The top 10 hazards associated with these locations include:
- Flammable and/or explosive atmospheres.
- Oxygen deficient or toxic atmosphere
- Leaking and/or damaged compressed gas cylinders.
- Clandestine labs located in confined spaces.
- Water reactive and pyrophoric chemicals.
- Damaged and leaking chemical containers.
- Electrical hazards and sources of ignition.
- Reactions - in progress, hot, under pressure.
- Incompatible chemical reactions.
- Bombs and booby traps.
When incompatible and reactive chemicals are being mixed and cooked in confined spaces, tremendous amounts of hazardous waste can be produced. In addition to the chemical and process hazards present in a clandestine lab, responders need to also be aware of anti-personnel devices (APD) or booby traps. These devices are sometimes designed to protect the lab operator's investment while they are away and also to serve as warning devices to aid in the owner's or operator's escape. Unfortunately, they can also incapacitate responders. Fire responders hould not attempt to approach, handle or disarm a confirmed or suspected APD or booby trap. This is a job for specfically trained personnel.
Clandestine drug labs can cause three main types of harm: physical injury from explosions, fires, chemical burns, and toxic fumes; environmental hazards; and child endangerment. Preparation is the key and that includes a clear idea of your actions before the incident occurs. The first step in your preparation is providing proper training to all response personnel. This should include an awareness of the hazards and risks associated with clandestine drug labs:
- If a drug lab is suspected, local law enforcement should be alerted and the area should be secured.
- If responding to a working fire a structure or vehicle containing a known lab it is a good idea to conduct rescues, protect exposures and let the chemicals burn. This will depend on your local guidelines.
- Attempting to control the fire may be very hazardous to the entry team.
- Runoff may be an issue.
- In the event of a small fire, use dry chemical or carbon dioxide extinguishers.
- If initial fire attack is in progress when the location is identified as a lab, withdraw the attack teams and shift from an offensive to defensive operation.
- Evacuate all structures surrounding the incident and initiate hazmat zones.
- Discontinue overhaul and leave the structure if chemicals and drug apparatus are found.
- Decontamination considerations before any entry, especially a responder emergency, needs to be thought out carefully. Focuses on hasty or emergency decon procedures.
- If a drug lab is found upon entry into a structure or at a vehicle, alert other responder's on-scene without delay and do not touch anything including light switches. Back out immediately and watch for anti-personnel devices and other hazards. If possible bring all occupants out with you.
- Responders must use care when interacting with a meth user.
- Remember, you have also happened upon an illegal activity, which is also a crime scene.
- For first responders who encounter a clandestine lab first, and identify it as such, regular hazardous material response procedures or guidelines should be followed.
- Most hazmat guidelines dictate that hazard zones are set-up, all response personnel and vehicles are positioned up-wind and all other people be kept out of the area.
- If your jurisdiction has a hazardous material response team they may also need to be summoned to the scene to assist with decon and setting up the control zones. Upon their arrival brief them with your findings and actions. Support and assist them as needed.
- Several decisions will need to be made. Unified command is the key!
Please remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.