Vermont's hazmat team was called to an undisclosed office building in Berlin after a chemical explosion sent an employee to the hospital.
"I'm not sure why he was doing it here. They don't do any kind of chemical work here. Obviously he was doing something he shouldn't be," Vt. Hazmat Chief Christopher Herrick said.
Luckily, this scenario is fake. But a dramatic spike in the number of mobile meth labs has these first responders taking the drill seriously. What they learn could save their lives.
"The biggest concern that I have is the safety of my personnel. And so by practicing, they get used to dealing with the unknown and the hazards that come with an unknown lab like this," Herrick said.
All hazmat technicians complete 120 hours of specialized training to be on the team. For this meth drill, they first establish a command post, and then get medical clearance to suit up. Once their oxygen tanks are in place and their suits are sealed, the entry team heads inside. Carrying a camera, they find the source of contamination hidden in a storage closet. Outside, a second crew monitors what they're seeing. The recording will later be turned over to police and prosecutors as evidence.
To understand their working challenges, I suited up myself.
Hazmat officials say they've responded to more meth lab calls in the last six months than in the previous 20 years combined.
"I would be able to put everything I need to cook meth in a backpack," Herrick said. "It's not going to look like a lab up at the university or a chemistry lab at a high school. It's not as sophisticated as that."
In many cases, meth makers cook in the woods, using household items like soda bottles and batteries. The leftover trash is dangerous. When the metals used to make meth come in contact with water they can explode.
"Can you imagine a Boy Scout troop or somebody else out there picking up a bottle and then it catches on fire in their hands or in a bag with other bottles," Herrick said.
Authorities don't want to cause public panic, but warn against picking up plastic bottles with dark remnants and ash in the bottom.
"If it doesn't look right, you probably should leave it alone," Herrick advised. "I mean that's counterintuitive to what we do in Vermont."
Next month, state police plan to hold a meth awareness training for law enforcement officers to brief them about the dangers of dismantling these types of labs. Four-hundred police officers are expected to attend.
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