Complaints: An Underrated Surveillance Parameter

   From the Proceedings of NJMCA. Please use the following citation when referring to this article:
Romanowski, M. and R. D. Higgens 1989. Complaints: An Underrated Surveillance Parameter.  Proceedings of the Seventy-Sixth Annual Meeting of the New Jersey Mosquito Control Association, Inc. pp 38-44.

MICHAEL ROMANOWSKI and RICHARD D. HIGGENS

Ocean County Mosquito Extermination Commission, P.O. Box 327, Barnegat, NJ 08005

Abstract: Complaints can be an efficient surveillance tool for mosquito control agencies but the data are frequently overlooked in the management program. This paper discusses the uses to which complaints can be utilized and presents guidelines for their implementation and management.

Introduction: Answering complaints is one of the least glamorous duties in mosquito control. The task appears to be one of the most thankless and, at times, one of the least productive aspects of mosquito control. One can easily develop the attitude that the time spent on answering complaints is time taken away from real mosquito control. One of the objectives of this discussion is to make the point that the complaint can be used as a uniform and useful surveillance tool. We will also set forth some guidelines for the way that complaints may be handled by mosquito control agencies.

Possible Uses for Recorded Complaints: The complaint can be used as an integral part of a mosquito control agency's program in several ways. The first, and probably most important. use of the complaint, is public relations. It can be used to educate the public about mosquito control practices and methods as well as what your program encompasses. You can use the moment to explain the life cycle of the mosquito and to instruct the public in what they can do to help in the control of mosquito populations. A lot of complaints are a direct result of poor maintenance practices around the home or business. An example would be old tires around a building or a boat that has become filled with water and debris in someone's backyard.

Complaints are also an excellent source for finding unknown or new mosquito breeding habitats. Many breeding areas are located in areas that are unknown to an agency or they are located on private property where an inspector would be hesitant to explore. These areas might never be located if a complaint did not bring them to the attention of an agency. A complaint can also help determine the parameters for future adulticides. An example would be a new development in an area that previously did not require mosquito control. Many agencies also use numbers of complaints to determine when to adulticide established areas. In this case, the public is actually being used as a major surveillance tool.

The complaint is also used in tandem with other surveillance methods. Many agencies use the complaint as a verification of their other surveillance methods. For example; landing rate and bite count data can be confirmed or questioned by the increase or decrease in the volume of complaints from an area. Along with being used as a verification, the complaint is also used to determine the effectiveness of an agency's treatment program, both larval and adult. An example would be when an agency decides to adulticide an area by either a ground fogging or an airspray. The volume of complaints pre- and post-treatment gives a reliable indicator of the success or possible failure of the treatment over the entire treated area. If the calls drop after treatment, you can be confident that the treatment was a success. Conversely, if the number of complaints remains stationary or increases, you can immediately evaluate the situation to determine why the treatment was ineffective, be it equipment malfunction, wrong weather conditions or improper application technique.

Complaints are also used to justify or reinforce many water management projects. If an area is continually calling about a mosquito problem and, upon investigation, the problem is diagnosed as correctable by water management practices, complaint information can be used to show the need for correction through water management techniques. This information is a great help when presenting the projects for funding. A mosquito control agency's main purpose is to serve the public and if the funding agency is shown that a large number of taxpayers are complaining about an area that can be rectified by physical management, the funding agency will seriously consider the project.

Guidelines for Handling Complaints: A survey of twenty mosquito control agencies in New Jersey was conducted to determine how complaints were handled from start to finish. We were interested in seeing what the different agencies thought was important when taking a complaint and also what procedures were being followed in the investigation of the complaint. The results of that survey are presented in Table 1.


TABLE 1. Results of a 20 agency survey regarding the handling of complaints.

  • Average number of complaints received per year Mean = 350 (High = 1000 Low = 50)
  • Do you record Day/Date? Yes = 100%
  • Do you record Name/Address? Yes = 100%
  • Do you record Township/Location? Yes = 100%
  • Do you ask what time of day the mosquitoes posed a problem? Yes = 70% No = 30%
  • Do you ask how long the person lived in the area? Yes = 50% No = 50%
  • Are all complaints logged? Yes = 100%
  • Are complaints from chronic complainers logged? Yes = 20% No = 15% When Necessary = 65%
  • Are all complaints followed up? When Necessary = 100%
  • Do you recommend self treatment? Yes = 95% No = 5%
  • Do you give or send literature? Yes = 95% No = 5%
  • Are all complaints investigated? Yes = 100%
  • Who investigates complaints? Inspector = 100%
  • Are complaints a main factor in adulticiding decisions? Yes = 65% No = 35%
  • Is a computer used to manage complaint data? Yes = 10% No = 90%
  • Are complaints mapped in any way? Yes = 20% No = 80%
  • Are you listed in the phone book under Mosquito Control? Yes = 95% No = 5%
  • Are all complaints filed? Yes = 100%
  • Do other agencies refer complaints to you? Yes = 90% No = 10%
  • Are complaints coordinated with other surveillance methods? Yes = 100%

The survey showed that some of the questions were deemed important by all agencies, while others were not. The result helped us create a set of suggested minimum guidelines for the handling of complaints.

The recommendations have been arranged in the order that a complaint is handled.

  1. Most complaints are received by phone, thus, have the right person handle the call. When a person calls an agency they expect to be treated courteously and have their questions answered in an intelligent manner. If the person who initially answers the phone is not qualified to answer basic questions concerning your mosquito control program, the person calling should be quickly connected with someone who can. The caller is the reason you are in business and that person deserves to be treated with respect and courtesy. This practice will also help to weed out complaints that need only be logged. A knowledgeable and personable person will be able to differentiate legitimate mosquito complaints and appease chronic complainers.
  2. Log all legitimate calls on a pre-printed complaint form for follow-up by an inspector or responsible field person. Table 2 illustrates a sample that contains the minimum amount of information you will need.
  3. All complaints should be followed up and the response should be as quick as possible. A fast response will show the public that your organization is professional and that it cares about the public.
  4. Answer the complaint as close as possible to the time of the day that the complaint specifies. If a person is complaining of mosquitoes in the afternoon, responding to the complaint in the morning may not give you the information needed to correctly evaluate the situation.
  5. The inspector who answers the complaint should possess a working knowledge of your mosquito control program, as well as the life cycle of the various mosquito species that are represented in your agency's locale. They must be able to evaluate the situation for adult or larval activity. They must know the correct procedures for taking a landing rate count and/or bite count and be able to determine larval habitat, determine if treatment is required and what treatment procedures to follow.
  6. The inspector should not make recommendations that exceed his or her levels of expertise. Instruct your personnel to tell the complainant that the answers are unclear but that a qualified person will investigate further. An example of this would be a drainage problem that needs to be rectified. An inspector may be qualified to treat the area for mosquito larvae, but should not suggest a course of action to alleviate the drainage problem. This should be brought to the attention of the person in the organization that is in charge of the water management program.
  7. Responses to unanswered questions should be done in a quick and expedient manner. The person waiting for the return call should not be left waiting with the feeling of being forgotten.
  8. The inspector should carry literature that explains how mosquitoes breed and can be controlled. You may also wish to provide information on your agency's mosquito control program.
  9. The inspector should leave a response form if the person who made the complaint is not at home at the time of the investigation. This shows that the complaint was investigated and should also include the inspector's evaluation. Many people refuse to believe that anything was done without some form of physical evidence.
  10. The recommended course of action taken on all complaints should be logged for future reference.

TABLE 2. A sample complaint data form

Ocean County Mosquito Commission Complaint/Service Request

Request Date:____________________________________________

Municipality:____________________________________________

Name:____________________________________________________

Address:_________________________________________________

Telephone:_______________________________________________

Problem:_________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________

Received By:_____________________________________________

Inspection Report:_______________________________________

_________________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________

Treatment(Y/N):__________________________________________

Add to route (Y/N):______________________________________

Inspected by:____________________________________________

Inspection Date:_________________________________________


Managing Complaint Data: The data from complaints can be managed for both long and short term surveillance information. Every agency that we surveyed indicated that they file the complaint data. One agency uses a personal computer to log complaints which gives them almost instantaneous access when needed for reference. The recommendations for short term management of this data are fairly simple and obvious. Each completed complaint should be filed so it is easily accessible for reference when needed. The information should be filed on a seasonal basis since many calls refer to a complaint made earlier in the season. By having the complaint file for the entire season easily accessible the course of action can be easily referenced. When a complaint leads to a new treatment area or breeding habitat, the data should be passed on to all inspectors. This will insure that the area will be put on the regular inspection or treatment route. Many times an inspector will turn in a complaint report recommending that the area in question be checked regularly, only to have the recommendation filed. This means that the new area will be passed over by the other inspectors, which in turn could lead to other complaints from the same area creating questions in the public's mind about how sincere or professional your organization might be.

There are numerous long term applications for complaint data in mosquito control programs. The data can be used to map the distribution of complaints over the course of several seasons. This is useful in spotting new trends or patterns that were not present in the past. The information can be graphed and used as a comparison with other surveillance methods. The information can be used to determine what areas could possibly be watched for future management practices.

Conclusions: The realities of the recommendations included in this paper can be discussed, but the importance of the complaint as a useful tool in mosquito control cannot be denied. Nearly 100% of a mosquito control agency's contact with the public involves their image when faced with a complaint. The public will judge an organization by the degree of professionalism that they observe in the way complaints are handled. The importance of a professional approach toward complaints cannot be overemphasized.


Center for Vector Biology