Austin police officials Thursday were finalizing emergency contingency plans should they decide to pull their entire fleet of about 400 Ford Police Interceptors, a modified version of the Ford Explorer SUV, from the street amid concerns of carbon monoxide releases that have sickened officers.
In an issue that has gained national attention, Austin police confirmed two new incidents in which carbon monoxide detectors activated Wednesday night and Thursday, but said no officer became ill.
Police officials, working with federal safety experts, also were putting new protocols in place requiring patrol supervisors to collect certain data when a carbon monoxide detector activates in order to help authorities and manufacturers identify similarities.
Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said city officials are prepared to provide patrol services without the SUVs, which make up most of the police fleet, should it become necessary. He said the department has determined it has enough other “pursuit-rated” cars, including sedans, assigned to specialized units or detectives that could be converted for patrol.
He said in a few instances, however, officers could be required to ride together in one car instead of operating solo as they currently do.
“I’m not saying it is going to reduce service, but it could slow potential services especially on our lower priority calls,” Gay said. “But we do believe we have enough vehicles that we could staff patrol.”
Gay said the department could rent cars for officers in the special units, including SWAT, and for detectives whose cars would be transferred to patrol use.
Officials are still trying to determine what might be causing carbon monoxide to seep into the passenger compartments of the cars, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating. Ford officials said in a statement that they “have investigated and found no carbon monoxide issue resulting from our Police Interceptor utility vehicles.”
Police have been grappling with the issue since March, when Sgt. Zachary LaHood became seriously ill from carbon monoxide poisoning. A recently released patrol car video showed him complaining of nausea, and he said he nearly hit a bus and struck a curb before he was able to stop in a parking lot.
Since then, the city has installed carbon monoxide alarms in its SUVs and said the alarms have activated 40 times, causing the police to take those vehicles off the street.
The issue escalated this week after five officers were evaluated for carbon monoxide exposure in a four-day span.
On Thursday, Gay said officials are now requiring officers to act immediately once an alarm activates and they are safely able to pull over.
They are being instructed to exit the car, but to leave it running. Officers also are being told that if they have any symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure, even without an alarm activation, they should exit the car immediately.
Supervisors also will be required to respond to that location and collect information that includes the outside temperature and whether the air conditioning is operating so the department can pass the data along to federal investigators.
As a result of the incidents in Austin and elsewhere, Cedar Park police on Wednesday ordered audio detectors that make a sound when carbon monoxide is present. Eventually, they will be installed in all 13 of the department’s Interceptors, but in the immediate future those used for night patrol will be prioritized.
Visual detectors were installed in February in all of the department’s Interceptors.
“For these officers, it is their office and they spend 12 hours a day in it,” Cedar Park police spokeswoman Tara Long said. “We don’t want to risk or compromise officer safety in any way.”
Long said the department has had one incident of a visual monitor detecting carbon monoxide in an Interceptor, but when the vehicle was inspected service workers couldn’t find anything wrong.
Staff writer Ryan Autullo contributed to this report.