Detroit first responders battle bedbugs
Detroit — Bedbugs are a frequent irritant for first responders who regularly enter houses in a city that's perennially among the worst in the country for the tiny, blood-sucking pests.
Detroit is the seventh-worst city in the United States for bedbug infestation, according to the Atlanta-based pest control company Orkin — so the opportunity for police officers, firefighters and medical technicians to pick them up is high.
"Bedbugs are the new roaches," Detroit police assistant chief James White said. "We realize it's a problem for our officers, and we have an aggressive treatment program."
Experts say bedbugs are a growing problem because they've developed a tolerance for pesticides. Across the country, first responders have struggled with infestations. Public safety headquarters in Jamestown, South Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, are among the facilities that were forced to close this year because of bedbugs.
The issue is a point of contention for the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, which filed a written grievance last year complaining about the department's "failure to promptly and fully investigate the bedbug problem."
Union president Mike Nevin has long complained about a facility on Russell near Eastern Market that houses a decontamination facility and showers. Until earlier this month, the department used the facility for storage.
"If our guys get bedbugs, all the department offers is some spray and a pair of rubber gloves," Nevin said. "That's ridiculous. Spraying won't get rid of bedbugs."
The week before last, department officials removed storage items from the decontamination facility, and told The Detroit News they hope to have it up and running within 30 days as they try to get an agreement with the union.
"There was a grievance filed last year and there is a settlement in place," Chief of Department Robert Distelrath said. "Not all the terms of the settlement have been implemented, but we're working toward that."
Nevin complained the department didn't clear out the decontamination facility until after a reporter asked about the issue.
"They've been dragging their feet," he said. "There's a hazmat tent that cost more than $70,000 which is just sitting there in the box unopened. The department needs to take this more seriously."
Distelrath insisted the department is trying to address the problem. "It's not perfect, but we're doing what we can to get these issues resolved."
Bedbugs — Cimex lectularius — are oval-shaped, reddish-brown insets that normally are a quarter-inch in length or smaller. They feed on the blood of humans, and their bites show up as itchy welts.
The pests are hard to kill, and it can cost thousands of dollars to disinfect an infested home. Bedbugs can survive in temperatures as high as 120 degrees or as low as freezing, and can live up to a year without feeding.
White said bug-sniffing dogs sweep Public Safety Headquarters monthly. "We also have employee education and home treatment if necessary," he said.
Detroit Police Officers Association president Mark Diaz said bedbugs have been found on the fifth floor at headquarters.
"They've hit on (the) Homicide (offices) a few times," he said. "Our officers are susceptible to picking up lots of things, because they go into people's houses. You name the germ or parasite, they're out there — and we're in danger of picking them up."
In the Michigan State Police offices in Detroit Public Safety Headquarters, bugs were recently found on a chair, which was thrown away, Lt. Michael Shaw said.
"It's an issue for us," Shaw said. "When I worked in a dope unit, we used to dump our equipment in a different place (than headquarters) so we didn't bring anything back. We're pretty cautious about it."
Nevin said firefighters and emergency medical technicians "regularly" find bed bugs on their clothing or equipment. The union has been asking for a portable heater that reaches temperatures above 150 degrees, which would kill the pests.
Distelrath said: "We've agreed to purchase the heating element; there's just a disagreement about the proper one to purchase. We're working through that, and hopefully we'll get it resolved in short order."
In June, the Detroit City Council's Public Health and Safety Standing Committee discussed a proposed ordinance to amend the 1984 City Code to "establish the responsibilities of landlords and tenants in the case of a bedbug infestation; to address the cost of controlling an infestation; to establish protocols for the disposal of infested materials; to require informational materials be provided to tenants on the best practices to handle and prevent a bedbug infestation; and, to provide penalties for failure to comply with this ordinance," according to an agenda item for the June 4 meeting.
In 2015, a Detroit firefighter was injured when a roof caved in at an apartment building on West Outer Drive. Residents said the fire started when a tenant set off a smoke bomb to kill bedbugs.
In recent years, the Wayne County Clerk's Office, a Wayne State University classroom and a courtroom at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice were all closed after bedbugs were discovered.
Nevin said he's been bitten by bedbugs, and has saved one of the insects he found on the job "as a trophy."
"In no way are we complaining about having to go into houses and exposing ourselves to bedbugs," Nevin said. "That's part of the job. We just want our guys to be able to properly get rid of them if they get them."