They’re hardly visible, reproduce by the hundreds, and move stealthily under your covers and the dark corners of your bedroom before feasting on your blood.
This is no opening scene in a horror movie — it’s a bedbug infestation.
Over the past three weeks, Charleston Fire Department officials across three stations relocated to shelters and tents due to multiple reports by firefighters of sightings and bites. Firefighters from station 20 on Daniel Island have been relocated to Station 18 following three unsuccessful attempts to eradicate the building of the blood-sucking pests, the department said.
In the meantime, stations 7 and 13 on James Island have been consolidated and re-settled into Western Shelter tents, which are also air-conditioned and located near a portable toilet and shower unit, outside station 13. They're expected to be able to move back into the building as early as Friday.
It's not an uncommon problem with fire departments. In December, the Chester Fire Department in Chester, N.J., notified the city's public health department about bedbugs in one of its two stations, according to reporting by the Delaware County Daily Times. Firefighters were allowed back in the building after the first of three chemical treatments.
So what is being done to eradicate the bedbugs locally?
Battalion Chief Kenneth Jenkins said because this is the first time the department has had an issue with bedbugs there was no streamlined process in place to rid the stations of the bugs.
“These bugs don’t carry diseases. The problem with these bugs is they spread rapidly,” he said Tuesday while standing outside the tents at station 13. “The female bugs apparently can lay up to 200 eggs. They can lay dormant up to eight months without feeding. So the fear of spreading from station to station to station was our main concern.”
Bed bugs are reddish-brown in color, wingless and range from 1mm to 7mm (roughly the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. They have been found everywhere worldwide, including in 5-star hotels. The bites can take anywhere from a day to several days to appear, and reactions can range from a small pinch to an allergic reaction that causes itching, the CDC said.
With the use of two large propane tanks, city workers at station 13 on Tuesday were exposing affected areas inside the building to concentrated heat. Temperatures inside the building, Jenkins said, reached up to 150 degrees.
“Any place where the bugs might be hiding, they heat the structure up between 120 and 150 degrees, and they maintain that for three to four hours,” Jenkins said. “It cooks them, actually, nothing can survive that.”
This is the preferred method, he said, because it does not employ chemical agents that often require multiple applications and can take up to three months to complete.
“That (heat) is the most effective and time-efficient way to dispose of these insects,” Jenkins said.
Officials still are not clear on where the bugs came from but continue to insist that firefighters take measures to thoroughly clean linens and clothing.
“The worst-case scenario is someone taking it home to their families,” he said. “We don’t know for sure, but we’re assuming that possibly the employees have them in their bags, in their gear, and it’s possibly being re-introduced into the stations.”
Bedbugs tend to stay hidden away during daylight hours, according to the CDC, and are drawn to hard-to-see places such as mattress seams, box springs, bed frames, inside cracks and crevices — even behind wallpaper.
The bugs are capable of traveling more than 100 feet in a night but tend to gravitate to areas within eight feet of where people sleep, CDC said. Adult bedbugs generally live for up to one year.
The firefighters living in the tents said they remain patient while officials try to rid their station of bedbugs, insisting that the circumstances have not hindered their ability to respond to calls.
“It’s not much different than staying in there,” firefighter Sean Harvill conceded, pointing to the station behind him.