In Fire/EMS work you are public servants, sworn to assist people on some of the worst days of their lives and at some of the worst of times. It can also mean exposing yourselves to some creepy crawly visitors you never intended to help or invite into your apparatus or even in some cases your homes (or homes away from home, as the fire house often is). Even if you do not work in Fire/EMS this article may still be of interest to you if you serve in any public service capacity. By the way, if you are fitness/health conscious and frequent a gym utilized by more than one person then you will gain benefit from this article also.
One such unwelcome stow-away is Cimex lectularius, better known as bed bugs. Bed bugs are insects in the parasite family, as they require a host in order to survive. They are lightning fast and well adapted to camouflage themselves from unwitting hosts…of course, when you cannot fly you have to find some means to survive and thrive. Unlike other insects such as cockroaches, bed bugs feed solely by hematophagy, which is a fancy way of saying they live by sucking on your blood. Newly born bed bugs are called nymphs and are only about the size of a poppy seed and nearly clear or white in appearance, in fact you could mistake it for a sesame seed but be weary of a moving seed! The adult populations of bed bugs grow to about ¼ of an inch in length and can flatten their body entirely prior to feeding. Sadly, their preferred habitats are the creases and undersides of mattresses and boxed springs. Make no mistake however, a comfortable cloth sofa; chair or love seat is just as accommodating. In fact, this opportunist will seek out virtually anywhere in the home to hide until you come to a rest nearby so that it can crawl up and feed upon you. You may not even notice at first, as they inject what amounts to a local anesthetic from their saliva in an attempt to mask the realization that they are feeding. The unwitting host may think mosquitoes or fleas are to blame – this is particularly tricky when you own a pet so be weary if your dog or cat is constantly scratching, it may be an early tale-tale sign these dastardly pests are trying to make inroads in your home.
Examples of recent Fire/EMS bed bug outbreaks
June 2015, Lakeland, Florida, the Lakeland Fire Station is invaded by bed bugs something these poor folks had no idea how to deal with.
June 2015, Portsmouth, Virginia, the Portsmouth Fire Station finds both adult and nymph bed bugs within the fire house.
December 2015, Bellefontaine, Ohio, the Bellefontaine Fire House discovers bed bugs in the sleeping quarters of the local fire house.
How they take over
Aside from being opportunistic in their design, bed bugs also reproduce at a startling ratio. A female can lay up to 5 eggs per day, during their average life cycle which can exceed 100 days that is over 500 eggs laid in a dwelling, let alone the amounts laid by each female’s offspring. Understandably then, it is easy to see why just seeing one or two could turn into a swarm or infestation in a very short period of time. Even in the most pristine of homes which are rigorously and regularly cleaned, bed bugs can still survive. Unlike cockroaches, whose main means of living is finding food stuffs left behind or openly available to consume, bed bugs only need you or your pet(s) as warm blooded hosts to exist.
How do they effect Fire/EMS and public service workers
As members of public service you can be called upon on a moment’s notice to emergently enter a person’s home or business in order to provide care. Often, during rapid assessments you are checking for signs of critical injury or physical distress to determine if a life threatening event is occurring. You are busy counting respiration’s, checking skin color, performing early life saving measures, getting equipment attached to the patient and giving comforting assurances. Where you may fall short is when you are bumping into or kneeling down near a patient (even getting them on the cot and ready for transport) taking a moment to assess the scene for more than just safety – but for possible insect activity is key. Pause, deep breathe, and re-focus.
How to protect yourselves and Fire Stations as well as Fire Apparatus
This advice, while prepared for those in Fire/EMS work, applies to all those who work in a public service capacity including Home Care nurses, Home Health aides, Private Ambulance and EMS workers, Mobility Transport workers, Taxicab drivers, School Bus drivers, Teachers, Librarians, Senior Care Center workers and the list goes on and on for those who come into contact with persons who may be unsuspecting hosts to these savvy traveling bugs who are more than happy to “come visit” with a new host family.
While most fire stations have some protocol regarding bed bugs, if and where possible an essential may be in identifying dwellings that are likely candidates for these types of bugs – like multiple occupants housing (as an example, row houses and apartments) and group facilities. Another location where these critters may turn up is in prisons and county jail facilities.
The following suggestion is a difficult one, especially if you work for a busy fire house that takes multiple runs often, but if at all possible tag team with a partner and inspect both your clothing for any signs of bed bugs and your fire/EMS apparatus for any signs of activity. I know it is asking a lot but it’s better than finding the fire house or ambulance/fire units infested. If you are not well familiar with bed bugs there are online resources available to help you know the various stages and presentations. You can also check with your local insect or pest control bureau for further information and advice if you believe you’ve seen a bug matching the description. A tip learned from the Trauma unit, if you smash or kill a bug and are unsure if it is a bed bug or not, save it in a zip lock bag until a pest control professional has the chance to inspect it (if you smash it and it leaves a dark brown or bloody appearance residue it is probably a bed bug).
What to do if you have been exposed to bed bug activity
We as human beings are funny creatures, we find some measure of comfort in blaming others for our present condition but the fact is sometimes patients truly do not know they have bed bugs or are ignorant to the signs of them. If a qualified pest control professional has confirmed the presence of bed bugs what can you and your fire house or EMS department do? First, don’t panic. While the thought of such bugs can understandably make your skin crawl the same as with exposure to lice, scabies, chiggers and a host of other biting insects there are measures that can be taken to eradicate the situation. Quarantine of all affected items (including sleeping quarters) may be necessary. All bedding, linens, uniforms, pillows and in some cases even ambulance/fire units must be treated in order to stop the spread and prevent further bed bug activity. Items must be sealed in air tight containers and unopened until effective treatment or in some cases multiple treatments have been performed (multi-treatments are generally spread out over a two week period). When your quarantine is over, launder all items in hot soapy water and as a “trick” to ensuring any lingering nymphs are killed, preheat a dryer to its hottest setting, place the items to be laundered in it for 90 minutes prior to washing them, then follow up with washing them and re-dry in a hot dryer.
It is also note worthy that while the State Fire Marshall (Ohio) has a regulatory duty to assist in areas of ensuring facilities such as hotels, motels and extended stay residences are kept clean and sanitary and are free from infested bedding; the Fire Marshall has NO legal authority over any other structure (such as single-family homes, multi-family dwellings, schools, religious houses of worship, etc).
The next time you go on a run take a moment to really evaluate your surroundings for more than just scene safety. Where did you sit the medic bag(s)? What is the cot resting against? What about the cuffs of your uniform, socks, even your shoes, anything crawling upon or inside of these? By the way what are YOU resting against – for goodness sakes get off that cloth lounge chair! If a residence is carpeted or loaded with cloth furniture be on the lookout for these critters. Are there any unknown rashes on the patient fitting the description of a bed bug bite(s) (red and itchy without a raised bump signifying a stinger, usually in a directional line, usually on areas of well exposed skin like arms, the neck, in some cases the back and facial areas)?
Granted with humans posing the greatest risk to those in public service, these critters are just pests, but being vigilant towards them will keep you and your fire house safe and free of unwanted and unwelcome critters. Until Next Time – Good Health to You!