Tips for Combating Bedbug Infestation

By Calvin Crupper

Today’s firefighters and inspectors are subject to many hazards in the course of their duties. One of those hazards you may not have considered is bedbugs. Bedbugs posed a serious pest problem in the ‘40s and ‘50s and has once again become a serious problem throughout the United States. Bedbug activity was noticed in most metropolitan communities throughout the United States between 1998 and 2004. Today, nearly everyone has had a problem with bedbugs or at least knows someone who has encountered this parasitic pest, giving the phrase “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” a more cryptic meaning.

On one occasion during an inspection of a multifamily apartment building, I found every occupied unit was infested with bedbugs. Some tenants showed me where they had been bitten by the bloodsuckers, even though all I really wanted to do was to check to see if the smoke alarms worked correctly.

After the inspection, I notified the management company, which said that a pest control company was trying to address the problem. Since I did not think the issue was being handled adequately, I contacted the local health department to see what it could do. I was told that it didn’t have the funds and that this pest was not considered a serious health threat and, therefore, didn’t fall under its jurisdiction (try telling anyone afflicted with the bedbugs that it’s not a serious problem).

I thought about the ambulance crews and their equipment. Picture this: You’re on an EMS call for an unresponsive person lying in bed. You show up with your medical bag and other equipment and toss it up on the bed. Then you and your crew climb on the bed to give assistance. While this is going on, little dirty white creatures–ranging in size from a small pin dot (babies) to a ¼-inch long adult the color of a dark mahogany apple—are crawling on you or seeking refuge in every piece of equipment you carried in. Then, unknowingly, you transport the patient and who knows how many hitchhikers in the ambulance to the healthcare facility.
Those unaware of the nature of this pest mistakenly believe that bedbugs are pests of poor, dirty people, but make no mistake; everyone is at risk of contracting bedbugs. Working with the public puts you at greater risk than some others.

With a few simple precautionary steps, you can protect yourself and your equipment from this invasive pest:

  • Scan the surroundings on entering a patient’s home for signs of bedbugs.
  • Inspect your clothing, shoes, jacket, and all bags after every EMS run and before entering the station, and have a spare uniform at the station. Inspect carefully; spray any bedbugs found with Isopropyl alcohol and report it to your company officer if you find bedbugs.  
  • If in doubt, take a bath when returning to the station. Bedbugs do not generally hang on your body for more than the time needed to get a blood meal, and feeding takes approximately four to 10 minutes. Be sure to put all dirty clothes in a sealed container with a tight-fitting lid or a plastic bag that is tightly sealed.
  • As soon as possible, run your cloths through a dryer cycle for 30 minutes. Wash uniforms at the station or by themselves at home if you suspect a problem.
  • Inspect your bunks daily to identify bedbugs early. Early detection is essential when it comes to eliminating them quickly. Photos of bedbug evidence can be found on many Web sites (see list below.)
  • Inspect EMS equipment daily for possible hidden “friends.” Place a plastic bag over your EMS bags any time they are to be carried into a home that is suspected of harboring bedbugs. Ambulances that transport patients who may have bedbugs need to be inspected after each run. When bedbugs are found, spray them with Isopropyl alcohol, and contact management immediately for additional recommendations. I do not recommend using any type of pesticide without proper training or if the pesticide is not labeled for use in the medical industry. Leave that to the professionals!
  • Whenever possible, place bags that were taken inside patient’s homes on hard surfaces such as a kitchen countertop, hardwood/linoleum floor, or outside the entry door. Keep in mind that, unless the infestation is severe, bedbugs prefer softer, warmer surfaces close to places where people sleep and rest.  
  • When bedbugs are identified, contract with a reputable pest control company, and make sure it is experienced in handling bedbugs. Not all pest control companies are equal when it comes to treating for bedbugs, so do your homework. If in doubt, check with organizations like your state regulatory agency, which oversees the pest control industry (generally it is the Department of Agriculture-Division of Pesticide Regulation) or your local homeowner or tenant association for recommendations.  
  • When bedbugs are found in a patient’s home (or in a multifamily dwelling) make note of it, and notify your supervisor so your EMS workers can also take steps to protect themselves on this or future calls. Bedbugs are mobile and can move easily from unit to unit through wall penetrations or hallways. Remember this: it is not required by anyone (management included) to notify you that bedbugs are present, so do everything you can to protect yourself.
The best way to limit the exposure to bedbugs is to become well educated and continue to follow the trends and techniques of control and eradication. The University of Kentucky Entomology Department has a downloadable PDF on bedbugs that is highly recommended:

Another good PDF downloadable educational handout is available from New York City Department of Health and Public Hygiene. This publication has pictures and easy-to-follow recommendations:

Calvin Crupper is a 27-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy state fire marshal for Kentucky and also serves as an assistant chief of the Dry Ridge Fire Department. He is a certified firefighter, EMT, and fire and explosives investigator. He coordinates all training provided by the Kentucky State Fire Marshal’s office. Prior to becoming a fire marshal, he was a pesticides inspector for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture for 16 years.

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