Five Austin police officers were treated for possible carbon monoxide poisoning over a four-day span that ended Monday night amid escalating concerns that their city-issued Ford Explorer SUVs could be exposing them to the deadly gas.
Police officials Tuesday confirmed five separate incidents involving six officers to the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV and said some of the officers experienced symptoms such as dizziness, headaches and nausea but that none required treatment other than an emergency room visit. One of the six required no treatment.
The new cases prompted police to renew their efforts to resolve with Ford Motor Co. what might be causing the issue, but authorities added that they are rapidly looking into other emergency measures such as renting a fleet of vehicles to ensure officers are safe.
The incidents brought the total number of cars that have been taken out of service to 40 because of carbon monoxide concerns since the first incident in March, when a sergeant reported he nearly passed out while on patrol. That officer is still recovering from exposure and remains on medical leave.
“We believe it is to the point that we need to make some immediate decisions,” Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said. “We consider this to be one of our top priorities right now in our agency. We consider it to be a major problem. The safety of our officers is our No. 1 concern.”
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin police union, said, “Our officers deserve to come to work and feel safe in the vehicle they are driving.”
In each of the five recent cases, which occurred Friday, Saturday and Monday, carbon monoxide detectors alerted officers to the existence of the gas in the passenger compartment of the SUVs, police said.
Officials Tuesday were still putting together information about the incidents, the first of which was reported Friday night.
Two officers in the same SUV noticed that a carbon monoxide detector began sounding intermittently around 11 p.m., but they continued working their patrol shift. The monitor went off seven times before the officers drove the unit back to their substation and reported headaches.
Both officers were treated by medics from the Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services and were told that they weren’t in danger of serious illness. The officers were still taken to a hospital to have their blood drawn as a precaution.
Officials responded to two more incidents Saturday. In the first, an officer was responding to a call in Northeast Austin when a detector sounded in the SUV.
The officer had experienced nausea, dizziness and headache during the day, even before the alarm went off, a Police Department report said.
Austin fire officials didn’t get a carbon monoxide reading from the Explorer at that time, but paramedics tested the officer, who had “an elevated reading,” the report says. The officer was taken to the hospital and released.
That same day, an officer in Southeast Austin was on patrol when he heard the carbon monoxide alarm activate. The alarm sounded intermittently as he drove to a gas station at South Lakeshore Boulevard and South Pleasant Valley Road, where the alarm went off again.
The officer had no symptoms, but medics found carbon monoxide levels in his system that were “twice the normal limit,” the department synopsis said. That officer also was taken to the hospital, but was later released.
On Monday night, an officer immediately pulled over when his carbon monoxide alarm went off, and he was evaluated by paramedics and released. In the fifth incident, an officer who was about to begin a patrol shift stopped the car immediately when an alarm sounded as he left the station.
The department is still trying to figure out what is causing the incidents, and why Austin appears to be experiencing the exposures more frequently than other departments nationally.
Although other agencies have reported similar concerns, Gay said Austin in recent years has made a “huge transition” in its patrol car fleet almost entirely to Explorers. The city owns 439 such vehicles, 397 of them assigned to the Police Department.
In June, Austin police Sgt. Zachary LaHood sued Ford Motor Co. and Leif Johnson Ford for more than $1 million in damages, saying that he suffered “severe neurological injuries.” In his case, he reported that he lost consciousness while behind the wheel, almost causing him to crash into a bus.
Still, police organizations and websites are discussing the issue, and the National Highway Safety Administration is investigating. Ford released a statement earlier this year saying, “In rare circumstances, there have been instances where customers detected an exhaust odor in Explorers.”
Gay said Austin police and city fleet officials have been in touch with the company.
“Right now they have not made any determination as to the cause of this particular issue,” Gay said. “Our department is going to be proactive on making immediate decisions as to what is best for our department.”