An inside look: Three generations of women exterminating Ohio's pesky bugs

Don't let the bed bugs bite

CINCINNATI -- You planned a luxurious week-long vacation in the tropics with your family; sleeping on linen sheets, sipping mojitos and spending that hard-earned money on souvenirs.

But what happens when you bring back the wrong type of souvenir?

It's a ghostly feeling: Tiny legs crawling across you so lightly it almost feels as if the wind is brushing across that you can barely feel them as tiny creatures burrow in the lining of your mattress, nearly undetectable for months.

The 4-millimeter, oval-shaped bug most likely snuck into your home through your luggage. As time goes on, their colony grows and it's time for them to feed. These blood-sucking creatures hunt you down by the CO2 you're exhaling. 

They're bed bugs and they've been a persistent problem in Cincinnati for years. A problem that Tami Burkel says isn't prejudice to the rich or poor.

Who are you going to call? 

Three local women -- Lucille, Tami and Jamie -- spend their days in a seemingly normal way: answering phones, logging information into a computer and ... gassing homes across the Tri-State.

Lucille Gall and her husband, Roy, opened Valley Termite and Pest Control in 1960 in Reading. Like any business, it was a risk. But what Gall didn't know at the time was that Cincinnati would continuously rank on the top 10 list of cities infested with bed bugs.

And as bed begs multiply and thrive, so does the business. The 77-year-old, drives over an hour each day to work, remains part owner of the company, which she shares with her daughter, Tami Burkel.

Burkel, 52, became part owner in 1987 after her father died. She began working in the office as a helping-hand to her father when he was diagnosed with cancer. She has managed the company since his passing.

And she, too, kept the bug-fighting in the family.

Jamie Burkel, Tami's daughter, is a business graduate from the University of Cincinnati  works as the current head of marketing at Valley Pest Control. The 26-year-old is the third generation of Gall/Burke women to work in the exterminating industry. Jamie's brother, Michael, also works for the company. 

TAP TO VIEW IMAGE

Jamie Burkel, Tami Burkel and Lucille Gall of Valley Termite and Pest Control. Jane Andreasik | WCPO

They lead a team of 12 employees  who work to rid Cincinnati of unwanted animals and insects. They also rehab damaged homes. The employees are family members, or close friends, which the Gall/Burkel clan consider to be just like family. Valley is the only company of its kind in the Tri-State which uses fumigation; a 100 percent effective form of treatment. 

"We do a lot of things that other people don't do," Burkel said. Fumigation is a hazardous practice that deals with mixtures of chemicals that are toxic to most living creatures, including humans. Not only are exterminators risking their own well-being, but they're doing a job most of us never would.

Good night, bed bugs

Maybe you've seen them draped over homes in Florida or on televsions shows: The circus-looking tents, usually striped with bold colors, that encase entire homes. They're fumigation tents to contain the sulfuryl fluoride  gas used to suffocate pests. 

Burkel traveled to Florida to be trained and brought the service back with her. But she left the tents behind. Instead, Valley fumigators tape off windows and doors of the home and filtrate gas lines into individual rooms.

TAP TO VIEW IMAGE

Gas lines for fumigation are installed. Each color is a designation for a different room. The gas is deadly. Jane Andreasik | WCPO

In order for homes to be fumigated, tenants must evacuate the premise for 48 hours; leaving their keys and belongings in the hands of complete strangers. 

From treating the worst cases imaginable to "ideal" and luxurious homes, Tami Burkel said "bed bugs are not prejudiced" and effect a wide variety of people across Ohio. For some cases, she said she agrees to "keep things quiet" so neighbors won't find out about a bed-bug problem. To do so, the exterminators wait until they are inside the house to put on the air-tight uniforms and they drive unmarked trucks.

Burkel said prices can vary anywhere between $2,000 and $8,500 depending on the size of the building and the level of infestation.

Before they begin, however, Burkel pays a visit to home with Hersey, a trained dog that works with Valley.

TAP TO VIEW IMAGE

Hershey, an 8-year-old chocolate lab, is Valley Termite's fumigation specialist. Jane Andreasik | WCPO

The 8-year-old chocolate lab was trained in Florida to become a service dog; part of her duty is to detect where bed bugs and their eggs are nesting. 

During a recent inspection, WCPO followed Hershey and Burkel as they evaluated a home.

Hershey places its paw on a spot that has live bugs or eggs. Every time the dog "points'' out an infestation, she gets a treat. The more the treats, the more likely the house is headed toward fumigation. 

'That's not the worst'

A few years ago, Burkel was called to evaluate a building that housed businesses and residents. What she

saw surprised even the bug-fighting veteran.

"He would see a bug, squish it. See a bug, squish it. All over the wall," Burkel said. "We moved a piece of furniture and it was the only clean spot on the wall." At one point, there were hundreds of bed bugs swarming this apartment.

TAP TO VIEW IMAGE

Walls smeared with dead bed bugs. One of the many "dirty" jobs for Tami Burkel. Jane Andreasik | WCPO

But, that's not the worst.

The worst case Burkel said she has worked on was a hoarding situation in Bond Hill. An elderly woman living with three other people re-infested herself three times. Burkel said she had to walk into the home sideways to maneuver around piles of clothes and shopping bags. 

Hoarding situations are relatively common for Burkel and her team of technicians. She's seen rotten food left on floors and in sinks, undetected dead animals and feces left to molt on floors. It's when situations get to this point, she said, that her team is called in to kill cockroaches, bed bugs and other unwanted pests.

Her team visited what they call "The Rat Farm," another "worst case scenario" job. A family had been combating a small army of rats that overtook their barn. Burkel knew the situation was dire from a previous phone call between her and the owners, but underestimated the gravity of the situation.

"The rats were huge. Like small cats. They were everywhere," Burkel said. The rats were waiting in the shadows for them, finding shelter in the floor boards, hay stacks and piping. The crew, almost blinded from the darkness, ventured into a basement area. The rats, Burkel said, could have crawled on them at any point.

TAP TO VIEW IMAGE

The deadly gas sign is taped to front doors of homes that are fumigated. Families must leave the home for 48 hours. Jane Andreasik | WCPO

The worst part of it, she said, was a dog living on the farm caught a rat and brought it to the Valley crew as they were leaving. The lifeless rat, almost too large to fit in the dog's mouth, was one of dozens they dealt with that day.

'How am I going to be perceived?'

As a woman in a traditional man's line of work, Burkel imagined how some may view her. We asked her a few questions about that.

Q: When a woman, instead of a man, shows up for a service call, are customers expecting that?

A: It's interesting because when I first decided I was going into this industry that was a concern of mine; being in an all-male field. I thought, 'Oh boy, how am I going to be perceived?' And I was very surprised at how well I am perceived.

Women love it. They feel much more comfortable with a woman coming instead of a man. They feel safe.

In about 10 years, I might have had three customers who would rather have a man. You can sometimes get that vibe and I'll just ask them if they'd rather have a man.

Q: Trying to be a lady but also having to deal with "dirty stuff," was it offsetting at first and are you used to it by now?

A: (Laughing) No, I'm not used to it. But it's been a better experience than I had expected.

I have hard hats in the back (of her truck) if I'm going to a location that requires it, like an area that's under construction. I have steel-toed boots, too. I bring different things and switch out when I need to for those jobs. I can't wear dressy stuff incase I need to go into one of those places (dirty location).

Q: Are there any jobs that are too dirty for you?

A: If it's a crawl space, it usually goes in Mike's or someone else's box (a technician) and they don't mind. They're real good about that. I do push some dirty stuff on them. [Mike Goff is the lead technichian for Valley Termite; handling a majority of the dirty work.]

They're surprised, though, at some of the stuff I'll do. 

At the infamous "rat farm" Burkel said she was frightened, but said there was "no way" she would act like she's afraid of anything in front of a client. "I looked real brave."

 

This is part of an on-going series that aims to showcase remarkable professions across Greater Cincinnati. These unsung workers make a living in some peculiar ways. We’ll give you an inside, eye-opening look to the often grimy and under-appreciated, but necessary, professions in the Tri-State. 

Connect with Jane Andreasik  on Twitter.

 

Print this article Back to Top

Comments

or Subscribe now so you can share your opinion! It’s only a penny for a month trial.