Gallagher charges meth labs as 'terrorist threat to Florida'

Florida's Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher Monday declared methamphetamine labs a domestic terrorist threat to Florida's first responders and citizens.

Gallagher's initiatives are intended to protect law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency response personnel from the dangers they face when making arrests or investigating fires and explosions at illegal methamphetamine labs.

"The criminals who make meth are the equivalent to the makers of any terrorist bomb anywhere in the world," Gallagher said. "These labs are a threat to the lives of first responders as they try to keep us safe and win the war on drugs. Methamphetamine addiction is a high-level threat to our communities, tearing apart families and destroying lives."

Gallagher is joining forces with Commissioner Guy Tunnell, director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to promote specialized training on meth labs to fight back against a disturbing and rapidly rising trend.

A recent survey by the Drug Enforcement Administration indicated that the number of meth labs found in Florida jumped from 28 in 2001 to 332 in 2004.

"These clandestine laboratories are a threat to the environment, a hazard to our communities, and a danger to the officers who seize them," Tunnell said. "This integrated training effort is another important step in Florida's fight against meth."

Law enforcement officers and firefighters face risks every time they respond to a call, Gallagher said. "But meth labs are an especially insidious risk because they are concealed in homes, sheds, motel rooms and even vehicles. Our first responders have no warning they are entering into a potentially fatal situation."

Detectives with the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, a law enforcement branch of the State Fire Marshal's Office, recently responded to a meth lab near Fort Walton Beach that was booby-trapped with more than two dozen wired pipe bombs.

The chemicals used to make meth are highly flammable accelerants that can explode and turn a small fire into an inferno in an instant. The State Fire Marshal's Office has responded to fires and explosions at 29 meth labs in the last three years.

As a result of these experiences, the State Fire Marshal's Office is providing free training for first responders later this month on how to identify, investigate and dismantle labs used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine is manufactured using common household products, particularly over-the-counter cold medicines containing ephedrine.

The Legislature passed a measure this year restricting the sale of over-the-counter products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. The legislation also provides minimum mandatory sentences for those who expose children to the hazards of a meth lab, adds new penalties for meth lab operators who injure law enforcement officers responding to labs, and enhances safety guidelines for the storage and transportation of anhydrous ammonia, another chemical commonly used in the manufacture of meth.

Gallagher applauded the Legislature for these strong measures and said he would ask next year that lawmakers extend criminal penalties for injuries to firefighters and other response personnel incurred while responding to emergencies involving meth labs.

Methamphetamine produces a more potent and longer-lasting high than crack cocaine, and the manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine is on the rise throughout Florida.

According to FDLE statistics, the greatest concentrations of meth labs are found in the Panhandle and Central Florida.

Exact figures on first responder injuries and deaths are hard to collect. According to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), injuries and deaths for first responders dealing with clandestine meth labs are on the rise.

Methamphetamine-related events recorded by the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance system increased from 184 in 2000 to 320 in June, 2004, totaling 1,791 events in the 16 states, including Florida.

These events resulted in almost 960 injuries to police officers, firefighters and other first-responders.

The most frequent injuries were respiratory irritation, eye irritation and burns, but nine deaths were also reported.

The DEA reported more than 13,000 seizures of meth lab and meth lab materials in 2003 alone.

The training being offered in Florida is a model for the rest of the nation.

More than 150 officers and firefighters from throughout Florida and from other states, including New York and Illinois, have signed up for the training courses June 21-23 and June 28-30 at the Florida State Fire College in Ocala.

Staff Report