The clandestine drug lab presents another hazmat situation officers may face. The illegal meth lab may be the most toxic and dangerous environment an officer encounters in all his years of service. Drug traffickers derive meth from commonly available chemicals and solvents. These lab operators are often individuals with little regard for safety - either their own or that of the neighborhood around them. More than 25 percent of all illegal drug labs are discovered because they catch on fire or simply erupt in a violent explosion. (A list of common chemicals used in meth labs can be found at www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/ts/CDL/methhazards.htm.)
Besides the ever-present danger of armed lab operators willing to do anything to protect their operation, officers may be exposed to or overcome by toxic fumes or be inside a structure when the lab explodes. In the final stages of meth production, the so-called "cook" operation, the likelihood of explosion is so great that in most cases the lab operators actually leave themselves.
To heighten officer and community safety, it is critical that all police officers possess a basic understanding and awareness of what they may encounter during a hazardous materials incident. They need to be familiar with hazardous materials placards and their meanings to quickly assess potential dangers on-scene. Training should also instruct officers in establishing an incident command center and determining an incident command authority. Regulations and hazmat operations set ups vary from state to state making it critical that training be geared to each state's specific requirements.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) has established training levels for individuals responding to hazardous materials incidents under the HAZWOPER rule (see CFR1910.120). This document mandates all law enforcement officials be trained at the Awareness level (Level 1) which trains an officer to:
- recognize the presence of hazardous materials at an incident scene;
- know how to survey the incident scene from a safe location and identify the potential hazardous materials present by name, materials placard type, ID number or from MSDS sheets;
- recognize the signs of a terrorist attack if chemical, biological or radioactive materials are suspected;
- notify appropriate responders and provide as much detail as possible; and
- initiate protective actions to ensure the safety or evacuation of persons in the area.
Level 1 training, which typically involves a 4- or 8-hour course, should include a combination of classroom, video training and actual hands-on incident simulations and cover both fixed-facility and transportation-related incidents. The training also must introduce officers to the types of protective equipment used at a hazmat site and cover fit testing of full-face respirators.
Level 1 training courses are offered by a number of training companies and in most states either through the state police, state fire marshal's office, or local police or fire departments.
OSHA mandates law enforcement officers expected to respond to hazmat incidents at the Operational Level (Level 2) take an additional 24-hour (three-day) course in how to contain a hazardous release and effectively evacuate an area. In addition officers learn how to select and use the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) including full-face respirators and self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). This training also covers decontamination procedures.
Officers receiving either Level 1 or Level 2 training should also take an appropriate refresher course each year. A variety of private training companies, some universities and larger metropolitan departments, as well as state police departments, provide training opportunities geared to field officers' needs. Hands-on field simulations with these other public safety organizations are a must for adequate training. By taking this training alongside firefighter and EMS personnel, officers learn to understand the problems and concerns of all public safety entities involved in a hazardous situation.
Driving away is not an option for law enforcement professionals in hazmat situations. To keep themselves and the public safe, however, officers need the wherewithal to stay. This comes through adequate training and preparation well before an incident occurs.