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The Hidden Hazards of Chemical Suicide

Author: Dave Larton

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-07-20
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What Dispatchers and First Responders Should Know

The call begins with the report of a suspicious vehicle with an unconscious subject inside.  The reporting party tells the dispatcher that the windows to the vehicle are locked, the driver does not appear to be moving, and that there are two buckets of some type on yellow substance sitting on the front seat.

But what really begins to sound alarm bells for the dispatcher are the signs attached to the vehicle’s windows.  Signs that state, ‘Hazardous materials inside! And… ‘Call 9-1-1’

This month, police and firefighters in Aurora, Colorado responded to an apartment building after a report was made of the smell of rotten eggs in the area.  The building was evacuated, and responders entered an apartment whose bathroom had been taped shut with duct tape.  Signs warned of hazardous materials inside.  A young woman’s body was soon removed from the residence. (1)

Welcome to the new and terrifying world of chemical suicide.  As a 9-1-1 dispatcher, it’s important for you to know that this threat exists, and to learn some of the signs that may indicate that your responders may be in potential danger.

Also referred to as ‘detergent suicide’, this technique first became know in Japan in 2009.  Persons wishing to end their own lives may take items readily available in most households, and create deadly hydrogen sulfide gas by mixing them together.  The gas, once released, can cause death to the subject within a few moments. 

According to WIRED Magazine (2) over 500 Japanese ended their lives by this method during the first six months of 2008.  Internet websites have posted instructions on what chemicals may be used, and how to mix them together to produce the hydrogen sulfide gas. (We have elected not to reproduce those details here).

Computer generated printed signs may also be taped to the windows or windshield of the vehicle with instructions to ‘stay away’ and  also ‘Haz Mat Team Needed – Keep Your Distance’.

The possibly exists that a police officer or other responder, attempting to affect a rescue from the vehicle, may breathe in deadly hydrogen sulfide vapors as they attempt entry.  As the door or window opens, concentrated gas may incapacitate a rescuer almost immediately.

August Vernon, Assistant Coordinator for the Forsyth County (NC) Office of Emergency Management recently expressed his concern for the safety of responders in a WIRED Magazine article.

"The normal response for an EMS, is they’re going to break open the window," said Vernon, "And that’s a pretty normal call: someone unconscious inside the car. Fortunately, those people left notes, which is pretty unusual and a good thing."

"Eventually," Vernon added, "someone isn’t going to leave a note."

It’s important for calltakers and dispatchers to be aware that these calls do exist, and to ask good questions by painting a ‘visual picture’ of the incident scene.  If you can see the call in your mind, chances are the responders will as well when you attempt to describe the scene to them.  Callers making reference to signs that tell responders to stay away, the smell of sulfur, burnt almonds or rotten eggs, or the appearance of green or yellow-tinged smoke or a fog-like scene where none should exist should be a red-flag to dispatchers.

Signs of the use of chemicals may be evident by the appearance of chemical containers at the scene, or of buckets where the chemicals have already been mixed.

Like many of the other calls that you take, these calls just do not feel ‘right’….  Do your homework and research some of these calls on the Internet, and make sure your partners (and responders) are aware of the impending danger.  Take these calls into account as you build your call-handling training scenarios.  Use good policy and procedure, and help keep your responders safe.

Associate Editor Dave Larton has been involved with public safety for 35 years, 15 of them in dispatch.  He is currently the State ACS Training Officer for the Auxiliary Communications Service,Telecommunications Branch of the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA). He also serves as the Deputy State RACES Officer for the state Radio Amateur in Civil Emergency Service (RACES) program.  A nationally known dispatch instructor, Dave continues to provide training and consulting services for dispatchers and PSAP managers through First Contact 9-1-1.


(1) The Denver Post July 19, 2011.

(2) WIRED Magazine March 2009

See also APCO Institute Chemical Suicide Guide for Dispatchers

See also: Chemical Suicide Detection Kit



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Posted by: Dave Dooley
Date: 2011-07-20 22:43:09
Company: Aurora Public Safety Communications Department
Title: Dispatch Supervisor
Subject: Chemical Suicides

Dave: I was the supervisor on duty when this incident occurred. Fortunately, one of my teammates, Deborah Smith, started hearing about chemical suicides soon after they started happening. She researched the subject, and put together training for our staff as well as information for both the Police and Fire Departments. Thanks to her diligence and the quality of the reporting party's information, we knew who to send and how to send them and no public safety personnel or citizens were injured. Unfortunately, due to the ease in obtaining the needed chemicals and the simplicity in creating a lethal environment, we will no doubt be seeing more and more of these incidents - in big towns and small.

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