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Penn. Firefighters Learn How to Handle Explosive Meth Labs

The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.

Jan. 09—A forensic scientist who works full time for the state police spent about three hours Monday night explaining to more than 75 first responders in Mifflinburg about the indicators and the hazards associated with meth labs.

"The idea here," said Rebecca Patrick, "is if a fire department would walk in on something suspicious, it would set up some red flags and they can make sure the police department gets there and understands what they could potentially be exposed to."

On Oct. 19, a fire in a second-floor apartment on Thompson Street followed an explosion caused by what police described as a methamphetamine lab mishap. It was this incident and others, that convinced Mifflinburg Hose Company Fire Chief Steve Walters to bring in police experts and now, forensic scientist Patrick, to teach a class called "Clandestine Lab Awareness."

First responders from Mifflinburg, the West End, and even New Berlin showed up at the Mifflinburg fire station for the program. "We've had a number of meth-lab incidents in Mifflinburg, in the Valley in the last 18 months," Walters said

He called in Patrick, to do an in-depth lesson that would include discussions about when meth is volatile and when it's not.

"We need to learn that even going into a fire, if there is a secondary burn, what to do," he said. "Not to move it, let it alone. These things explode. We've also had a number of mobile labs that most people don't know about. The police put it this way: if there is one, there is a dozen in the Valley. They're cooking it in their kitchen and teaching friends one, two, and three how to do it.

Most fire department people don't like HAZMAT, don't like chemicals, Patrick said. "They would rather go in, put the fire out and be done. HAZMAT is a little slower. You have to step back and think about it, put all the pieces together. So, a lot of times just having knowledge about everything is what the fire service is about now."

The number of meth labs in the Valley is drastically increasing, Patrick said. There were seven in Union County, nine in Northumberland County, one in Montour County, and three in Snyder County in 2017. "There'll probably be more this year. The trend is up, not down."

The northwestern part of the state has a large number of meth labs that were discovered, she explained. "The Berwick area is very heavy with meth labs. It's only recently moved to the middle of the state. Meth labs are everywhere now. We only had nine counties in Pennsylvania that didn't have any labs that we found."

Patrick explained to the group that their biggest problem as firefighters "are the chemicals involved. A lot of chemicals they are exposed to are flammable chemicals, and if that were to get into their turnout gear, the next fire they go to, it could cause more problems. There are also a lot of corrosives, acids that could get into their gear. If not cleaned properly there is the potential that their gear could explode."

Patrick, who is a Bucknell University graduate, 1998, has a chemistry degree.

She explained how easy it is for people to make meth, "and since they are not chemists, how things can go wrong, leading to explosions and fires."

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