On April 24, 2017, Henderson, Louisiana, police woman Brandy Sickey was driving back to headquarters near the end of a routine shift when the Ford patrol SUV left the roadway, rolled end over end and stopped, partially submerged in a canal.
She didn’t know what happened, but blood tests reportedly showed a significant level of carbon monoxide (CO) in her bloodstream. Her department is listing CO poisoning as the cause of her crash.
She was not the first law enforcement officer whose Ford patrol SUV left a roadway like that, and not the last.
About 19 days later, the Interceptor Jason Garner was driving crashed into objects in front of a wrecking yard at 531 Crows Landing Road in Modesto.
A number of police departments nationwide have said that their officers were sickened, and in some cases hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning; four in Auburn, MA, and five in four days in Austin, TX.
Austin pulled 400 of its patrol units from its fleet in August of 2017, about three months after the Modesto crash.
The Ford Police Interceptor Utility has been plagued by reports of exhaust fumes leaking into the passenger compartment. Those exhaust fumes can contain varying levels of carbon monoxide, depending on where in the exhaust system a leak occurs.
Ford has sold about 100,000 Interceptors since its introduction in 2011, compared to about 1.3 million of its sister ship the Explorer. The Interceptor is not sold, new, to the public. Law enforcement agencies buy them through fleet sales. The State of Washington, for example, buys them in batches of 500.
The curb weight for the Interceptor is about 4,600 pounds. They are powered by a V-6, 3.7 L engine producing over 300 horsepower at 6,250 rpm.
Two factors come into play with the use of this vehicle: One, each law enforcement agency has different specialized equipment it wishes to install and, two the vehicles get heavier use than ordinary for what is essentially a passenger vehicle.
Ford recognized the exhaust fume problems early on and by late 2016 had pointed to the law enforcement agencies as the culprit. A Ford spokesperson said the agencies, which she called “up-fitters”, cut holes in body panels to install lights, sirens, radios, computers and other such equipment, then failed to seal the holes which she called “huge gaps”
Why is that a problem? Well, even siting still, exhaust fumes can leak into a vehicle with extra, unsealed openings. At speed, the vehicle cutting through the air creates negative pressure within. A form of suction is created, drawing the outside atmosphere into the car through these extra holes, uncontrolled by the climate control system of the vehicle.
Additionally, the vehicle is a “hatchback” so any failure to properly seal that door can cause exhaust to be drawn into the vehicle. Back in the day you quickly learned not to drive your station-wagon with the rear window down.
The V6 engine in mounted transversely (sideways) so the exhaust ports for one side of the engine point to the front and one side point to the back. The ports are connected to cast iron exhaust manifolds which are in one piece with a stainless steel catalytic converter. The converter is designed to reduce carbon monoxide emissions.
Because of this engine configuration, the exhaust pipe from the front side of the engine passes under the engine and connects with the pipe from the back side in what Ford calls the “y-pipe”.
This puts the y-pipe into one of the lowest positions in the chassis, subject to damage if the vehicle hits debris, or runs over a curb or other solid object. The impact forces are transferred to the cast iron manifold, potentially causing them to crack, or misalign the manifold with the engine block.
Ford has indirectly acknowledged this problem by instructing its dealers not to deny warranty claims for cracked exhaust headers with damage to the y-pipe, no matter the mileage. The manifold on the Garner/Johnson vehicle was replaced under warranty at about 54,000 miles. It had about 85,000 miles on it when this crash occurred.
You see the problem? A crack in the exhaust header is before the exhaust gases reach the catalytic converter and is, therefore, carbon monoxide rich. It becomes even richer, quantitatively, when the engine is running at its 6,250 redline.
Five seconds before impact, the Garner/Johnson Interceptor was at redline and it continued to accelerate.
The cracks can be microscopic, or in a position where they can’t be seen until disassembly. If there was a disassembly and an examination for cracks, that level of inspection is not disclosed in those portions of the heavily redacted report provided to us pursuant to a California Public Records Act request and several follow ups. (Stanislaus County Counsel denied us an opportunity to examine the Interceptor).
At speed the suction which might draw carbon monoxide rich gases into the passenger compartment does not lessen.
Since this crash, but not because of it, Ford has put up technical bulletins to make corrections and repairs to these vehicles. Some of them are simple, such as installing exhaust pipes at the rear to point downward, instead of straight back. They also have reprogrammed the climate control to operate differently under heavy acceleration.
Still some say that is not enough. The non-profit Center for Auto Safety has asked for a recall of all 1.3 million Explorers. The National Highway Safety Administration’s Office of Defect Investigations has opened a formal investigation.
While we have been talking about problems with Interceptors, some of the same issues arise with Explorers in police use. Some agencies use base Explorers as vehicles, with Interceptors for specialized use. Installing special equipment such as lights, sirens, etc. raise the same concerns as with the Interceptors.
The Stanislaus Sheriff’s Office, for example, had 81 Explorers and 18 Interceptors in use as of an inventory made last April.
Even with all of Ford’s fixes, not everyone is satisfied. In August, 2018, one agency of the State of Washington cited another agency for not properly monitoring exhaust gas fumes in their Ford patrol Explorers or Interceptors.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries” Division of Occupational Safety and Health, cited the Washington State Patrol (that state’s highway patrol) for not conducting exposure evaluations, not training on the hazards of carbon monoxide and keeping exposure records secret from employees.
The Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit organization, has asked for a recall of all 1.3 million Explorers. The National Highway Safety Administration has opened an “engineering investigation”, the second step toward possible enforcement action.
Next Time: Some element of surprise has been lost as you now know Part Three will discuss carbon monoxide’s role in the Garner/Johnson crash. You will see how the autopsy surgeon was aware of the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, meticulously examined the airways of both Deputy Garner and CSO Johnson and asked for a special blood test, but may have fumbled the procedure and misinterpreted the result.