Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Fire Protection Specialist Victor Graves.
As the number of arrests for meth possession, usage, and manufacturing continue to rise in communities across the North Country, the emergency personnel trained to keep area residents safe must prepare themselves to be ready to respond should a meth related emergency arise.
“When we are walking onto one of these scenes we’re typically not getting called to a (meth) lab, we’re called for a structure fire, an unknown odor coming from a house or an EMS call for a patient down,” said Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Fire Protection Specialist Victor Graves. “We need to take a little time when we get there to see what’s actually going on and be on the look out for precursors that indicate we have a little more to be worried about.”
Emergency service, hazmat, police and fire department members have to receive special training to safely do their jobs and special trainers such as Graves are bringing more information to them.
About 21 members of fire departments across Essex County joined Graves for a class on recognizing clandestine drug lab operations at the Emergency Services Building in Lewis April 9.
Graves said the eastern part of the state has been fortunate to not have so many cases of these clandestine or “clan,” labs, but in recent years there has been a dramatic rise. In New York, 97 percent of the labs found were manufacturing methamphetamine. Other labs found were producing LSD, MDMA, steroids, illicit mushrooms, methcanthinone and DMT.
The production of meth is accomplished with a volatile mixture of household items that when combined can quickly consume a house or car in flames.
“There have been several occasions where law enforcement has tried to go in and close down one of these labs and ended up being at a pretty significant structure fire,” said Graves.
The drugs are extremely harmful for users but the illegal manufacturing also creates a dangerous situation for outsiders unknowingly walking into that situation.
Graves said fire departments, emergency medical services and law enforcement are frequently first on the scene at a clan drug lab.
Graves said the meth excites its user and delivers a big burst of energy. It is extremely dangerous to the health of users. The drug is extremely addictive and Graves said rehabilitation generally doesn’t help users.
“The drug tricks the brain into releasing a high amount of dopamine, three times more than cocaine, and the high lasts up to 12 hours and damages the brain forever,” said Graves.
Meth users become very dangerous as they are easily excited, paranoid and loose touch with reality, putting emergency personnel at risk.
The labs can pop up anywhere. People use their cars, hotel rooms, storage units, secluded and rural areas, homes and abandoned properties. Graves said some ways to identify a lab at an abandoned structure is if fresh garbage seems to be out by the building or in the yard.
“For every pound of meth there are at least 6 or 7 pounds of dangerous waste,” said Graves.
The improper disposal of these products can be hazardous to the health of anyone exposed.
“When police find a meth lab it is up to the homeowners to clean up the home,” Graves said. “It contaminates everything - clothing, walls, carpets - and clean up is very costly, some slumlords might not clean up the house before they re-rent a property.”
The products for meth are basic products found in most homes including Drano, hot and cold packs, matches, table and rock salts, and alkaline batteries.
“The stuff these people are putting into their bodies is unbelievable, things you can’t even imagine inhaling or ingesting,” said Graves.
Graves showed examples of what emergency personnel might stumble across at the scene of a fire.
“When we talk about clan labs it’s quite a bit different than the lab people think of, no beakers or specialized equipment, they are using hot plates or even two-liter soda bottles,” said Graves.
Emergency personal are told when entering a suspected clan lab to touch nothing as the reaction could be volatile.
“If you find a lab in a vehicle, don’t move it, whatever chemicals you come across in a home assume it’s dangerous as cooking meth comes with a set of reactions if not done properly,” said Graves.
Meth users have been known to set booby traps for anyone who might try to enter their lab or catch them.
“Their main concern might not be to hurt you but to help them get away and destroy evidence.”
Essex County Fire Investigator Jack Hanby said he once investigated a home fire and said the arsonist had set a booby trap to go off if someone went into the basement.
Graves said meth users themselves can be very dangerous and shared one instance where emergency personnel were called to the scene of a domestic violence dispute and a victim who was on the ground with his intestines falling out of his abdomen.
“The suspect was high and felt there were bugs all over his skin and he wanted them out, so he took a knife and did that to himself,” said Graves. “These people not only forget about their own personal safety and hygiene but forget about their own kids, putting everyone at risk and exposure to this.”
Graves said every day there is something different to have to worry about as emergency personnel.
“I wish I could say do this and you’ll be safe, but there is no set thing anymore, you have got to kind of roll with the punches and learn to be cautious,” said Graves.
Classes are planned for Warren County and Clinton County Emergency Services at a later date.
“It’s a sad fact that we have to be prepared to handle these scenes as more and more cases of these drugs are found in our area,” said Brian LaFlure Director/Fire Coordinator of Warren County Emergency services.