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Police officers undergo meth lab training at WVSP Academy

Chip Ellis
Mark Fitzgerald, an instructor with hazardous waste company National Environmental Systems, explains the chemicals used to make methamphetamine Wednesday at the West Virginia State Police Academy in Institute. More than 30 police officers are taking classes to become meth lab technicians.

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- More than 30 police officers have learned this week how to decontaminate themselves after being sprayed with methamphetamine lab chemicals and how to operate breathing equipment in preparation for dealing with the dangerous labs.

The officers are taking a crash course in detecting and securing meth labs at the West Virginia State Police Academy, and will take a certification exam to become meth lab technicians Thursday.

On Wednesday, Mark Fitzgerald, an instructor with hazardous waste company National Environmental Systems, displayed a table of ingredients and briefly explained how to make the dangerous drug.

He showed the officers how to read air-quality levels with a meter and explained steps to secure a meth lab scene. The first steps are to ventilate the area and establish downwind points to take hazardous materials.

State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous said this is the first time the academy has brought in an expert to train officers in meth control. He said that, normally, officers would be sent out of state for certification classes.

The need for more certified officers is rising as methamphetamine labs have become more common in West Virginia, Baylous said. More than a decade ago, very few state authorities had experience working around meth labs.

"I know an officer who had to retire because of all the breathing problems he developed being around these meth labs," Baylous said.

The meth makers have since become more sophisticated and the ingredients have become more readily available, State Police Sgt. Michael Smith said.

"Now, all they need is a coffee pot," he said. "With that method, it only takes an hour to make, instead of a whole day."

Smith, a drug detective and instructor, said the officers learned how to operate breathing equipment by going through a "smokehouse" on Monday. In a smokehouse, gases are pumped into the room and the officers are tested on properly using their breathing devices. The officers also were sprayed with meth chemicals to practice self-decontamination.

The officers who qualify will continue taking classes this week. The classes are funded by a federal meth prevention grant, Smith said.

Elkins police Patrolman B.D. Tice said he didn't know what chemicals went into making meth until he began taking the classes Monday.

If certified, Tice would be the only meth tech in his department. Tice said he's needed the training because meth is a growing problem in Randolph County, which has just two other meth lab technicians.

Smith said it costs approximately $2,800 to clean up a meth lab site, but that that's a small price compared to the $250,000 in legal fees he said it costs the state from arrest to conviction.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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