Fire Instructor Development, Firefighting, Hazmat, Structural Firefighting

Firefighting in Clandestine Drug Labs

BY JAY D. MICHAEL

Firefighting is dangerous, and so is hazardous materials response. Combine the two, and you see the problems with a response to a clandestine drug lab. One problem is that the lab is intentionally set up to be clandestine or secret; therefore, hazard marking systems (e.g., NFPA 704, Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response, 2007 ed.; material safety data sheets; and labels) are not present. The “chemists” work hard to be deceptive and will sometimes place booby traps to prevent unwanted visitors from entering. Often, the firefighters have no idea they are operating in a clandestine lab until very late in the operation. Knowing what to look for will help you to improve fireground safety.

Clandestine methyl amphetamine labs come in two basic sizes—super and small-time. Often, the small-time labs are more dangerous than the super labs because “inexperienced chemists” handle hazardous chemicals, sometimes even making their own reagent chemicals. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of methyl amphetamine manufactured will yield five to seven kilograms (11 to 15.4 pounds) of toxic waste. This waste is dumped in household drains, in vacant lots and fields, and on roads.

COOKING METHODS

Red phosphorous/iodine is a common simple production method used for large-scale meth operations. Ephedrine or pseudophedrine is heated with red phosphorus and hydrochloric acid. The red phosphorous may be obtained from a matchbox striking surface or fireworks. White phosphorous may also be used; it is even more dangerous as it ignites when exposed to air. The hydrochloric acid is usually homemade from red phosphorous, iodine, and water. If this mixture is overheated, phosphine gas is produced, which is extremely toxic and can ignite spontaneously.

In the conventional method (also known as the Nazi or Birch method), sodium or lithium and anhydrous ammonia are used to reduce the pseudoephedrine. This is relatively simple and quick and is usually suited to small quantities, typically ounces. The anhydrous ammonia produces a very noticeable smell that is easily perceptible to neighbors.

A common method of obtaining anhydrous ammonia is to steal it from agricultural storage or use sites. When this is not possible, homemade anhydrous ammonia is used. The process uses a tank (propane, thermos bottle), fertilizer, a cold compress, lye, and sulfuric acid. The chemical reaction creates a gas that is channeled through a tube, condensed into a liquid, and captured in a bottle for later use. If you run across something that looks like a “still,” it may be a working anhydrous ammonia manufacturing system. Exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause inhalation and skin burns.

HOMEMADE HIGH-TEMPERATURE PRESSURE VESSEL

The reaction vessel is a steel pipe that is threaded on both ends. A cap is placed on one end, the reaction chemicals are placed inside, and a second cap is tightened on the other end. This device is placed into a molten solder bath and allowed to cook. The solder is used to conduct heat evenly; it is easy to maintain a constant temperature and doesn’t boil away like water or oil. It also produces little odor. Methamphetamine and other illicit drugs may be produced in this fashion.

Some dangers associated with this method are exposure to corrosive, flammable, and airborne toxic materials; but the primary danger is the pressure vessel. Several hundred psi of pressure can be built up in the “pipe bomb.” Assume that the vessel will detonate at any time. Metal from the pipe and molten solder will fly through the air, which may create burns or cause death. A boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) could result from the boiling liquid, expanding vapor in the “pipe bomb.” Crews sent in to decommission the lab need to evaluate the adequacy of their protective clothing against a molten metal splash.

ONE-POT METHOD

The one-pot technique was validated in 2004. Pseudophedrine tablets are crushed and placed into a nonpressurized container (usually metal) with ammonium nitrate fertilizer, water, and a periodic addition of lye. The automotive starting fluid may be used as a solvent, and lithium from batteries is added. This solution is filtered, and homemade hydrogen chloride gas is then introduced to form the crystals. Salt and sulphuric acid are used to make the hydrogen chloride gas. Although this method is quick and produces little in the way of noxious odors, a flash fire can occur when the lithium is introduced. As a result, the container needs to be “burped” on a regular basis; otherwise, the container may fail, exposing the ingredients to the air. In addition to flying metal, the lithium in the air presents a further explosive danger. Take all precautions for fire and chemical explosions; ensure that the container is open to relieve the pressure and prevent pressure buildup.

ELECTRO-ORGANIC PRODUCTION

The restrictions placed on reagents resulted in a shift in meth manufacturing. One method is to apply a direct current (DC) charge through an electrolyte containing the precursors to produce the drug from electromechanical drug synthesis. This method is very inconspicuous for small quantities and requires no specialized chemicals or cooking containers.

In this process, palladium or platinum has a DC current passed through it to produce hydrogen at the surface of the cathode, which is then used to convert ephedrine or pseudophedrine to methyl amphetamine. This method occupies a very small space and thus is more easily concealed. Clues may include wires attached to metal rods or screen, alligator clips attached to vehicle cigarette lighters, and small DC transformers that plug into wall outlets. This method is quite attractive for transportable labs in the trunks of cars, vans, and even box trucks. Although airborne toxins and other hazards are reduced, corrosive chemicals and fire hazards from the toluene and airborne hydrogen chloride are still present.

CHEMICALS AND EQUIPMENT

Chemicals include precursors (chemical building blocks), reagents (chemicals to alter or polymerize precursors), and general purpose chemicals (solvents, acids, alkalis to aid in the reaction and isolate the product).

Equipment may include household items substituted for lab equipment, oven bakeware used for beakers and crucibles, pseudoephedrine (over-the-counter cold medicine), ether, denatured alcohol, toluene, lantern fuel, acetone, kerosene, hydrochloric acid, brake cleaner, iodine, lithium, and lye.

DANGERS

The chemicals involved are usually liquids and have a pH lower than 2 (strong acids such as hydrochloric acid) or higher than 12.5 (strong caustics such as anhydrous ammonia). Acids and bases can react violently when mixed. In addition, ammonia produces a corrosive, toxic vapor; there is a corrosive, reactive liquid mix during synthesis and fire danger from exposed lithium.

FIREFIGHTING

It is easy for first-in companies to overlook many clues to a clandestine lab. Meth lab “chemists” may attempt to divert emergency responders to the wrong area so the “chemists” can leave the area.

The street value of methyl amphetamine is quite high; so many labs incorporate improvised security. Holes in floors, boards with nails protruding, and operators with guns are common measures. Sometimes there are multiple small cooking labs in one location; therefore, should one lab have a problem and its operators have to leave, the other cookers may pose hazards if they are left unattended. This is probably most prevalent in the one-pot method.

The increased heat release rate for a fire involving a meth lab is different from what you would expect. You may find it difficult to extinguish the fire with a 1¾-inch handline because of the amount of chemicals, which are not normally found in residential structures. Fires burn more like a garage fire but in a “smaller than a garage” area. Sometimes these fires produce a strange color of smoke, although it is hard to distinguish when mixed with the smoke of today’s plastic furniture fires. The tightly sealed cooking rooms may alter smoke travel.

Some of the cooking methods produce noxious odors; the labs are sealed in an attempt to conceal the cooking from neighbors and passersby. Frequently, makeshift vents are used to direct the fumes away from the cooking rooms. The common attic space is a favorite venting location, since it is not occupied and odors may go unnoticed. Smoke travel and flame spread may not be what you would expect from your size-up. Communicate to Command the findings of the interior crews; Command also needs to relay this information to all on the fireground. If the fire is not behaving as Command would expect and progress is not being made, switch to a defensive operation.

SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS

Properly worn structural firefighting personal protective equipment (PPE) will offer protection for short periods of time in a clandestine drug lab. The use of SCBA is mandatory. The primary routes of exposure are inhalation and ingestion. Skin absorption is less common, because the inherent nature of structural firefighting PPE reduces the chance of absorption. Good work habits are mandatory. Don’t eat or drink around drug labs. Wash your hands before going to rehab. Remember to wash structural firefighting PPE after the incident. Shower and change and launder your clothes.

Ventilate the structure early. Using positive-pressure ventilation during overhaul will prevent vapor buildup. Limit overhaul to checking for extension and ensuring complete extinguishment. Rotate crews if possible; it is best to limit crews to one air bottle and then have personnel stay out of the building. Do not perform restoration or salvage operations, since, during the manufacturing processes, aerosolized methamphetamine and other contaminates will permeate porous/semiporous material (wood) within the structure and be a potential health hazard to future occupants or occupants in other apartments. This can extend to automobiles used as mobile labs. Leave the hazardous material cleanup of the clandestine lab to those specifically trained in that function. This should substantiate the earlier suggestion of an early switch to a defensive operation. Don’t risk your crews for something that may be unsalvageable because of events before the fire.

A suspected meth lab is a crime scene; you must notify the police. The use of unified command helps the operation and should be set up as soon as possible. The police understand the crime scene; we understand the firefighting. Don’t try to do both. Alternative housing may need to be secured for occupants of other apartments as well. Restrict access to fire and police personnel and civilians. Many times, police will want to investigate their crime scene. Most times, a few digital photographs taken of the fire area will provide enough information to allow the police to get started on their investigation while keeping them out of harm’s way.

• • •

Clandestine labs are just that—clandestine. The people who operate them do not want to be caught. It is a dangerous situation, and being aware is your first line of defense.

References

“Forensic Science Service—Mehylamphetamin,” Dr. Mike White, Drugs Intelligence Unit, The Forensic Science Service, October 2004.

“First Responders and Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratories: Chemical Contaminants, Exposure Concerns, and Possible Toxicological Sequelae,” Ami Ruffing, Center for Environmental Health and Safety, Southern Illinois University.

A Typical Clandestine Drug Lab Fire

The Elkhart (IN) Fire Department responded to a structure fire in a seven-unit multifamily dwelling. Light smoke was showing from the second floor. Weather conditions made it difficult to determine the exact location. Each apartment had its own front and rear door, which exited directly to the outside of the structure (photo 1).


(1) Front entrance. Positive-pressure ventilation is used to clear airborne contaminants. (Photos by Chris McFarland.)
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The apartments were wood-frame, three-story loft construction. One fire victim who was ambulatory at the scene came out. He had second-degree burns (it was later determined at the hospital that the burns covered more than 27 percent of his body). He said the fire was out and that we could leave. His friend was attempting to direct the first-in engine to another apartment (delay the response tactic?). A search crew found the fire apartment, and the attack crew was redirected.

On entry into the apartment, crews found three floors with circular stairs connecting them (photo 2). The attack crew advanced a 1¾-inch attack line to the third floor and extinguished the fire, which appeared to be in a mattress (photo 3). The truck crew ventilated the third-floor windows on side 3, set ladders for egress, and checked other residences for occupants and extension. All occupants were evacuated without incident, and no extension was found.


(2) Circular stair leading to the cooking room.
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(3) The cooking room. Cooking utensils are located in the lower left on the blue tub.
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Neighbors came to Command and indicated they thought the occupant might be operating a methamphetamine lab. Command informed the crews. When the smoke cleared, the attack crew found what appeared to be a methamphetamine lab next to the bed that had been on fire. The attack crew used very little water to extinguish the fire and proceeded to protect the area without disturbing the scene. The overhaul/extension crew found no fire damage to the first and second floors. There was light water damage on the first floor and moderate water and smoke damage to the second floor.

On arrival on the third floor, crews found little fire damage; it was primarily contained to the mattress and bedding. The safety officer entered and found a blue pot, approximately five quarts in size, lying upside-down on the floor in the burned area. Also within the area of origin were remnants of two types of plastic bottles, a salt container, an open package of lithium batteries, and clear plastic tubing. A blue plastic box with items on top was next to the area of origin (photos 4, 5). These items included an approximately five-pound bag of ammonium sulfate, a measuring cup, and other sundry items. Digital photographs were taken of the items and shown to the police in the command unit.


(4) The blue pot is the cooker.
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(6) Note the coffee filters and clear plastic.
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It was determined that we were operating in a clandestine drug lab.


(6) Pliers and batteries in the background are used to get lithium for the cooking process.
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In Indiana, the state police have crews to decommission and clean up methamphetamine labs. We notified them. The police remained on the scene to secure the area. The state police crews sometimes require assistance from fire crews in decontaminating the team, but that was not necessary in this instance. Crews returned to quarters and cleaned up. We downloaded our photographs and gave them to the police.

JAY D. MICHAEL, a 30-year veteran of the emergency services, has served 22 years with the Elkhart (IN) Fire Department, where he is a battalion chief. He is an Indiana fire officer III and an instructor II/III. He is an adjunct instructor at the Elkhart Fire Department Training Academy and an instructor at Michiana School of Fire and Emergency Services at the University of Notre Dame. He is a member of the Indiana Fire Instructors Association. His areas of expertise include incident management, building construction, and fire behavior.