Attention must be paid

March 18, 2011

Any time the media uses “bed bugs,” they mostly are followed by how they are in your neighborhood, backyard, attic, couch, bed - inspiring a few different reactions. One of vapid panic which keeps people awake feeling little twitches all over. One of denial, the place looks clean, there's no mold or trash laying around - "it can't happen to me." People hear about bugs and associate uncleanliness to an infestation, however the word “infestation” itself is exaggerated and typically associated with pictures of thousands of crawling insects. Yet the common way to inform people of the presence of the bugs heard is “you have bed bugs.”

This references nothing to the amount of bugs found. It may be two, not thousands.

Sometimes two can be enough - three is a crowd after all. This problem isn’t something people can just simply sweep under the carpet - they may already be there.

Compared to the trials anyone in public safety encounter small tick-sized bugs can’t rise to top priority. “There’s no cop in this country who's not going to pick up somebody saying ‘I can’t bring them in my car because they have bed bugs’,” says Eric Bryan, a vice president of Noble Pine Co. - manufacturer of Sterifab, a disinfectant and insecticide, a commonly-used agent for bed bugs.

James Skinner, president of the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association (NESDCA) agrees. “When you’re dealing with a conflict, you have to keep the most important thing the most important thing, and that’s the conflict at hand,” he says.

Yet, as the number of places where bed bugs have been found increases the risk to public safety, law enforcement and corrections included, increases likewise. “There’s no way anymore that you can be assured that someone you’re coming in contact with doesn’t have bed bugs,” says Paul Wenning, chairman of the Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force.

Search & education

As with any good investigation, knowing your enemy is vital - this holds true with the national bed bug epidemic. While New York as the quintessential location in discussing these bugs, the greater Columbus area has experienced it’s own high level of unwanted visitors. In a proactive approach the Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force was formed to raise awareness and educate the community of the growing problem - an effort to reduce or slow the spread. Comprised of volunteers, the Task Force holds bed bug training “summits” to teach attendees about bed bugs. Some sessions have included legal issues surrounding bed bugs, new methods of extermination, best practices on home visits, etc.

“You have got to know your enemy and the biggest thing is knowing what they look like,” advises Tammy Sheaks. As a fire inspector for the Jackson Township (Ohio) Fire Department, she represents the public safety industry on the Task Force.

Professor and extension urban entomologist for the Texas Agrilife Extension Service Michael Merchant agrees, suggesting that officers might want to have some training in how to recognize the bug and know who to report to if they think they have brought someone in that may have bed bugs.

He adds that “if you have a sighting of bed bugs in a particular spot you probably need to have some kind of protocol that has a pest control company come out and do an inspection and, maybe, a follow-up inspection to make sure of no ongoing infestation at the site … education is the main thing.”

A few basic bed bug facts include:

  • They can lay anywhere from one to seven eggs a day. 
  • While the bug tends to mainly stay within eight feet of where people sleep, they can travel up to 100 feet in a single night.
  • Although they may be able to have diseases in their body, according to the CDC bed bugs cannot transmit diseases says Skinner.
  • They are attracted to the carbon dioxide humans naturally release. Using this they can be baited to other targets, such as dry ice, as a form of pest control. While effective when used in conjunction with bed bug climb up interceptors, this isn't too practical for the correctional enviornment.
  • Bites from a bed bug are commonly referred to a “breakfast, lunch and dinner” pattern in the pest control industry; this name is more descriptive than telling. The term describes three marks in a row and may be simply caused by the victim moving.
  • Their bite injects saliva which acts as an anti-coagulant and anesthetic.
  • Some people have severe physical reactions to a bite (rashes, flea/mosquito bite-like bumps, etc.) while some have no reaction at all and a reaction can take up to 14 days to appear.

Once people know what to look for, they then have to know where to start searching. With the distance the bugs can travel it can be difficult to track down and pin point where they are hiding.

Compare this search for the investigation of drugs - sometimes the easiest way is to call for help.

"Most jails are not going to afford a pest control company to come in and treat an entire facility," says Merchant. "The question then becomes how do you know if a room, an office, an empty spot or car has bed bugs ... some people are going with a bed bug sniffing dogs."

While the pest control industry hasn't required certification, in its best practices document the National Pest Management Association has stated bug sniffing canines "should be" certified. NESDCA is involved with certifying of the canine in regards to pest control.

Taking a cue from law enforcement, the tactics in imprinting and training the pest control dog were copied on how to imprint narcotics - with a slight twist. While the narcotic K9 officer might be able to find several types of drugs, pest control teams are searching for a single type of bug.

In one incident, Skinner had gone to one location where the owner was claiming being bitten by bed bugs. After a 30-minute search, he found nothing. He then called a bed bug-sniffing team who found the bugs within 10 minutes.

Manually searching can be labor intensive and, depending on the size of the location, may take hours which increases the cost. "It's a lot faster and becomes cheaper because you can cover a lot more ground, can do a lot more inspections faster and be a lot more accurate," says Skinner.

When a canine bed bug team aren't available, a few helpful tools can help the search be that much more effective.

"One of the thigns that all facilities should be using are vacuums with HEPA filters," says Bryan. These types of filters are fine enough to trap the bed bug egg and adults. He explains that vacuums have to use HEPA filters because regular vacuum can spread the bugs through the exhaust.

He also adds that vacuumming is not the cure to this epidemic. "If anybody suggests to you that there is some magic bullet, it just doesn't exist," says Bryan.

A few basic tools that can help an officer conduct the search for bed bugs include:

  • A good flashlight
  • A magnifying glass
  • A standard screwdriver
  • A strong thin object, like a credit card, to stick into and manipulate cracks and crevices
  • A small handheld mirror, like a dental mirror

Searches can include:

Beds, couches and chairs - remove sheets and pillowcases and inspect the mattress, parts around the mattress. Officers should look for black or blood-colored spotting. Experts suggest using lighter-colored fabrics to make this easier. It is recommended to wash the removed sheets and pillowcases and store them in a sealed container, like plastic bags to avoid re-infestation. The mattress should be washed with soap and water.

"There are so many places on a mattress a bed bug can hide," says Merchant. He suggests looking at buttons, welting, folds in the fabric, any place that's got a little crevice for them to squeeze into.

The walls - look into any cracks and crevices, any place that is "safe" and dark. Open any electrical plates and sockets and look in the walls for eggs, shells or bed bug feces.

In her experience in her fire department, Sheaks feels that nobody thinks they are going to get bed bugs, but once they find out the bugs are all over their jurisdiction they are grateful directives were set in place to take care of the problem.

"We have a directive that our bunk room in the fire horse has to be cleaned every Monday," she says. Adding that people have to stay on it, "once a week isn't anything, not when it comes down to when you actually get them and the cost that's going to involved in getting rid of them."

And getting rid of them can be complicated.

Once found, Sheaks advises to call a professional pest control/pesticide company. While there are commerically available products, many departments and facilities have a regulation requiring a commerical applicator license to spray such chemcials.

Companies have used chemcials in a pyrethroid insecticide class. According to Merchant, while these have a long residual a strain of bed bugs have developed varying levels of resistance to these insecticides. Other chemiclas include diatomaceous earth, a very abrasive dust that scratches the bug's wax on their exoskeleton (where they hold moisture), which could be used very safely in any kind of environment for cracks and crevices, he says.

Other methods include heating the location to 120 degrees F or higher for an extended period of time. While this may not be feasible for a larger facility, heat has been known to kill all stages of bed bugs.

"With bed bugs [the pest control industry] have to follow the integrated pest management (IPM)," says Merchant. An IPM basically says you cannot rely on any one technique to control a pest. "There is no silver bullet ... but you try to do several things together: sanitation, pest proofing mattresses, caulking and sealing cracks and cervices in the area and using dust and liquid sprays wherver you can," he says.

It should be noted that the use of chemicals may affect a trained canine. It is reccommended to not use a chemical spray before utilizing a bed bug sniffing team. 


"You could be proactive or reative. Waiting till something happens at that point it really is too late," warns Bryan. "For anybody in these facilities, proactive is key; it would be in everybody's interest to do the best thing they can do proactively," he says.

Wenning agrees. "The key for law enforcement becomes protecting themselves as much as they can and being aware of what bed bugs are and what they look like and if they see them to take preventative measures ... and doing some personal inspection before heading home so they are not carrying them home as well," he says.

As director of the National Bed Bug Registry Database, Mark Smith has seen bed bug reports blossom throughout the country. The Database provides a single place where people can voluntarily report and search infestations. His position requires him to field daily calls on the subject.

“At some point every police officer is going to come in contact with bed bugs, not just because of the people that they arrest but also the fact that there are a lot of police officers going in and out,” he says. Adding that “at some point they are going to bring bed bugs home, it’s just a matter of time.”

From a simple search on the Internet, an overload of information can be found on the bed bug free and open to the public. The “Joint Statement on Bed Bug Control in the United States from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)” document is readily available online and in a PDF file at

On their site, the EPA provides some best practices, dispels some common myths, offers a few points of advice and more at

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