Photo courtesy Fallston Volunteer Fire And Ambulance Company
Update (12/2/14 – 7 p.m.)
Further investigation into a Forest Hill house fire traced to meth lab materials is pending the results of lab tests on substances recovered from the scene, police said.
The Sunday night fire broke out in a detached garage in the 1300 block of Boggs Road. Firefighters initially encountered difficulty extinguishing the blaze, and subsequent investigation determined that materials involved the fire may have been those used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Surviving material recovered from the scene was sent for laboratory testing, according to Capt. Lee Dunbar of the Harford County Task Force, an interagency narcotics unit. Dunbar said it was unclear whether the fire was the result of an active cook, and whether the space was being used as a lab or simply to store components for use elsewhere. Materials which could have assisted in that determination were destroyed in the fire, he said.
The occupant of the home discovered the fire but was not believed to be the home’s owner; Dunbar said the occupant is considered a person of interest in the case but has not been charged or named as a suspect. Any charges are pending the results of the lab tests, which Dunbar said could take as long as two to four months.
The fire caused damage to a variety of firefighter equipment, and personnel involved in extinguishing the blaze are being monitored for adverse health effects, as detailed by the Fallston Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company below.
From the Fallston Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company:
Shortly before 8:00 P.M. on Sunday November 30, 2014 the Fallston Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Co. (FVFAC) and surrounding Volunteer Fire Companies were dispatched to a report of a building fire in the 1300 block of Boggs Road in Forest Hill. As units responded Harford County Department of Emergency Services (DES) Fire Dispatchers advised that the caller was reporting a fire in an unattached garage. First arriving Chief R. Davis from the Bel Air VFC initially reported a small fire in the two story garage type building several hundred feet from the road. As FVFAC Engine 1311 arrived moments later Chief Davis, having investigated further, upgraded his report to a working fire on the second floor of the structure.
Engine 1311, under the direction of FVFAC Chief W. Rosenberg, deployed approximately 700 feet of supply line as they ascended the driveway to the structure. As additional FVFAC units and others from Bel Air VFC, Jarrettsville VFC and the Kingsville VFC (Balt. Co.) arrived firefighters initiated an interior attack on the fire, established a water supply (this is a non-hydrant area), and performed support functions. As the fire attack progressed within the enclosed second floor of the building, interior firefighting crew members experienced unexpected fire behavior conditions. These conditions required a change in tactics to extinguish the fire as it appeared that other than ordinary combustibles were burning. Firefighters began using dry powder extinguishers in areas that water was not effective, and were able to complete extinguishment in this area. The fire was declared under control at approximately 8:40 P.M.
As firefighting operations continued, checking for complete extinguishment and to determine if fire had extended to other areas within the building, firefighters observed a number of items which are considered to be hazardous materials. The Harford County Hazardous Materials Response Team (HM Team) was requested to respond to assist the Incident Commander in determining what, if any, actions needed to be taken to safeguard firefighters continuing to operate on the fireground and to mitigate any other hazards due to the presence of the materials present.
As investigators from the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) worked to determine the cause and origin, and representatives of the HM Team investigated the hazardous materials involved, it was determined that the fire was possibly involving a clandestine laboratory used for the manufacture of methamphetamine. At this time the Harford County Narcotics Task Force was requested to respond also to assist the agencies operating on the scene.
Due to the exposure of firefighting personnel, as well as their tools and protective equipment, to the smoke and other products of combustion during the burning of the chemicals within the fire area the incident scene was now to be treated as a hazardous materials incident. All exposed equipment and personnel underwent decontamination procedures at the fire scene prior to being released from the scene. In addition all hose, firefighters’ personal protective equipment (PPE-helmets, hoods, coats, pants, gloves, boots, etc.), and breathing apparatus needed to be removed from service, placed in a secure area, and evaluated to determine if the items can be adequately cleaned and returned for use. The products of combustion from meth lab fires are extremely hazardous to the health and safety of anyone exposed to them. Hazards include atmospheres consisting of toxic fumes, poisonous gases, and corrosive chemicals which can be absorbed into PPE or worse, by a firefighter not properly protected. The non-metallic seals and gaskets in our breathing apparatus, the life-line we depend on daily in every hazardous environment, is also subject to corrosion and failure through exposure to these products.
As a result of the exposed equipment being required to be placed out of service, and to the lack of readily available (in-house) replacement PPE and other items one FVFAC Engine was placed unavailable for service to the Fallston community Sunday night. This Engine was placed back in service Monday evening after breathing apparatus normally used for training, and from non-firefighting units was made available to be placed thereon. Also, nine (9) sets of firefighting PPE (turn out gear) were either completely or partially condemned due to exposure and disposed of. As these sets of PPE are measured to and constructed for individual members, we now have a number of members that do not have PPE available to them until new or certified de-contaminated PPE is available. In addition, all Volunteer Fire Company members on the fireground at this incident who were exposed to the products of combustion or to the hazardous materials during operations on scene, have filed a First Report of Injury for workers compensation insurance coverage in the event that any member develops symptoms of illness or other ailment that was caused through this exposure.
While fires and other incidents that emergency service agencies respond to normally are short duration events that affect only a small area or population, the response to this fire has placed an onerous burden on the Fallston Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company, other responding Volunteer Fire Companies, and the Greater Fallston Community as a whole. Due to this fire one of two Engines of the FVFAC was not available to respond to the Community’s needs for approximately twenty-four hours. Nearly a dozen emergency responders do not now the have required personal protective equipment that they did have prior to this fire. Firefighters actively engaged on this incident scene, while performing their duties in a VOLUNTEER status and saving the property of a member of the community, now must await results of lab tests to determine what potential health issues may await. The FVFAC must expend tens of thousands of dollars to obtain new PPE and have other items certified as acceptable and safe for use.
Clandestine laboratories present a community-wide health, safety, and economic issue. These labs have been found in all types of communities, hotels, and even in mobile vehicles. The response by public safety agencies to investigate and dismantle these labs is hazardous to responders and costly to the agencies involved. As stated above, the response to a fire at a potential or verified clandestine lab can have outcomes that affect the entire community for days, weeks, and even months.