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Fighting Meth Dangers with Advanced Protection

Written by Mike Nelson

When storming a meth cook’s lair, first responders confront potential danger lurking behind every corner, in every sealed container, in every breath, in every step. The Meth Awareness and Prevention Project of South Dakota reports that booby traps are often set by paranoid cooks. Those traps include firearms, intentionally-placed explosives, vicious dogs and even poisonous snakes. Dangers associated with seizure and arrest of a suspect rise when a tweaked out cook—delusional, violent and deprived of sleep for as many as five days—attacks with needles, guns, knives and any other object they can muster.

Cooks are not qualified chemists, warns North Carolina’s Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance Program (HSEES). Yet cooks experiment with massive amounts of caustic chemicals in ill-assorted storage locations, handling practices and lab utensils, and they can make 97% to 99% pure meth.

To protect the men and women guarding our communities from meth’s damaging force, frontline law enforcement must be armed with reliable equipment and apparel. As the East Lansing, MI Special Response Team (SRT) can attest, proper quick-donning apparel and training makes all the difference in protection from the impact of meth and other hazards.

A National Calamity

Only a decade ago, methamphetamine was primarily found in rural parts of the southwestern United States. Since then, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that the addictive substance has moved eastward, becoming endemic in urban populations. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports about 730,000 meth users in the United States—nearly 1% of the total population over the age of 12.

Meth is a destructive force entering neighborhoods, ruining lives, dividing families and fueling violence in already vicious, drug-ridden streets. The short-lived, chemically-induced euphoria brought on by a hit of meth is followed by a severe, debilitating crash. The drug rehabilitation and treatment center Narconon reports that meth users are plagued with self-inflicted lesions caused by picking off imaginary “meth bugs.” Users may also experience mouth rot (or “meth mouth”) from a buildup of bacteria and extreme dryness, and permanent brain damage.

Although some reports show a decline in meth usage, the race to fight meth is still on. The DEA reported more than 5,000 clandestine meth laboratory incidents in 2007. Moreover, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) reports that meth addicts and dealers are increasingly stealing identities to procure drugs and finance their businesses.

Also according to NDIC, meth is increasingly funneling into the U.S. from over the border. More than 13,000 kilos of meth have been confiscated at the southwestern border into Mexico since 2001. Similarly, with an increasing market price and a growing demand in the U.S., Canadian production has increased.

Raids and Dangers

Law enforcement agencies conduct raids to take over and dismantle meth labs. According to HSEES, meth labs are commonly found inside motel rooms, motor vehicles, storage units, rural barns and neighborhood homes. Each raid presents different challenges and varying degrees of danger. No amount of preparation can eliminate the uncertainty of what’s awaiting inside.

Meth’s potent concoction puts first responders in contact with corrosive chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and anhydrous ammonia that burn skin, mucous membranes and the lungs, according to the aforementioned South Dakota report. Also looming are highly explosive chemicals such as ether, lighter fluid, Coleman fuel and methanol. Lithium and sodium, which react with air or water, cause injury from explosion, absorption through skin and ingestion.

Highly concentrated toxins, including meth itself, are also present at every turn. Beyond the acute physical jeopardy of a raid, prolonged exposure in multiple incursions without proper training, preparation and equipment has serious dangers. These include cancer, kidney and liver necrosis, or damage to the central nervous system.

In June 2008, Gary G. Olenkiewicz, special agent in charge of the DEA Chicago Field Division, put the dangers of meth into perspective. Olenkiewicz was part of a two-year Indiana investigation that uncovered three meth labs, more than 45 firearms and 5,000 rounds of ammunition, and indicted 64 people and led to 34 arrests.

Regarding this experience, he said, “The discovery and takedown of these meth labs is serious business. The dangerous and toxic chemicals used to produce meth puts the environment and our communities at risk. The cooperative law enforcement efforts during this investigation have made Northern Indiana a safer place.”

Tirelessly, trained professionals must ventilate the affected area and remove and discard everything within the premises, from carpet to ceiling tiles. After HEPA vacuuming and washing with heavy detergent the ceiling, floor, heating cooling devices and duct work, they must then prime and repaint all affected areas. Even at that point, says the Bureau, the area is recommended only for non-occupancy.

For every pound of drug produced, the Bureau of Environmental Health reports five to six pounds of toxic waste are left behind. Site cleanup from a meth lab generally costs $6,500 per 1,000 square feet, up to $150,000 total. The expenses stem from intense processes. HSEES encourages special operators to use Level B protection for assessment and Level C for decontamination of meth labs.

In an atmosphere of great physical and chemical danger, it is imperative that first responders are armed with state-of-the-art equipment. Chemical biological radiological nuclear (CBRN) protection has evolved over the years to meet the unique needs of law enforcement personnel.

CBRN apparel, such as the Frontliner, is now an essential component for protecting those who overtake and dismantle meth labs. Remploy Frontline is a U.K.-based company, but also has an office in Alexandria, VA. CBRN apparel and ancillary products must work in tandem to reduce physical burden and provide operational flexibility in high-risk environments. The Frontliner is a symbol of more than 30 years of dedicated research on the world’s most advanced materials and construction technologies. Quick-donning, lightweight, fire-retardant outfitting keeps first responders—and our communities—safe from meth and other threats.

East Lansing SRT Suits Up

Detective James Hulliberger bought 15 Frontliners to support East Lansing’s SRT. In response to this purchase, Hulliberger said, “The Frontliner offers the desired flexibility to wear body armor both under and over their CBRN ensemble, providing the flexibility and compatibility that we require.” He went on to say, “The Frontliner is the perfect counterpart to the AVON Respirators that we are already utilizing.”

For meth cleanup, Remploy Frontline’s NFPA Class 2 certified Frontliner, a two-layered ensemble, provides optimum CBRN protection. Users experience operational maneuverability and high levels of comfort. “The Frontliner is attractive because of its advanced layering system,” Hulliberger said.

The multi-layered suit, which includes a “cooler” layer, offers temperature control. Officers stay warm in winter and cool when temperatures climb. Moreover, the outermost layer, the “peeler,” is resistant to cuts, tears and abrasions and can be replaced if necessary without replacing the rest of the suit. This keeps costs manageable.

As with any new equipment, proper training is essential in order to gain its greatest utility. “A member of Remploy’s trained Special Forces/ CBRN team hand-delivered our orders,” Hulliberger said. In-person delivery is an imperative aspect of service: highly trained professionals demonstrate the best use and quick donning of the suit.

They also offer a full presentation on the suit’s capabilities, including real-life footage from Iraq of the CBRN ensemble in action. Seeing these powerful images generates the confidence in those who trust their lives to the suit, inspiring optimum performance.

The officers of the SRT serving East Lansing and surrounding areas received custom manufactured suits. This ensures the highest degree of protection and maneuverability during intense situations. Hulliberger said, “This suit has provided us with the ability to go anywhere in a CBRN environment if the need should arise. The members of the SRT have every confidence in this gear.”

Mike Nelson is with Livingston Communications representing Remploy Frontline. He can be reached at mike@livingstonbuzz.com. Remploy Frontline in Alexandria, VA can be reached via frontline@remploy.com or by calling (703) 647-7404.

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2009

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