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No fume problems with local police SUVs

A recent MT article described the acquisition of Ford Interceptors by the Medford Police Department, essentially Ford Explorers. Is there any concern about the recent news of possible carbon monoxide poisoning, such as how the Austin, Texas, police department pulled all their vehicles from their fleet?

— Ron L., Medford

You're not the only one who's seen the Ford SUVs in the news, Ron.  

Reports of exhaust leaks into the cabin prompted police to install carbon-monoxide detectors on vehicles in Medford and Ashland, including that brand-new Ford Interceptor added to the Medford police fleet a few weeks ago.

The remainder of MPD's 10-vehicle order will arrive in the fall and will be equipped with detectors, Medford police Chief Randy Sparacino said.

"The safety and security of our patrol officers is our top priority," Sparacino said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last Friday escalated its investigation into possible cabin exhaust fume problems in 1.3 million vehicles Ford produced between model years 2011 and 2017 — sold to civilians as the Explorer and to police and emergency agencies as the Interceptor Utility.

Investigators are looking into cracks in the vehicles' exhaust manifolds, which can be hard to detect, according to The Associated Press. The federal agency has recorded more than 2,700 complaints of exhaust odors in the passenger compartment, three crashes and 41 injuries, AP reported.

One of those cases, in September 2015, caused Newport Beach, California, police officer Brian McDowell serious injury, including a dislocated shoulder, fractured eye socket and traumatic brain injury, after he lost consciousness while on duty, according to a CBS News report. Dashcam video showed the vehicle veering off the road and crashing into a tree. An accident report ruled out alcohol and intoxicants among other factors.

The escalation prompted Austin, Texas, police to disable its fleet of Interceptor Utility vehicles — including 397 from its patrol motor pool plus 49 elsewhere in the city. In Austin, 60 officers reported carbon monoxide health problems since February, including 20 who showed elevated levels of carbon monoxide and three officers who still can't return to work after being sickened.

Sparacino said there's debate as to what's causing the problem, and they appear to be occurring more frequently in Austin. Darrel Stephens with the Major Cities Chiefs Association told AP that he hadn't heard of any other police department "having the number of problems that Austin is experiencing."

Lt. Brian Day, who manages Central Point's fleet, said the problem could stem in part from "upfitters" — companies that install the after-market sirens, lighting and other equipment for law enforcement. The company Central Point uses, Auto Additions of Salem, adds gaskets in the three places they drill for additional wiring — one place in the firewall and two at the rear tail lights. 

Hard off-road driving is another possible cause. All Ford SUVs are equipped with all-wheel-drive intended for on-road use. 

"If you were to bottom out or strike something, you could potentially cause an exhaust leak," Day said.

Medford, Jackson County Sheriff's Office, Central Point and Ashland police haven't seen any problems with their Ford SUVs.

Day said Central Point added additional sealant around the gaskets and carbon monoxide detectors its four Explorers. Three are marked for patrol and one is unmarked for supervisor use.

According to Jackson County Sheriff's Office Lt. Jeremy Whipple, who oversees the agency's operations, two Explorers were tested at a dealership in April following earlier NHTSA reports, but only as a precautionary measure. Both vehicles came back with no signs of carbon monoxide leakage, according to Whipple.

"It's definitely a concern for us since deputies spend a lot of time operating their patrol vehicle on a 12-hour shift," Whipple said.

Ashland police Chief Tighe O'Meara said the agency has two Explorers, used by detectives, in its 20-vehicle fleet, and each will be installed with battery-powered BRK carbon-monoxide detectors.

O'Meara said his department hasn't had any problems, but APD would be "foolish not to" take the reports seriously. 

"We really can't ignore it," O'Meara said. "We have to be proactive in protecting our team members."

Detectives and patrol officers use their vehicles differently, O'Meara said. A patrol officer has to keep the vehicle running throughout the shift to keep onboard computers and radios powered and cool, while a detective's vehicle is "more used as a regular vehicle."

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

Medford police shared this photo of the K-9 unit's new Ford Interceptor SUV. Nine more of the crossover vehicles are on order.