Friday, July 31, 2009

Advisory Committee gets briefing on TDA issues

Yesterday the Structural Pest Control Service Advisory Committee (SPCSAC) held its summer meeting with Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) to hear updates and offer input on current activities of the agency that regulates commercial pest control in Texas.

Much of the meeting was devoted to a review of changes resulting from the recently ended legislative session in Austin. Two bills that passed this session will limit the activities that can be regulated by TDA. Falconers with permits, who use raptors to control or scare away pestiferous wildlife, are now clearly exempt from needing a pest control license (H.B. 693, sponsored by Vicki Truitt, House District 98, Keller). A more expansive bill, (S.B. 768, sponsored by Glen Hegar, Senate District 18, Katy) added falconry (repetitive with H.B.693), chimney sweeps, use of live traps, mechanical weed removal, and installation of "non-pesticidal barriers" to the list of people and activities that are exempt from requiring a pest control license.

The most significant legislative event for TDA this year was passage of the Sunset Bill (S.B. 1016). In Texas every state agency is required to go through Sunset Review every 12 years. A Sunset committee exaustively reviews all agencies up for review to ensure that the agencies are still needed, are performing their jobs properly, and that laws and regulations governing the agencies are up-to-date and operating efficiently. The result of this year's sunset review is that TDA has been reauthorized. Also, a number of sections of the Agriculture and Occupations Codes have been revised to make sure that the regulations governing the agricultural and occupational (pest control) parts of TDA's regulatory authority work efficiently together.

Some of the key changes resulting from the 2009 Sunset Bill include:
  • An increase in the maximum fines the Agency can impose for violations of the Agriculture or Occupational Codes. Previously the agency could fine violators $2000 per infraction per day for a maximum of $4000. Now the Agency can impose fines of $5000 per infraction per day with no limit to how many days the fines can accumulate.
  • Clarifying language that allows the agency to modify license renewal dates for ag and pest control licenses, harmonize testing procedures for both ag and pest control areas, and adjust length of terms for various licenses.
  • Agency is now required to conduct regular analysis of its records of complaints and pesticide violations for analysis and planning purposes.
  • Agency may conduct unannounced inspections during regular business hours (Assistant Commissioner Bush assured the committee that unless there is a good reason, the agency plans to continue its policy of providing notices of inspection ahead of time).
  • Clerical employees and manual laborers who are not directly involved in pesticide applications for a pest control business are no longer required to have a pesticide applicator's license.
  • The need for pesticide applicators who perform pest control on growing plants, trees, shrubs and grass to obtain a nursery-floral certificate to qualify for agricultural licensing is now eliminated. Such applicators can be licensed through either the agricultural code licensing or the occupational code licensing programs.
  • Allows the TDA to appoint a consumer representative to the SPCSAC without the specific recommendation of a consumer's group (TDA could get no recommendations from a Texas consumer's group when approached last year. So this provision will allow them to quickly fill the remaining slot on the SPCSAC).
  • Authorized TDA to enter into reciprocal licensing agreements with other states (for CEUs, certain testing requirements, etc.)
  • Changed multiple rules that required applicators to for "give" or "provide" or "leave" pest control information sheets with workplaces, schools, apartments and other customers. Now the applicator is required only to "make available" the consumer information sheets to such customers. The significance of this change was discussed at some length, with some of us expressing concern that this change would encourage applicators to neglect informing their customers of the availability of these sheets, and result in fewer consumers knowing about their rights and who to contact in the case of complaints. Assistant Commissioner Jimmy Bush said that it is their hope that there is little change people receiving the information. The intent of the change was to reduce the need to provide repetitive paperwork everytime a service visit is conducted and encourage electronic notifications. The essence of the discussion seemed to be that TDA is going to take a more relaxed attitude towards applicators providing consumer information sheets at every service visit.
In addition to updates from the legislative session, the committee discussed the new plans for CEU requirements for school IPM coordinators (SIPMC). Under the recently updated regulations that went into effect July 7, SIPMCs are required to obtain six hours of department-approved CEUs every three years. General discussion points included the question of whether a certain number of CEUs would have to be on laws and regulations, whether each CEU could be obtained separately, what criteria TDA should use in determining whether a course would qualify for a SIPMC CEU, and how the CEUs would be enforced.

The committee agreed that some of the CEUs should include laws and regulations, most of us thought that at least 2 CEUs should come from this category. The committee seemed to agree that CEUs should be available to be obtained individually, and that obtaining them electronically would be a cost-effective and environmentally sound alternative to face-to-face meetings--especially for small, isolated school districts. Some of us, however, felt that at least some CEUs should be obtained through face-to-face training--something that Jimmy Bush said could be worked into the rules. One suggestion was that the CEU requirements might be vetted through the new SIPMC association that will be organizing in November in San Marcos.

The topic of use of pesticides as part of school curricula was brought up briefly, with Jimmy Bush stating that TDA would have no objections to exemptions to the school IPM rules for pesticides used as part of school lessons or laboratory experiments. Pesticides in such cases would be handled by schools in a manner similar to any other hazardous material in a lab.

Insurance remains a hot topic between the industry and TDA. At issue is whether the current requirements do enough to protect the consumer from errors and omissions that might be made by a licensed applicator. Although some insurance policies include provisions for errors and omissions made by an applicator (e.g., not noticing a termite infestation during a wood-destroying insect (WDI) inspection), many do not. The TPCA objects to making E&O insurance a requirement due to increased costs. Apparently the only other occupation regulated by the state that is required to have E&O insurance is home inspection, a profession that has many similarities to pest control, especially WDI inspectors. Mike Kelly of TDA noted that inspectors have been instructed not to review insurance policies during this time, until the department can determine its position on the kinds of liability insurance it will require for licensed businesses.

Poor or illegal termite pre-treatments is a chronic problem that numerous committees and regulators have struggled with over the years. A subcommittee of the SPCSAC began meeting after this session to start discussions on how to improve regulations of termite pre-treatments without overly burdening honest operators. If you have thoughts on this subject, you should contact me or (even better) one of the members of this subcommittee (Bill Stepan, Greg Orr, or Tommy Kezar).

These meetings are long, but very informative in knowing what is going on in the state with respect to regulations. The meetings are always open to the public. The next meeting will take place October 29 in Austin at TDA headquarters.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

School IPM summer updates 2009

Lobby of Embassy Suites in San Marcos is comfortable and conducive to informal get-togethersI'm trying to make up for lost blogging time in July today, as things are starting to happen on the school IPM front. Today a new registration page was posted for the first ever school IPM coordinator conference in Texas. I say Texas, but this is probably the first conference of its kind anywhere in the U.S.

The meeting is scheduled for November 18-19, 2009 at the Embassy Suites San Marcos Hotel, Spa & Conference Center in San Marcos, TX. I have been to see the site and it should be an excellent location for a conference like this. It is centrally located, new facilities with excellent amenities at a reasonable price. The speaker lineup should be excellent, with keynote speaker Dr. Bobby Corrigan, and a variety of other pest control, public school, regulatory and other experts on the tentative schedule. Fee for early registration is only $75.

Registration for the conference is through the AgriLife Extension Conference Services office, but this meeting is being organized by school IPM coordinators for school IPM coordinators and those who do pest control in schools.

The meeting will be unique in that it will be the largest scale effort to date to establish a professional organization for school IPM coordinators. A group of Texas school IPM coordinators is currently working to establish their own professional group called the Texas Integrated Pest Management Affiliate for Public Schools (TIPMAPS). The group is forming as an affiliate chapter under the Texas Association of School Business Officials. The first official meeting of the group will be held at the end of the second day of the conference to discuss membership issues and other future plans.

As an extension specialist who works with schools pretty frequently I know that there are some excellent, dedicated PMPs and school maintenance professionals laboring in Texas public schools (and elsewhere) who don't get the recognition and professional support they deserve. This meeting is an attempt to change that by providing a place where school IPM professionals can come and be supported and learn from one another. I hope we will see a lot of you in November--school IPM coordinators, PMPs and vendors.

In other school IPM news, the national pest management strategic plan (PMSP) I wrote about in April has met additional opposition since that time. In addition to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment), the Association of Structural Pest Control Regulatory Officials (ASPCRO) has since communicated with USDA and EPA about a list of concerns. A group of extension professionals that I belong to, the Southern Regional Working Group on School IPM, also drafted an extensive critique of the plan. In response to these concerns, the drafters of the PMSP are planning to meet in August to review and revise the document.

In our view, the wording of the plan tended to be more divisive and critical of pesticides as a whole than we felt was necessary or justified by scientific evidence. We hope that the revised plan will continue to promote IPM and the benefits of good pest control without overstating the case against pesticides as a whole. More on this later.

Finally, a new Internet resource for urban IPM (special emphasis on schools) was released this week through the e-Xtension project (pronounced E-extension). A news release announced the new feature, the latest addition to the website that is billed as a national clearinghouse for extension information for consumers. Janet Hurley and I from Texas have both been involved in development and review of the urban IPM site. It should become a good place to go for information about a variety of pest problems related to schools and other structures.

Mommy Power and Pest Control

I'm an entomologist and not a marketer, nevertheless I wanted to share an intriguing marketing-related news item that I learned about on the radio yesterday. The radio story was on a relatively new online player (at least to me) called "mommy bloggers".

Now I've been blogging for well over a year, but have remained ignorant of a growing movement of what are called "blog-hers". In fact, like every other group larger than three people and a cat, they even have their own national conference and networking website. The BlogHer '09 conference in Chicago just concluded with over a thousand attendees. Next year's meeting in New York City is certain to attract even more, if writers like Austin American Statesman's report Omar Gallaga are to be believed. In fact, a recent survey by Nielsen Online concluded that online women aged 25-54 with at least one child make up about 20% of the active online population.

So what's this got to do with the pest control business? For one thing, according to Jessica Hogue, of Nielsen Online, "Mom blogs today are the epicenter for products reviews." One of the things mommy bloggers love to do is talk about consumer decisions they have made or are considering making. This makes sense if you consider that the woman of the house is often the key decision maker when it comes to significant household purchases, repairs, etc. Many retail manufacturers are acutely aware of this and are quickly recruiting mom bloggers into their marketing programs.

It should come at no surprise, then, that astute marketers with some of the larger pest control companies appear aware of this fact. A quick search of the terms "pest control" and "exterminator" on reveals that Terminix and Orkin and other big name pest control companies are featured prominently on the site. My same search revealed hundreds of hits on these topics on different mommy blogs. Pest control is one of many things that are of intense interest to moms.

In many cases marketers are now providing freebies and samples to mommy bloggers in hopes of inducing them to blog (favorably) about their products. I'm not sure exactly how these techniques might relate to local pest management companies; but if you've been, like me, blissfully unaware of this growing online phenomenon, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

A starting point might be to visit and search for mommy blogs in your community. You might discover some influential networks you didn't know existed. You might even persuade some of them to provide links or ads to your business.

On a more sober note, you might ask yourself, "is my company providing the best service possible to moms in my community?" With the growth and maturity of internet networking, bad reputations are as likely to spread as quickly as the good.

One thing I know, you want to maintain good relations with these moms. As the bumper sticker says, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!"

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summertime travels

July has been admittedly a slow month for posts for me--but I have a good excuse. Vacation. My only hope is that you also have been out of the office some, pursuing different horizons.

A week back in the office and I am still struggling to find the time to blog after a two-week vacation to cooler places. So instead of a blog I offer you a refreshing view taken from the slopes of Mt. Thomas, a beautiful but lesser known peak in Colorado. Later this week I hope to offer something a little more useful, but until then think cool thoughts.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Job Security for PMPs

The massive wall of brilliant green foliage at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, features an 8,600 square feet plant installation by the designer Patrick Blanc.  The installation includes more than 170 different plant speciesTom Green of the IPM Institute in Madison, Wisconsin, just sent me this link to a CNN article on a new building trend PMPs might want to be aware of. It's called "vegitecture" or "biotecture", and it refers to the architectural practice of including plants as an integral component of buildings.

Before you laugh, this is not just for looks and a lot of people are dead serious about vegitecture. There is even at least one blog dedicated to the concept:

In a nutshell, the idea is that there are numerous aesthetic and environmental benefits of building nature into architecture. A few positives include increased beauty, energy conservation (plants help keep buildings cool), carbon sequestration (to battle global climate change), reduced stormwater runoff, noise reduction, psychological boosts for building inhabitants, air filtration (something NASA recognized years ago for indoor plants) and even the potential for food production.

Of course the idea of incorporating plants into buildings is not new. The historian Herodotus (484 BC–ca. 425 BC) included the hanging gardens of Babylon as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. American pioneers recognized the benefits of sod homes, or "soddies" when they colonized the prairies of middle America (although some chafed at the dirt and the insects). Germany pioneered the modern "green roof" in the 1960s and today it is estimated that about 10% of all flat roofs in that country are green.

So what does all of this have to do with pest control? As nearly anyone with experience in the pest control industry can tell you, nature often chooses unpredictable and undesirable paths (at least from our human perspective). While the architects' sketches always depict verdant, well maintained gardens covering roof and walls, with smiling people staring up at them, reality is likely to be somewhat different.

You don't have to be a certified entomologist to know that green walls and vegetated roofs provide abundant habitat and shelter for all manner of (often unwanted) urban wildlife, including rodents, birds, spiders and mites and many insects. Birds are nice until they fly into your building, or share their parasitic nest mites with workers in a nearby office. Sod- or wildflower-covered roofs inevitably will sprout weeds and unplanned trees. Poison ivy anyone? No problem, you say, we know how to control these things--we do it in our landscapes. Keep in mind though, that most new buildings that incorporate green roofs are on a LEED certification, or similar certification, track. Most of these building owners will insist that no pesticides be used in the maintenance of the building. The assumption seems to be that using pesticides will negate the value of the vegitecture.

I believe the pest control industry needs to be ready to challenge this particular assumption, look for new and innovative ways to control pests safely, and be more involved in the design of this new generation of buildings. The assumption that no pesticides have any place in a green building is hard to justify from a purely logical basis. In self-contained rooftop systems, for example, it's hard to see how a low-toxicity, granular herbicide with zero drift and zero pesticide runoff risk poses any environmental or safety risk. On the insect side, baits and highly selective insecticides that break down quickly in the environment can do more environmental good than harm. Many insecticides, I believe, could be considered acceptable in green buildings once the anti-environment stigma that pesticides carry is examined scientifically.

This is not to say that change in the way we do pest control will be unnecessary in these new, "greened-up" buildings. Use of broad-spectrum, residual insecticides will probably no longer be acceptable. Pesticide use will have to be justified and benefits weighed against the possible negatives. And our industry will have to become more serious about finding ways to prevent, rather than react to, pests. In other words, we'll have to really do IPM and not just talk about it.

Image by VirginmediaSome of the most challenging pests, I believe, will continue to be the vertebrate pests such as birds and rodents. Even some architects are admitting that wildlife experts should be involved in the planning process for green buildings. I say include entomologists and PMPs too! As vegitecture becomes more common, new and unique urban ecosystems will be created. And not all of the new denizens of these ecosystems will be invited guests.

We in the pest control industry need to be aware of these new trends, and be ready to adapt to them. After all, you'll be the one getting the call about the snake on the 25th floor.