What 311 Has to Say About Bed Bugs
Posted by Jessica on December 26, 2008
Oh, the things some people will do to advocate a cause.
I, apparently, will spend a lot of time on the phone (and on hold, mind you) to find out what happens when a resident of the City of Chicago calls 311 to ask what to do if they live in an apartment that has bed bugs.
The City of Chicago Department of Public Health website doesn’t list a number for residents to call on its Bed Bugs: Frequently Asked Questions page, so I called the number most Chicagoans call for information– 311. It seemed logical, especially when I read DPH’s Tips on Calling 311 page and saw this:
…if you are unsure where to go for services and programs within the City of Chicago, or to which department you should direct your questions and/or concerns, 311 operators will be able to direct you to the appropriate parties.
Logical, yes? Perhaps not.
In the end, though, it was time well spent, because it revealed a clear opportunity for our city to start to regulate the control of bed bug infestations.
Here’s the condensed version of what happened when I placed that call, minus the elevator music:
(Operator): City of Chicago, this is ______, may I help you?
(Me): Hi, I’m calling to find out what I should do if there are bed bugs in my apartment.
(Operator): BED BUGS?
(Me): Yes, bed bugs.
(Me): Hello? Are you there?
(Operator): Did you say BED BUGS?
(Me): Yes, what should I do if my apartment has bed bugs and I think my building might have them, too?
(Operator): I’ve never heard of bed bugs before. Hold please.
(Operator): Yeah, we don’t have anything about bed bugs, I don’t know what to tell you.
(Me): Oh. You mean you don’t take reports of bed bug infestations there?
(Operator): I don’t have anything about bed bugs.
(Me): Oh. Well, do you know who I should call, then, because I don’t know what to do.
(Operator): I guess you could call the health department.
(Me): Oh, okay.
(Operator): You have a good day now.
(Me): Wait, do you have their number? The health department?
(Operator): Hold on.
(Operator): It’s _________. You have a nice day now.
Interesting. Okay, so residents should call the health department directly instead of calling 311. I made note of this, and then I called.
(Me): Hi, I’m calling because I need to know what to do if there are bed bugs in my apartment.
(Operator): Oh, you need to call 311 for that.
(Me): I just hung up with 311. They said they’ve never heard of bed bugs. They told me to call this number.
(Operator): That’s just someone being lazy. That’s just someone not wanting to make a report. You need to call 311 and tell them you want to make a report.
(Me): Oh. Okay. But they said they don’t have any information about bed bugs at all, and I need to know what I should do. I need help.
(Operator): They told you to call this number? This is the main switchboard.
(Me): Yes, this is the number 311 told me to call.
(Operator): And you’re calling about what?
(Me): Bed bugs.
(Operator): Bed bugs. You know, do you clean a lot? Because I keep my apartment clean and I don’t have any trouble with bugs at all. Maybe you just need to wash your sheets more often, in really hot water. I bet that would help. You know what else I do? I set off a bug bomb, you know, one of those roach bombs? I set one of those off every month or so, to keep the roaches away. It works. Maybe you should try that, and wash your sheets in really hot water.
(Operator): Are you still there?
(Me): Um, yes, I’m still here. See, bed bugs aren’t like roaches, and they’re really hard to get rid of, and I need some help.
(Operator): You need to call 311 then.
(Me): But they told me to call you.
(Operator): That’s just someone not wanting to do their job. You call 311 and tell them you want to FILE A REPORT. Say those exact words, and do not hang up until you get a report number.
(Me): Okay, thank you.
(Operator): And try one of those bug bombs. Bye now.
Oh dear. At that point, I was in utter disbelief, and it’s not because I was getting passed back and forth between 311 and the health department. I mean, that’s not good, but it’s not what was bothering me most. It wasn’t because no one seemed to know how to handle a call for help with a bed bug infestation, either, although I was certainly uncomfortable about that. No, I was in utter disbelief because the advice given to me by the operator at the number I dialed was really, really bad. I mean, it was the kind of advice that, if followed, can make a bed bug infestation worse. Yes, it’s possible to make a bed bug infestation worse. Keep reading.
From Best Management Practices for Controlling Bed Bugs, Cornell University, New York State Integrated Pest Management Program:
The use of “bug bombs” or total release foggers is not advised. These devices release insecticide in small droplets that land on exposed surfaces and do not penetrate the cracks and crevices where bed bugs hide. This results in increased pesticide exposure to the resident and poor control of these pests. This has been linked to pesticide resistance and suspected repellency to bed bugs, causing them to spread.
It’s true. A bug bomb, which tends to work well to control other insects, actually has the opposite effect on bed bugs. It causes them to spread.
And as for the operator’s advice about cleaning, well, it wasn’t terrible, but cleaning a room that’s infested with bed bugs is complicated. In fact, there is an entire section dedicated to cleaning in Best Management Practices for Controlling Bed Bugs, with page-long subsections on topics like vacuuming. Here’s an example:
Cleaning and organizing a room or home for bed bug management can be as burdensome as changing residences… Cleaning should be carried out in a systematic way, beginning with removing items from the infested room or home.
Steps to follow include:
- Scan the room for items on the floor. Make a plan for each item, and how it will be quarantined (closed into a plastic bag, for example), inspected, sanitized of bed bugs, and stored until further notice.
- Place clothes, shoes, plush toys, pillows, and bedding into large clear plastic bags and seal them tightly to be laundered. Place the bags away from the infestation site.
- Alternatively, plastic tote bins that have an airtight seal can be used for items that cannot be laundered, such as hard toys, electronics, books, breakable items, etc. Be prepared to store these items for a period of time until they can be thoroughly inspected or enough time has passed that bed bugs are dead – at least a year.
So you see, while the switchboard operator was on the right track, her well-intended advice about cleaning was inadequate, to say the least. The bottom line is that what works for getting rid of almost every other pest generally does not work for getting rid of bed bugs. Most people don’t know this, and everyone really should.
That’s why phase one of our mission here at Chicago vs. Bed Bugs is all about disseminating good information. We know that lots of people don’t understand how difficult it is to get rid of bed bugs and how easy it is to spread them– throughout a home, throughout a building, throughout a neighborhood, throughout a city. We also know that it’s possible to make sure everyone does understand these things. It’s just going to take a little work.
And it’s going to take a little help from our city. A procedure for 311 operators to follow when taking calls about bed bug infestations would be a great start. A 311-based reporting system for tracking and monitoring bed bug infestations in our city would be even better. A city-mandated protocol, developed by pest management professionals and other experts, that’s easily accessible to everyone and conveyed by 311 operators would be fantastic.
None of these ideas, by the way, are original. They’re already being implemented all over the place, even in Lexington, Kentucky. Check out our Policy page and you’ll see what I mean.