Minutes of July 18, 2019 meeting
The July meeting was devoted to rats and how to get rid of them and to getting more information about the SeeClickFix application so that we might understand why it is both wonderful and annoying.
The representatives from Inspectional Services provided a lot of information about city policy and practices on rat control for construction projects and residents.
Representatives from Inspectional Services led the initial discussion:
John Nardone, Deputy Commissioner
Anthony Tuccinardi, Operations Manager
David Power, Code Enforcement Inspector
The interest in the subject was such that it quickly became a Q&A session.
John Nardone provided the history of the city’s policy and practice. About 20 years ago, the city formed a Rodent Task Force. They reviewed the then-current city ordinances and practices and aligned them with recommended practices. An important phase of this work was the three-day course at Rodent Control Academy (Rat U?) in NYC taught by Robert Corrigan, the author of Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Management Professionals, which is still in print. (Videos by and about Corrigan are widely available, and you come to appreciate his knowledge for the subject, his respect for the intelligence of his adversary, and his humor.)
Anthony Tuccinardi walked us through the rodent control program the city subsequently established. Developers are required to develop a rodent control program and provide proof of its existence when applying for a demolition or construction permits; such proof involves a signed contract with a licensed exterminator for at least two years. Copies of the contract and the reports of service visits must be sent to the city. Inspections are done on and around the site before work begins; it is occasionally necessary to extend the inspection to a 4-block radius from the site when evidence of rodents is found.
Understanding the needs and behaviors of these creatures is helpful to keeping them at bay.
- Although rats are sighted everywhere, they tend to be homebodies whose horizons extend to roughly a 4-block radius from their burrows.
- When building their homes, they work from the same blueprint in that they have 3 ways to get out. Thus, plugging holes won’t trap them unless you plug all of them.
- When they seek food and water, they tend to follow pipes, edges of foundations and streets. They veer from the straight and narrow path only when they have no other option.
- Like most creatures, they prefer a decent meal. Fresh food is wonderful, and rotting food is acceptable. The Frankenfood that is rat poison is truly the last resort; hence rats do not take the bait when better options—garbage bags with food trash and bird feeders– are available.
- Handling food waste, including trash and compost, properly goes a long way to keep the buffet empty. Lacking opposable thumbs, rats use their teeth to “open” plastic trash bins when they have reason to believe that lunch is inside. The city’s new program for collecting food waste is proving to be effective in reducing these opportunities.
- Drainage pipes on trash dumpsters that run along the side parallel to the ground are prime real estate, offering a cozy abode that is close to an inexhaustible food source. To eliminate the appeal, dumpsters should drain through pipes at the bottom that are perpendicular to the ground.
A flood of questions followed.
Q: Why doesn’t the city use smoke testing, which other communities do, to find leaks in water and sewer pipes?
A: One downside is that the smoke can come up into homes through bad plumbing in residential systems, which people don’t expect and the city cannot fix. Instead, the city uses a TV test, a colonoscopy of sorts, for this purpose.
Q: What can be done about inadequate trash disposal solutions at multi-unit rental properties? Often the owners don’t live there and/or are out of state.
A: One resident described an approach she worked out with her neighbors to provide tenants information about best practices in the spring and fall, when units turn over. The city endorsed this idea. They distributed copies of a booklet titled Preventing Rats on Your Property: A Guide for Cambridge Property Owners and Tenants, which describes what needs to be done. (Copies will be available at future PSNA meetings until we run out.)
Q: What happens when residents file complaints?
A: Inspectional Services investigates and can issue an order to do something within 12 hours. Case in point is the dumpster for the Speedway (formerly Hess) gas station, which has become a rat frat house under the new ownership. (Judging by Mr Tuccinardi’s expression when recounting this story, it has been a long battle to get the responsible parties to take the action required to solve the problem, and it is not over.) Fines of $300/day can be imposed, but the experience suggests that it offers no guarantee that any offender will take the action to solve the problem properly.
To understand how things are being done in the neighborhood, representatives from three organizations shared their experiences and practices.
Phil Terzis, who represented Acorn holdings, the developer of St. James Place, has had a rat control program in place on the site for the last 10 years. Three weeks before demolition began last spring, they implemented the more extensive activities required. They contacted all abutters and households across the street from those abutters to check for evidence of rats. (This is where the dumpster at the Speedway gas station comes in.) The construction firm uses separate dumpsters for debris and food waste. If a half-eaten sandwich is buried beneath the remains of a building, a rat will endeavor to take it home.
Jason Korb, whose firm is building Frost Terrace, put their plan in action 4 months before demolition began. They haven’t seen many rats; the snacks in the traps are being eaten, which is one measure of how much decent food is available. They are in the process of migrating the website for the project (1791massave.com) to a new host company, which will make it possible to report any problems, including rats, online.
(Korb also noted that they will be driving piles in August and will be moving the house on the Mass Ave side of the site to the location indicated on the project plans on September 1. Check the website for details.)
Carole Montgomery, who manages the properties owned by Gravestar, reported that rats have been a problem across all their properties (which should not reflect poorly on them). They have been working with CVS and Healthworks to change some of the problems with storage that were providing a good harbor for rats. This problem has been resolved. They are also making some changes to the landscaping to make the shopping center less appealing to them.
Councillor Craig Kelly noted that state law has different rules for the critters who invade our homes or dine on our gardens. Because mice and rats are considered rodents, they can be dispatched by one and all without concern. However, the other annoying critters—squirrels, birds, possums, raccoons, and the now ubiquitous bunnies—are considered wildlife, a status that involves fines and other legal complications to those who poison or trap them.
And, for the record, it was Craig Kelley, who brought Robert Corrigan’s book and Rat U to the attention of the task force lo these many years ago.
How to report rat sightings and other problems presented the perfect segue to SeeClickFix. Dan Riviello, who manages the system for Cambridge, explained how it works and answered questions.
SeeClickFix and Commonwealth Connects are the same thing. Riviello reports that 49,000 reports have been submitted in the three and a half years that the application has been used in Cambridge. He noted that SeeClickFix is not a good way to request that someone come look at something or contact you to answer questions. Calling and leaving messages is more effective for that purpose.
The application was created by SeeClickFix, a software company in Rhode Island. Riviello is in contact with them regularly to report problems and request features. He has found them to be very responsive.
Riviello notes that although it is possible to submit requests as a guest, you get more information that you would actually want by creating an account.
One complaint about how it works is that issues submitted are very frequently closed with no indication of whether anything has been done and no information about follow up when that would be appropriate to the nature of the problem. Riviello said that this reflects both the design of the application and the need for more training.
Any report is in one of three states: Open, Acknowledged, or Closed. These limited options reflect the design assumption that if you’re reporting a pothole, it will be obvious that the pothole has been fixed and the report can be closed. But some problems require solutions that are not as straightforward and easily verifiable.
For example, rats. The inspection may have occurred, some action may have been taken, yet some of the rats may still be around, at least for a while. If the report has been closed with no information about whether anything about what has been done, it is easy to assume that the city has blown off the issue or needs to meet some sort of quota.
Riviello acknowledged that some folks are more diligent than others in how they close reports and that a standard for this needs to be established and enforced. He praised the standard that David Power has set for excellence in this regard; Power includes this information and links to other documents or calendars that can be used to follow up. This is clearly what is residents would want and expect from an online system. More training is needed to ensure that all city employees who use the system follow the same practices.
One issue that discourages use of the system is the deluge of email notifications that a report generates. The default behavior reflects an assumption that those who report problems are interested in knowing about other reported problems in the area. You soon receive updates on every problem reported within a radius of a few blocks of the problem you have reported. Should you report another problem at a location a few blocks or miles away, you get notifications about problems in that area also, and before you know it, you’re in one of the inner circles of Hell, and may come to regret submitting a request.
The desired default behavior, which would seem obvious, is to be able to select the notifications you want to receive. But for reasons known best to the company, that is not going to happen any time soon. Riviello has a workaround in the meantime. When you create an account from which to submit reports, clear the selections for all the notifications you can receive and select only the one that restricts updates to the problem you reported.
Bonus section: Critters in children’s literature
In preparing to run the meeting, I reflected on my efforts to evict some mice last winter. When I recounted my epic battle over the spring, all but one person observed that mice were so cute so how could I possibly reconcile sending nine of them to their final reward?
It occurred to me that the first encounter most of us have the creatures we try to ban from our homes and gardens is in children’s literature. My very sloppy search revealed that rodents in children’s literature is a thing, and the two comparisons of mice and rats below were very much in play. the sentiments I ran into again and again.
First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.
Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.
For anyone who cares to pursue this subject, I offer a few places to start.