AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Following numerous complaints and reported health problems, the Austin Police Department pulled nearly 400 Ford Explorer Police Interceptor SUVs from its patrol fleet Friday over worries about exhaust fumes inside the vehicles.
The vehicles are the same as those used by several Southern Utah police departments. However, while city officials told St. George News they have received notification from Ford, at the time of this report, no one in the local police departments has reported similar problems.
Ford Motor Co. responded to the Austin Police Department’s actions by promising to repair the vehicles, even as it continues to investigate the cause of the problem.
The move comes as U.S. auto safety regulators investigate complaints of exhaust fume problems in more than 1.3 million Explorers, model years 2011-2017.
In Austin, more than 60 officers have reported health problems since February, and more than 20 were found to have measurable carbon monoxide in their systems, city officials said Friday.
“We need to remove these vehicles immediately,” interim Austin City Manager Elaine Hart said. “We need to keep (officers) safe as well as our community.”
In an investigation started approximately a year ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found more than 2,700 complaints of exhaust odors in the passenger compartment and fears of carbon monoxide. Among the complaints were three crashes and 41 injuries, mostly loss of consciousness, nausea and headaches.
Many of the complaints came from police departments, which use the Police Interceptor version of the Explorer in patrol fleets. Police complaints included two crashes with injuries and one injury allegation due to carbon monoxide exposure.
The air is clear down south
In Southern Utah, there does not seem to be a problem with the Interceptors being used by law enforcement.
Marc Mortensen, assistant to the St. George city manager, said his department received an email about the issue Friday.
“It’s not a nationwide recall,” Mortensen said. “What they’ve noticed is that some of the different departments, some of the companies that do the upfit for them are drilling holes in the bottom of the vehicles and not sealing the holes. CO2 (sic) is getting up through the holes in the vehicles, and in some cases they’ve damaged the exhaust manifold of the vehicle.”
No St. George police officer has noticed any exhaust smell or had any carbon monoxide poisoning side effects, Mortensen said, as their department is careful about sealing any holes in the body.
“As the vehicles come in for their regular maintenance work, we’re running diagnostics on the manifold, just in case,” Mortensen said. “We don’t believe we have an issue and we have not had anyone report any odd smells or any issues with our vehicles. We do not think that we are affected by whatever is happening with some of the different Interceptors.”
In a statement released late Friday, Ford said police and fire departments routinely drill holes in the backs of vehicles to add customized lighting, radios and other equipment.
Cedar City Police Department utilizes five Ford Explorer Police Interceptors, Sgt. Jerry Womack said. The department is aware of the issue, he said, but has not experienced any incidents or had any reports of problems.
Hurricane Police Department, which also uses the Interceptor, said the same, adding that they will follow up if necessary.
Austin is the first major city to take the step
While several police departments have been aware of the issue and installed carbon monoxide detectors in their vehicles, Austin appears to be first major city to pull large numbers of police Explorers off the road.
Ford said it will cover the cost of repairs to any Explorer Police Interceptors that may have this concern, regardless of age, mileage or modifications.
The company said it will check for holes and seal them, recalibrate the air conditioning to bring in more fresh air during heavy acceleration and check engine codes to see if the vehicles have a damaged exhaust manifold.
“There is nothing we take more seriously than providing you with the safest and most reliable vehicles,” said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s executive vice president of product development.
The decision by Austin police left the city scrambling to find replacement cars for more than half of its patrol fleet.
The Police Department said it will move equipment from the Explorers to about 200 Ford Taurus and Crown Victoria models, many of which will be unmarked, and have them ready for patrol ready by Monday. Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said Austin will have just as many officers on patrol, but that they will ride in pairs. The city will closely track response time to emergency calls.
“There will be a concern there will be a spike in crime,” Manley said. “But for those criminals who think they can take advantage of the circumstances, remember we now have a whole fleet of unmarked vehicles on patrol.”
The city installed carbon monoxide alarms after officers began reporting getting sick while in the vehicles and parked 60 of them when the alarms activated. Of the 20 officers found to have elevated levels of carbon monoxide, three have not been able to return to work.
Many complaints about fumes, no evidence found
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said nearly 800 people have complained to the government about fumes, while Ford has received more than 2,000 complaints and warranty claims.
The agency tested multiple vehicles at its Ohio research center and made field inspections of police vehicles involved in crashes. As of Thursday, the agency had found no evidence or data to support claims that injuries or crash allegations were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
The agency said it had early tests that suggest carbon monoxide levels may be higher in certain driving conditions, but the significance and effect of those levels remain under investigation.
The safety administration says its investigation suggests the Ford Explorer Police Interceptor is experiencing exhaust manifold cracks that are hard to detect and may explain exhaust odors. Investigators are evaluating the cause, frequency and safety consequences of the cracks, and whether Explorers used by civilians are experiencing cracked manifolds, the agency said.
Despite this, Friday’s statement from Ford said that nonpolice customers should take their Ford Explorers to a dealership if they have concerns.
“There have been a number of police departments that have looked at this problem,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Most have not had (Austin’s) experience and those that have had issues have been able to resolve them. I have not heard of any other department having the number of problems that Austin is experiencing.”
Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc., a Massachusetts firm that does auto testing for plaintiffs’ lawyers and other clients, said he expects other law enforcement agencies will now check their patrol fleets and may face the same dilemma as Austin about how to maintain patrols.
“It’s not an easy decision whether you’re a large city or small town,” he said.
Written by JIM VERTUNO, Associated Press. St. George News reporter Ric Wayman and Associated Press auto writers Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report.
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