As a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probe is underway, local police departments are looking at their Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles after seeing reports nationwide that the cruisers may expose officers to increased levels of carbon monoxide.
Ford marketed the SUVs to police departments as an alternative to the traditional Crown Victoria or other sedans. Every police department in central Connecticut now uses the vehicles in some capacity. Police in Berlin, Plainville, New Britain and Bristol are now all taking measures to keep officers safe.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, investigators learned of 2,719 complaints from owners of Explorers. They complained of exhaust odors and were concerned about carbon monoxide. However, there has not been a recall issued for the vehicles.
Lt. Todd Kozaryn, head of the Bristol Police Department’s Traffic Division, said his department will begin testing all of their 21 SUVs on Friday. The plan, he said, is to start with the 11 patrol vehicles that are used most frequently. Kozaryn did not have a timetable as to when the testing would be complete. Each vehicle will require about an hour to test.
The lieutenant said Bristol police consulted with the state’s Department of Public Health and the local fire department. Firefighters, he said, supplied police with a carbon monoxide detector that they will use to determine if they can get a reading in the vehicles. A reading alone, Kozaryn was advised, does not necessarily mean there’s an issue. It must rise above a certain threshold to be considered a problem.
Thus far, according to Kozaryn, no Bristol officers have complained of symptoms that would lead police to believe there are elevated carbon monoxide levels in their SUVs.
“If there’s a problem, we’ll look into it further,” the lieutenant said.
Theories on what could cause elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the cars range from improperly installed aftermarket items that police vehicles require to exhaust manifold cracks, which the NHTSA said it will be looking at as the investigation continues.
As of Thursday, no area police departments had reported having an issue with any of their officers complaining of symptoms.
“The primary concern for us is officer safety and officer health,” New Britain Police Chief James Wardwell said. “We can’t protect the public if our officers aren’t safe and healthy.”
The NHTSA is investigating Ford Explorers including the “Police Interceptor” from the 2011 to 2017 model years, according to an NHTSA report. There are more than 1.3 million Explorers in the model years under examination on the road. The NHTSA acknowledged that many of the complaints have come from police departments which use the “Police Interceptor” version of the Explorer.
The NHTSA began investigating the vehicles in 2016 after Ford and the agency had received numerous complaints from consumers, including police departments. The complaints ranged from loss of consciousness in a few cases to nausea, headaches or lightheadedness, the NHTSA said.
In the past week the Austin, Texas, Police Department pulled 446 Ford Explorer SUV’s off the road as of July 29 after receiving 62 worker’s compensation claims in five months related to elevated levels of carbon monoxide, the AP and CNN Money reported.
An Auburn, Mass. police officer fell asleep behind the wheel Wednesday and rear-ended a car, the AP said. He was driving one of the department’s Ford Explorer SUVs. The department’s 10 Explorers were pulled off the road.
Local police departments have not experienced the same problems. But they are taking the issue seriously, Wardwell said. “We have a coordinated effort to inspect every vehicle,” Wardwell said, which involved the city garage, the fleet officer and an offsite contractor used by the city to install aftermarket items in new police vehicles.
Wardwell has instructed officers to keep their cruiser windows at least open a crack while the engine is running. There will also be a new inspection protocol. The department has 26 Police Interceptors. “We have been looking at this for weeks,” Wardwell said. But they haven’t drawn any conclusions, he said.
Plainville police took the step of putting carbon monoxide detectors in their seven Explorers that are part of the patrol fleet, Plainville Lt. Nicholas Mullins said. “We installed the carbon monoxide detectors as a precaution,” Mullins said. “We’re monitoring what’s happening with this very closely.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.