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First responders get meth lab lesson

November 21, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - The smell of ammonia or ether, packs of matches without strikers, red-stained coffee filters, stripped lithium batteries and unusual amounts of some cold tablets are among the red flags that should alert police, fire and ambulance personnel that they might be dealing with a methamphetamine lab.

"Don't touch. Don't taste. Don't smell," Cpl. Kenny Hassinger told a group of area first responders Monday night at the Franklin Fire Co., explaining that the chemicals used to make methamphetamine can burn skin and damage lungs. The combustible nature of some of the chemicals makes it dangerous even to turn lights on or off at a suspected lab because a spark could cause an explosion.

Hassinger, a member of the Troop H Vice Unit Clandestine Lab Response Team, said fall is the peak season for finding meth labs and chemical dumps in Pennsylvania because "hunters stumble across them."

Anhydrous ammonia, normally used in agriculture, also is used by meth "cooks" and is sometimes stored in coolers and propane tanks, Hassinger said. It is also highly toxic and its fumes can kill, Hassinger said.

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He told the firefighters and ambulance personnel about an incident in another part of Pennsylvania in which a farmer saw some coolers and a propane tank on a hill. Having heard about their use in making meth, he contacted authorities instead of retrieving the coolers.

"It burned out one of our sensors for ammonia," Hassinger said. "The parts per million of ammonia in that cooler was lethal."

He illustrated the hazards with a police cruiser video showing an officer exposed to the gas while searching a car trunk during a traffic stop. One whiff of the gas had blood streaming from his nose.

Hassinger, who also gave a talk to law enforcement authorities Monday, said the typical "mom and pop" meth lab will not look much like a real laboratory.

"They use household items and household stuff" to make the drug.

"There's definitely a danger there," St. Thomas (Pa.) Fire Chief Tom Bigler said after the training session. He said the training will help responders recognize that what appears to be routine could be a threat.

The number of meth labs and dumps uncovered in Pennsylvania has increased each year from less than 20 in 2001 to more than 150 in 2005, Hassinger said. The state has passed laws to make the illegal possession of anhydrous ammonia and red phosphorous - a meth precursor chemical found in match strikers - felonies, he said.

Two meth labs have been found in Franklin County, a member of the county Drug Task Force said. One was in a trailer outside Chambersburg and the other in a Waynesboro, Pa., motel room.

Whenever a meth lab is found, Hassinger said it is treated similar to a hazardous materials incident. Fire and ambulance crews are summoned, the scene is evacuated, a perimeter is established and protective equipment is used as the response team removes and samples the suspected chemicals.

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