Marijuana: A Growing Hazard on the Fireground

July 10, 2009
Indoor grows affect everyone, including the safety of local residents to fire, EMS and law enforcement responders.

If your fire or EMS agency is dispatched to" possible" indoor marijuana grow operation do you know how to recognize one? What happens if your responders find one during routine activities? Who can you call for assistance?

An indoor marijuana grow operation is an illegal operation where marijuana plants are grown or engineered to maturity and sold, or the concentrated resin (hashish oil) is extracted from the plants. To maintain the best grow environment for these plants, growing operations are typically established in urban residences and rental properties. Law enforcement operations in indoor marijuana grows have the potential to escalate into a hazmat, fire or EMS response.

A Growing Problem
Marijuana grow houses are houses or other locations in rural, urban and residential areas that are converted for the purposes of growing marijuana. Indoor marijuana grow operations are regularly found by law enforcement agencies and appear to be increasing in numbers. Indoor grows affect everyone from the residents of the community to first responders. The number of grows in the U.S. and Canada is on the rise increasing the risk to everyone. Local criminal elements and organized crime can be involved in the operation and distribution. These operations can range from very simple to extremely complex.

Warning Signs

  • Security - Unusual amounts of "Keep Out" or "Beware of Dogs" signs may be present. High fences, locked gates, heavy chains and locks visible.
  • Smell - Indoor marijuana grows will produce a heavy smell of marijuana that can be recognized outside the location. Growers may attempt to camouflage the smell with other products.
  • Condensation - Humidity in growing rooms can reach as much as 100 percent producing large amounts of precipitation on specific windows.
  • Lights - High intensity lamps are used in the indoor growing operation. High intensity light can be seen around doors or windows. Houses may appear much brighter than surrounding houses.
  • Covered windows - Windows may be covered in black plastic, heavy curtains or drapes that will be closed tight and pressed against the windows. This is to prevent any telltale amounts of light to escape and to prevent natural light from disrupting the artificial light cycles.
  • Open Windows - Windows might be cracked open during winter months in various rooms of the house to cool the house and grow room due to excess heat from high intensity lighting.
  • Excess Air Conditioning Units - Small houses with two or three air conditioning units that would not be needed to cool that size home and these units running during winter months or during periods of cooler temperatures.

All the above indicators and others are not proof that you have found an indoor marijuana growing operation; they should raise a "red flag" for the responder to be more aware of their surroundings.

Responder Hazards
Responders should be very cautious of any items or locations that arouse curiosity.

  • Violence - Criminals and criminal elements that want to steal the large amounts of cash available or the profitable plants themselves have targeted indoor growing operations. This has prompted growers to arm themselves or place "booby traps" to protect their investments. The factors can be a risk factor for first responders.
  • Fire - Fire hazards have included exposed live wires, wire bundles, wires exposed to water or in contact with water and a large number of high-intensity light bulbs. Also some grows will utilize several extra exhaust fans which can aggravate the spread of a fire in a residence.
  • Atmospheric - One of the greatest hazards can be an oxygen deficient atmosphere. Any atmosphere that has an oxygen concentration below 19.5 percent or above 23.5 percent is dangerous. Carbon Dioxide is often artificially introduced to the indoor grow area to assist with plant growth. Flammable gas, vapor or mist in excess of 10 percent of its lower flammable limit (LFL). Ozone generators are commonly used to reduce or eliminate the odor of an indoor grow, ozone is a known chemical carcinogen.
  • Electrical - A residence in which indoor grows are operating can use three to 10 times the power of an average residence. The growers will attempt to "bypass" the normal distribution of power and steal additional power for their operations. Those with little or no understanding of electricity typically attempt this bypass that leads to very unsafe conditions and fire hazards. Ballasts used to run high intensity grow lights can maintain a charge for up to 15 minutes after being unplugged. Hydroponic grows combine two incompatibles: water and electricity.
  • Environmental - Molds present a very unique health hazard in an indoor marijuana grow. Without respiratory protection, mold exposure to an officer conducting operations in an indoor grow can cause allergic reactions, sinus and respiratory distress, even death in some cases. Large amounts of fungicides, pesticides, acids, and bases are stored and disposed of improperly including being poured down drains and sewers.
  • Structural Factors - Homes used for indoor marijuana growing operations can be altered. These alterations are implemented to product the maximum growing environment for the plants and to disguise the growing location. Walls will be moved to make room. The high levels of humidity will lead to growth of dangerous fungus and molds causing damage to insulation, walls and ceilings. Some grows have been discovered in underground rooms and tunnels. These underground rooms and tunnels are considered confined spaces and must be dealt with as confined spaces. OSHA guidelines must be followed and only those properly trained may act as an entrant, attendant, or confined space supervisor. No other persons can make entry into this environment.
  • Hazmat - Many extraction techniques utilize flammable and volatile solvents. These can include acetones, camp fuel and isopropyl alcohol.

These grows can also produce up to 50 30-pound garbage bags that may be illegally dumped off site. In addition to the chemical and process hazards at an indoor marijuana grow, responders need to also be aware of anti-personnel devices (APD) or "booby traps." These devices are sometimes designed to protect the grow owners 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. First responders should not attempt to move, handle or disarm a confirmed or suspected IED or "booby trap." This is a job for specially trained personnel.

Response Guidelines
Please remember to follow local guidelines and procedures -- this article is for informational and educational purposes only.

Preparation is the key and that includes a clear idea of your actions before the incident or operation occurs. The first step in your preparation is providing proper training to all response personnel. This should include identification of indoor marijuana grow operations and an awareness of the risks associated with indoor marijuana grows. Indoor marijuana grow operations can be discovered during an emergency response or will most likely be discovered when conducting routine response activities. Growing operations been discovered in different locations such as houses, attics, basements, apartments, storage units, barns and other locations.

  • During routine fire/EMS calls if outdoor or indoor marijuana grow is suspected local law enforcement should be alerted immediately and the area should be secured.
  • The fire service may need to provide law enforcement with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and other tools/equipment.
  • Attempting to control a structural fire may be very hazardous to the fire attack team.
  • If an initial fire attack is in progress when the location is identified as a growing operation, withdraw the attack teams and shift from an offensive to defensive operation.
  • Discontinue overhaul and leave the structure if chemicals, plants and/or drug apparatus are found.
  • Decontamination considerations before any entry, especially in case of a responder emergency, needs to be thought out carefully. Focus on hasty or emergency decon procedures.
  • If a drug lab is found upon entry into a structure, alert other responder's on the 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.
  • Fire/EMS responders must use care when interacting with growers.
  • Remember, you have also happened upon an illegal activity, which is also a crime scene.
  • For first responders who encounter a indoor marijuana grow 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.
  • Notify local law enforcement immediately!
  • If your jurisdiction has a hazardous material response team they may also need to be summoned to the scene to assist with decontamination 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.

  • Do not touch anything in the grow.
  • Do not turn on any electrical power switches or light switches.
  • Do not turn off any electrical power switches or light switches.
  • Do not eat or drink in or around a grow.
  • Do not open or move containers with chemicals or suspected chemicals.
  • Do not smoke anywhere in or near a grow.
  • Do not sniff any containers.
  • Do decontaminate yourself and your clothing.
  • Do wash your hands and face thoroughly.
  • Do call your local law enforcement as soon as possible.

Safety is paramount for all responders during these types of events! Again, please remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is impossible to cover all the issues that will need to be addressed during an indoor marijuana growing operation response. Each community should have some type of a plan in place to address these types of events. Hopefully you will gain some information to take back to your agency to assist with your planning and training efforts. The more our public safety agencies prepare, the better they are prepared to respond to effectively manage any type of situation that might arise. The community has entrusted us with their let's prepare now.

AUGUST VERNON, a Contributing Editor, is currently an assistant coordinator for a county office of emergency management. August returned to his position at emergency management after a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range convoy security operations involved in several IED and combative engagements. He has been employed in emergency management for eight years, also served as a member of the fire service and served in the U.S. Army as a CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) Operations Specialist. August is the author of the new First Responders Critical Incident Guide published by Red Hat Publishing. RICK HETZEL is currently an assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation where he is the assistant team leader for the NCSBI tactical team and supervises the Clandestine Laboratory Response Unit. Rick has responded to over 400 clandestine drug lab operations and tactically entered over 75 labs.

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