Police in Austin, Texas, will pull nearly 400 Ford Explorer SUVs from their patrol fleet amid complaints of exhaust fumes inside the vehicles that have sickened some officers.
The 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. 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 City Manage Elaine Hart said "We need to keep (officers) safe as well as our community."
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 in an investigation that it started a year ago. 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.
Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt said the company is working with police, customers and NHTSA to investigate the reports and solve problems.
"Safety is our top priority," Weigandt said.
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 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.
The NHTSA 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 says it has 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. But 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 NHTSA also said that the Police Interceptor version of the Explorer is experiencing exhaust manifold cracks that are hard to detect and may explain exhaust odors. Investigators will evaluate the cause, frequency and safety consequences of the cracks, and whether Explorers used by civilians are experiencing cracked manifolds, the agency said.