Written by the IAFF’s Health and Safety Department

Today more than ever bed bugs are evading places beyond homes and residences.

These pesky creatures are creeping into city government buildings, schools, hospitals, mass transit and in retail establishments.

Fire fighters and paramedics can provide bed bugs a convenient mode of travel simply because they enter the public places where they live. The unwary fire fighter can bring the pests back to the firehouse.

A Bed Bug University Summit was held last September in Chicago where entomologists and pest control professionals have described this year as a pivotal year in controlling bed bug outbreaks in the United States.

Leaders predict that some large U.S. cities will hit a plateau of outbreaks due to increased education and prevention efforts. However, reports could grow in localities not experienced in bed bug colonies, especially in southern states, and infestations may increase outside of the home.

So how do you avoid a firehouse infestation when you are likely to respond to calls to infested homes, businesses and schools?

Although you are unlikely to see live bugs out in the open because they are nocturnal and hide between meals (which can last them for several months), you should be familiar with the environmental signs.

Are you responding to a dwelling with a high rate of occupant turnover? A sign of an infestation are dark spots on sheets, mattresses, bedclothes and walls. Dark spots, eggshells and shed skins accumulated in hiding places (between baseboards and carpet, around doorframes and windows, and other tight, dark spaces) is a telltale sign. A sickening, sweet, musty odor may be present in a severe infestation.

Bed bugs can be transported in used furniture, clothing and bedding. Fire fighters should use care when bringing used (and even new) items into the firehouse.

Some precautionary measures to take if you suspect an infestation is to wear shoe covers over your footwear and tuck your pants legs into your socks. Dispose of the covers after use by sealing them in a plastic bag and throwing them away. If shoe covers are not appropriate for your response, inspect your footwear before returning to the firehouse. Store your footwear in a sealed bag and place them in a hot dryer for 15 minutes. Of course, please check with your footwear’s manufacturer. Do not take plastic bags containing potentially bug infested shoes – and clothing – into firehouse living quarters. Clean bunker gear according to the manufacturer’s instructions and wash and dry your uniforms.

Use care when bringing used (and even new) items into the firehouse. Inspect furniture for bugs and eggs. Conduct general maintenance to the firehouse and caulk any cracks in the building exterior and repair or screen openings where alternate hosts including birds, bats and rodents can enter — this will reduce the chances that bed bugs are transported in.

Once infested, eradication typically involves multiple treatments by a licensed pest control operator – bed bugs are resistant to many pesticides and they can hide in nooks and crannies.

Additionally, you may be required to dispose of infested mattresses and furniture. A housekeeping regimen may be instituted which includes daily vacuuming, encasing mattresses and upholstered items, and storing clothes in plastic bins.

It isn’t easy to get rid of bed bugs, so the best defense is education on precautionary measures and awareness. Once a firehouse or any building becomes infested, eradication is time consuming, expensive and complex. If you suspect you have an infestation, contact a licensed exterminator.

A few simple precautions can help prevent bed bug infestation:

• Check secondhand furniture, beds and couches for any signs of bed bug infestation before bringing them into your home or firehouse.
• Use a protective cover that encases mattresses and box springs which eliminates many hiding spots. The light color of the encasement makes bed bugs easier to see. Be sure to purchase a high quality encasement that will resist tearing and check the encasements regularly for holes.
• Reduce clutter in your home/firehouse to reduce hiding places for bed bugs.

When traveling:
• In hotel rooms, use luggage racks to hold your luggage when packing or unpacking rather than setting your luggage on the bed or floor.
• Check the mattress and headboard before sleeping.
• Upon returning home, unpack directly into a washing machine and inspect your luggage carefully.