Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why School IPM Programs "Fail"

By Mike Waldvogel

Periodically, we hear comments and complaints from school administrators that “IPM does not work”.  Certainly, there are times when controlling a particular pest problem will be “challenging”, particularly in a complex environment like a school where so many people (students, teachers, staff) play an important role and the buildings vary in both age and condition.  However, I have never seen IPM “fail” without some underlying explanation that actually points to the solution to this “failure”.

Almost everyone is familiar with the well-worn expression from the movie Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is failure to communicate."    All too often, the pest control service fails to communicate problems such as sanitation issues and structural problems (such as leaks, cracks, holes, etc.) that create “conditions conducive to pests” or the presence of some obstructions to accessing areas for inspection/treatment.  In some cases, they do report it but nothing is done to correct the problem. Of course, communication is a two-way street.  Several years ago, a coworker of mine complained about a light being out in his office for over two weeks.  He hadn’t reported the problem.  He just assumed that “someone from housekeeping” would notice it and report it.  Another well-worn expression applies to IPM – “If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it”.  The catch there? You have to know when it’s broke in order to fix it.  Your school’s staff is critical to the success of your IPM program.  We expect the pest control technician to be thorough in his/her inspection, but many pest problems are not constantly visible and so we rely on the people who are in the building every day to participate in the IPM program by reporting any pests or pest-conducive condition that they see.  

Over the summer, I talked to a school system’s Child Nutrition Administrator who thought that IPM did not work.  She asked me if I thought that the pest control technician should be checking behind/under the large refrigerators where cockroaches had been spotted before and were still being seeing even after some treatment was supposedly done in the kitchen.  The answer is pretty straightforward in that case but often we hesitate to question someone whom we’ve hired supposedly for their expertise in an area where we lack the knowledge and training.  However, you need to keep in mind – it’s YOUR contract, YOUR money (actually, the taxpayers’ money), and YOUR right to inquire and then require that the job be done correctly.  Given the budget situation today, it’s hard to ask someone to take on more responsibility but it is absolutely critical that someone at the school (or central office) at least make sure that the contract is being fulfilled properly and that problems are being addressed in a timely manner.  Pest control technicians are taught to do their jobs as quickly as possible (time IS money in their case because they likely have other accounts to service).  However, the quality of pest control service should never be compromised just for the sake of time.  This is a good reason that your contract should stipulate that the pest control company perform some routine quality assessment of their own work and to contact you (or your IPM Coordinator) monthly to review any ongoing or unaddressed problems in the school buildings.  Here are some points that you would cover:

1.   Is the company responding to particular problems in a timely manner?
2.   Are there any problems that the technician has reported to their supervisor but the school has failed to address in a timely manner?  For example: is food being stored improperly in a classroom?  Are there leaking pipes that have gone unrepaired?
3.   Is the technician checking the pest sighting logbook and talking to school staff about specific pest problems in the school before beginning any other service to the building?
4.   Is the technician inspecting critical areas (particularly in kitchens) and confirming the need for any control measures rather than simply applying a pesticide?
5.   Are sticky traps (monitors), rodent traps (if used), and baits being checked and serviced each visit?  Sticky traps that have become covered with dirt become ineffective at catching pests.  Traps that are covered with pests won’t allow you to evaluate whether a problem is current or stopped months ago.
6.   Are the appropriate products being used to address specific pest problems and situations (both indoors and/or outdoors)?
a.   Are they mindful of any label restrictions on applying a particular product when food and food preparation equipment may become contaminated or students may be exposed to potentially toxic residues.
b.   Is a product being used simply because the label says “Safe” but is not necessarily going to do the job we need in this specific situation?
c.    Are they simply spraying a pesticide that only makes the problem go away temporarily and then the pest is back.  Would baits be a better choice for a particular pest and situation?

An analogy that I’ve often used in training programs with both pest management professionals, food service managers and with school staff is to think about IPM in terms of like waking up with a headache and taking some medication to make it go away.  While the medication may seem to remedy the problem and stop the pain, it does not address the most important question of why you’re repeatedly getting headaches.   Applying a pesticide often does the same thing as taking a pain medication – the problem may go away in the short term but if they constantly return then you need to dig deeper into the cause of the problem and that’s what IPM is all about.

As always, if you have any questions or need help, please feel free to contact Patty Alder or myself.  You can reach us through the School IPM website:

Mike Waldvogel is Extension Associate Professor in the Entomology Department and serves as director of the NCSU Structural Pest Management Training Facility.
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