Girl on Fire: How meth has slowly changed the firefighting game

[As seen in Creston News Advertiser, February 20, 2014]

Sitting in a classroom full of firefighters from across the state of Iowa, I watched as John Ticer, special agent with Iowa Fire Marshal’s Office, flipped through a PowerPoint slideshow explaining the recipe and how to make methamphetamine.

Ticer taught Meth Lab Awareness, a class available to firefighters at Iowa’s 90th annual State Fire School in Ames.

Meth was synthesized in Japan in the late 1800s, and boomed from there. It was used as a stimulant during World War II by both the Axis and Allied powers, and in the 1970s it became a schedule II controlled substance. In the 1990s, instead of buying meth from Mexico, people in the United States began producing their own drugs via different recipes and methods.

Recently, the most popular method of methamphetamine production in Iowa is the shake and bake method. This method is the most efficient, easiest and dangerous of all methods.

I was glad I took Ticer’s class. Living in small-town Iowa the past 12 years, I’ve grown up assuming meth use has risen in the southern section of Iowa. However, what I did learn is while the number of labs has dropped, use stayed the same.

The most interesting part to me, though, is the danger of meth labs. In Iowa, the shake and bake method is the most popular. The shake and bake method involves the person making meth, or the cook, to dump all the ingredients into a large plastic bottle, close the lid and shake it, burping the bottle occasionally so the pressure escapes.

The dangers of this method are numerous because of lithium, one of the ingredients in meth. Lithium strips are removed from lithium batteries, torn into pieces and tossed in the mixture in the bottle. Lithium, however, has an extreme reaction to water and air. If the lithium in the bottle is exposed to moist Iowa air before it has been coated with the meth mixture, it will react. If the lithium is touching the plastic bottle when it’s being burped, it will react. These reactions cause fires that look like explosions.

I’m glad the Fire Service Training Bureau has a class available to firefighters to learn about this unique fire. Meth is dangerous in many ways, and when a firefighter is exposed to the drug without knowing it’s there, the consequences can be worse.

Classes like this allow firefighters to be able to immediately grasp the situation’s danger just by looking at the scene. This way, firefighters can be aware of the dangers and alert the proper authorities.

It’s important for all firefighters to know what exactly they can be up against. Even though the highest percentage of firefighter deaths are caused by heart attacks, meth-related health issues can be a killer in many ways.

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