By Frank Lewis
Law enforcement officers are completely vulnerable when they enter a place where a meth lab is in operation. That’s why officers from the various departments in the area underwent training as to how to enter a meth lab this week. The training concluded Friday with an exercise on the campus of Shawnee State University.
“When we go in, nine times out of 10, we’re going to be in there and exposed to the danger before we even recognize the danger is there,” Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Ware said. “Obviously when you have a fire you see the smoke and flames before you get in there. You have just as volatile a substance here, yet you’re not going to recognize it until you are right on top of it. The key at that point is to recognize what you have. This is going to require a lot of education for the public as well. We saw an ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) tractor run over one, so we know that the public is going to be exposed because the system has become so compact and small that you’re using a 20 ounce bottle or a two-liter bottle.”
Those labs are referred to as “one pot meth labs.” Inside a maintenance building on the campus of SSU, three such operations were placed on tables, two of those manned by SSU students, performing as operators of those labs.
“This is what you call a one pot lab,” Portsmouth Fire Chief Bill Raison said, as he stood over a table with ingredients for making methamphetamine. Raison pointed at a Mason jar.
“That is strips of lithium from lithium batteries,” Raison said. “Lithium reacts rather violently with water. It will react with moisture in the air. So they submerge it in some type of solvent to keep water off of it because there is definitely a fire hazard with the way these labs are set up.”
Raison said operators use ordinary household chemicals.
“So to a large extent, if you understand what processes are going on, what is actually involved in putting all of this together - what kind of chemical reactions are being produced, then you can be safe around it,” Raison said. “It is stuff everybody has sitting in their house.”
The week of training was conducted by Merritt Training Programs.
“We’re training these guys to be able to do a tactical entry into a meth lab, then afterwards, to process all the chemicals, destroy the chemicals, and remove them from the house or residence wherever they’re located,” Jake Kelton of Merritt Training Programs said. “The predominant meth lab you have here in Portsmouth is what you call the one pot. One pot is notorious for explosions and fires. A lot of people are getting killed every year with them and its an epidemic everywhere in the country. Not just here.”
“Most of this training has been directed toward their (Law enforcement) action at these labs and the law enforcement side of it,” Raison said. “We’re (fire department) here so that we understand what they’re doing and what they need from us to support the operation.”
Members of the Scioto County Sheriff’s Office and the Portsmouth Police Department banged on the doors of the facility, then, wearing tactical gear including gas masks, and brandishing their firearms entered the building with some officers going to the left where SSU student Allen Leatherwood played the operator of one lab and other officers going to the right where they encountered SSU student Emily Shope at another table where an automatic weapon was also alongside the chemicals. They were ordered to resist and had to be taken down and handcuffed.
At the end of each scenario, Kelton critiqued the operation and allowed officers to make comments as to what they experienced.
The area has seen a major increase in meth labs in recent years and last week an ODOT tractor drove over one resulting in a fire and exposure by the operator of the tractor and a truck driver following him to the chemicals. They were taken to Southern Ohio Medical Center for precautionary examination.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.