In a move to protect officers from potential danger, but one that police cautioned could slow response to 911 calls, Austin officials said Friday they are taking their entire fleet of 400 Ford sport utility vehicles off the road after dozens of officers may have been exposed to carbon monoxide.
City workers will begin Saturday what is expected to be a three-day process of transferring equipment from the police interceptor SUVs, a modified version of the Ford Explorer, to other city-owned cars that will be used to patrol the streets until the Fords can be put back in service or permanently replaced, officials said.
Officials said it is difficult to predict some of the repercussions for the decision, such as response times or a possible increase in crime, but that they will monitor trends and respond to such upticks. They said that because the shift will require officers to work two per car, instead of one, it could affect the speed of their response.
“We’re going to look to see if there’s an increase in crime in a certain neighborhood, or a new crime hot spot that pops up, or if response times are impacted more greatly in one part of the city or another, and as we always do, we will respond to that and make the necessary changes,” interim Police Chief Brian Manley said.
City staffers had been working for about two weeks to create a plan should it become necessary to remove the cars, and after mounting concerns in recent days that included more reports of officers experiencing carbon monoxide symptoms, the decision had been increasingly seen as inevitable.
“We’ve been aware of potentially dangerous conditions relating to the measured carbon monoxide levels in the vehicles and have taken a number of steps over that time period to keep our employees safe,” interim City Manager Elaine Hart said. “Unfortunately, the number and the severity of the cases has continued to grow, and I’ve made the decision that we need to remove these vehicles from service immediately.”
Manley, providing new information to the media Friday, said 62 officers in the department have filed workers’ compensation reports for exposure to carbon monoxide over the past five months. Of those, 20 had a measurable level of carbon monoxide in their system when tested, including three who have remained unable to return to work.
While issues with carbon monoxide have been reported both in civilian-owned Ford Explorers and the police interceptors, the Austin Police Department’s problem is by far the most acute on record. It’s unclear why. A Ford spokeswoman pointed out that police modify the vehicles, “which can contribute to exhaust-related issues.”
APD officials have said none of the changes they make should affect the exhaust systems of the SUVs.
A federal investigation into the incidents is ongoing, with inspectors from Ford Motor Co. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Austin.
NHTSA said in a report Thursday that through cooperation with police agencies, federal investigators have learned the problem might be partly linked to “exhaust manifold cracks, which appear to present a low level of detectability, and may explain the exhaust odor.”
The cause, frequency and safety consequences of the manifold cracks will be evaluated, the report says, as will “the extent to which non-police Ford Explorers are experiencing cracked exhaust manifolds.”
At the same time, the federal agency says that “no substantive data or actual evidence” has been found linking recent illnesses of police officers to carbon monoxide. Preliminary testing suggests “that CO levels may be elevated in certain driving scenarios, although the significance and effect of those levels remain under evaluation,” the report says.
Ford said in its most recent statement Thursday night: “Safety is our top priority. A dedicated Ford team is working with police customers, police equipment installers, Police Advisory Board members and NHTSA to investigate reported issues and solve them.”
Austin became aware of the carbon monoxide threat in March, when Sgt. Zachary LaHood became seriously ill while behind the wheel.
All vehicles were initially outfitted with color-changing stickers designed to detect dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, then given hard-wired carbon monoxide detection systems that sound an alarm when they detect unsafe levels of the gas, which has no color or odor.
The city also issued safety bulletins advising operators to avoid excessive idling and recirculating air in the vehicles to avoid potential exposure.
Before Friday, 73 vehicles had been pulled from service: 69 from APD’s fleet and four from other city departments.
“This represents 61 percent of our front-line fleet, so this is a significant impact on the patrol vehicle that we use,” Manley said, adding that the number of officers on duty will not change.
Manley said the department will replace the affected Ford models with fully equipped, marked, black and white units, many of which are already on patrol.
He said the department also will pull Crown Victorias from other units, including highway enforcement and take-home vehicles.
“At our busiest time — when we have the most officers on duty, the most overlapping shifts — if every single officer were to show up at that time, we would need 206 vehicles to adequately accommodate the officers if we double up,” Manley said. “We have 206 vehicles that are ready to go, so we can enact this plan this weekend, as we will, and we have the vehicles to make this happen.”
He said the city plans to complete the switch by Monday night.
Manley said all front-line police vehicles will be pursuit-rated and equipped with all necessary emergency equipment to do the job.
Supervisors will drive either Ford Taurus or Crown Victoria models that are unmarked but equipped with lights and sirens. Only eight of those vehicles, however, have in-car camera systems.