A growing number of police departments across the country are taking action over concerns that carbon monoxide fumes from Ford Explorer patrol vehicles are seeping inside the SUVs, potentially sickening officers.
Several departments, including Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Vermont State Police, are inspecting their fleets or have installed carbon monoxide monitors in the vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. has promised to repair the vehicles and investigate the cause. The auto company has suggested police departments may have created the problem when they added equipment after delivery. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said its investigation suggests the vehicles are experiencing exhaust manifold cracks that are hard to detect and may explain exhaust odors.
"Police officers should be concerned, particularly this time of year," said Dennis Slocumb, with the International Union of Police Associations, which represents more than 100,000 law enforcement personnel. "It could be a life-and-death issue if somebody lost consciousness while they were driving a police car down a highway. It could result in terrible tragedy."
Authorities in Auburn, Massachusetts, confirmed an officer who passed out behind the wheel of his cruiser and crashed had tested positive for exposure to carbon monoxide. In a post on its Facebook page, the department said a total of three officers were hospitalized for "high carbon monoxide levels." The department also said it had taken 12 Explorers out of service over carbon monoxide concerns, including SUVs used by the city's public works director and assistant fire chief.
"We would urge other departments to have their cruisers tested and/or purchase detectors to ensure everyone's safety," the department said.
Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt said Thursday it has sent engineers to Auburn to inspect the vehicles and will go "to any department that asks for assistance." It also sent inspectors to Wichita, Kansas, Austin, Texas, and several other departments.
In several cases, Ford found gaping holes had been drilled into the backs of Explorers after they were delivered to police departments, Weigandt said. The holes were used to install equipment, such as additional radios. They weren't properly sealed, allowing exhaust to enter the vehicle, she said. The company has not found elevated levels of carbon monoxide in Explorers sold to the general public, she said.
Weigandt also raised questions about the Auburn case, suggesting the carbon monoxide at levels of 13 parts per million in the vehicle was far below what should get someone sick and thus required "more investigation."
"To address police customers who drive modified vehicles in unique ways, we are covering the costs of specific repairs in every Police Interceptor Utility that may have carbon monoxide concerns, regardless of modifications made after leaving Ford's factory," Weigandt said.
The issue with the carbon monoxide fumes has taken on greater urgency since the Austin Police Department on Friday pulled nearly 400 Ford Explorer SUVs from its patrol fleet over worries about exhaust fumes inside the vehicles. This came after the department had installed carbon monoxide alarms earlier in the year. Sixty officers reported health problems since February and 20 officers had elevated levels of carbon monoxide -- including one officer who briefly blacked out behind the wheel.
There also have been reports that a crash involving a Newport Beach, California, police cruiser and a case of a Henderson, Louisiana, police office passing out were linked to high carbon monoxide levels.
Austin's move comes as U.S. auto safety regulators investigate complaints of exhaust fume problems in more than 1.3 million Explorers from the 2011 through 2017 model years. The NHTSA has found more than 2,700 complaints of exhaust odors in the passenger compartment and fears of carbon monoxide in an investigation started a year ago. Among the complaints -- many of them from police departments -- were three crashes and 41 injuries, mostly loss of consciousness, nausea and headaches.
But the NHTSA hasn't found any evidence or data to support claims that injuries or crash allegations were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. Its 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.
The uncertainty surrounding the cause of the leaks has prompted police agencies to take proactive measures. Galveston, Texas, has taken dozens of cruisers off its roads, the Washington State Patrol has sent a half dozen of its vehicles for repairs while departments in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the state police in Vermont have installed carbon monoxide monitors in their Ford Explorers.
"We are all concerned from the front line officers all the way up to the chief," said Eric Benson, Portsmouth's training officer. "We want to get this solved. We certainly don't want to wait until something happens. We want to take all measures we can to ensure that not only all the officers are safe but the public as well."