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Meth labs and officer safety

 By Tim Schultz, Special Agent, Wisconsin DOJ, Narcotics Bureau

Editor’s Note: Special Agent Tim Schultz will be conducting a virtual seminar, “Clandestine Laboratory Investigations: Awareness and Safety,” on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 from 1:30 – 3:30 PM central. Click here for more information and to register for access.

When the term “meth lab” is mentioned to law enforcement, EMS and fire departments, officials pucker up. Officers are often afraid of meth labs because of all the horror stories that are told about labs blowing up or officers getting exposed to chemicals. In reality there is no reason to fear meth labs but we must respect them for what they are and what they can do. Officer safety can be summed up with respect and common sense.

Recognizing what meth labs look like is most important. So often when we see a picture of a meth lab, it portrays a Mexican super lab with 22-liter round bottom flasks and four foot-condenser columns. That’s not reality for most of us. The most common lab seen in the US is nothing more than an unsophisticated reaction vessel (5-gallon bucket, cooler, soda bottle or Pyrex dish) and some common kitchen utensils. Sometimes the lab is more elaborate but we must get out of the mind-set that a meth lab looks like Einstein’s chemistry lab.

To be safe, an officer should never enter a lab unless trained and equipped with personal protection equipment. There are times when responding to a call, an officer finds himself in the middle of a lab. This is where we “see and flee.” Remove the occupants as quickly as possible and vent the lab by opening windows and doors on the way out. Set up a safety perimeter.

The next call is to a lab team who is trained to deal with a meth lab. Too often, officers think they can deal with the lab themselves because it’s only “a few chemicals that I have in my garage and the occupants are ok” (the canary theory). This is where respect and common sense come into play. You wouldn’t try to defuse a bomb because it is “just an alarm clock attached to some fireworks”. Call in the experts who are trained to deal with the lab and then document your exposure on an Exposure Report (required by OSHA).

Don’t forget to do a personal decontamination by washing your hands and face immediately. Your clothing also must be decon’d and don’t forget to wash your footwear before you go home to avoid contaminating your home.

As law enforcement officers we are trained to improvise, adapt and overcome. When it comes to meth labs, though, slow down and think first of personal and public safety. Sometimes it may require setting up a perimeter and waiting out the situation.

Remember, you can’t flush a meth lab with all the equipment down the toilet. There will always be something left over to make your case. Even if you lose the lab case, the number one priority is to go home safely when your shift is done. The meth cooker will cook meth again, “once a cooker, always a cooker.” Respecting meth labs and common sense can keep you safe.

Read more about the upcoming Clandestine Laboratory Investigations: Awareness and Safety virtual seminar.

About the author

Tim Schultz has been a Special Agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Narcotics Bureau for 30 years. He travels throughout the country teaching law enforcement officers about controlled substances, including methamphetamine, and clandestine laboratories.

He has also testified as an expert witness in both State and Federal courts in controlled substance cases. Additionally, he is the State of Wisconsin's expert on methamphetamine and clandestine laboratories and he has testified in front of the Wisconsin State Legislature in support of methamphetamine legislation.

Special Agent Schultz is also available for in-person presentations on methamphetamine, clandestine laboratories and general drug identification to law enforcement and private business. His methamphetamine presentation has been very well received at high schools throughout Wisconsin, and the drug identification presentation has been very popular at teacher in-services. Any organization interested in an in-person presentation tailored to address specific needs can contact Special Agent Schultz via email at Schultz.Tim@gmail.com.

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