Bee Investigator

Why police are putting carbon monoxide detectors in their patrol vehicles

A Newport Beach Police Department officer alleges he crashed his Ford Explorer patrol vehicle into a tree as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

An officer in Austin, Texas, was hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning after becoming ill while driving the Explorer during a recent shift.

Testing for carbon monoxide poisoning is being done as part of the investigation into the deaths of Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Garner and Community Service Officer Raschel Johnson. They were killed in May when the Explorer Garner was driving sped off the road in south Modesto and crashed.

The Explorer, a commonly used patrol vehicle, has been under federal investigation for nearly a year over complaints of exhaust fumes entering the cabin. It was earlier this year after the incident in Austin that the law enforcement community began to take notice.

Shortly after those reports in March, Modesto Police Department and the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department bought carbon monoxide detectors for all of their Explorers, a move that had been made by Austin police.

“Once this information was received by the chief and our command staff, it became a top priority that the safety of our officers and anyone inside the vehicle would be protected,” said Modesto Police Sgt. Dave Mullins, who oversees fleet operations.

Other local agencies recently followed suit. Ceres Police bought detectors for their patrol vehicles last month and Turlock Police will begin installing them soon.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation last July after 154 reports of exhaust and other odors entering the cabin of the Explorer for model years 2011-2015. It covers the Police Interceptor Utilities version, a modified Explorer built specifically for law enforcement and used by local agencies.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause symptoms including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness or death, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Ford Motor Co. issued two Technical Service Bulletins, in 2012 and 2014, to alert dealerships to potential issues, but not the consumer, like a recall would.

The issue most often occurs when the vehicle is in “full throttle applications,” like climbing steep grades or merging onto freeway ramps, and when the air conditioning is on recirculation mode, according to the NHTSA.

Feds: No major wrecks

The number of reports have increased since the investigation began but the NHTSA reports there have been no major accidents as a result of the issue.

However, a Newport Beach Police officer believes it was carbon monoxide poisoning that caused him to lose consciousness while responding to a call, cross a center median and several lanes of oncoming traffic before crashing into a tree in 2015, resulting in major injuries. He is suing Ford.

Stanislaus County’s Garner and Johnson were killed in a crash while responding to a burglary call in a 2014 Explorer. It was traveling at a high speed when it veered off Crows Landing Road, hit a building and went airborne, landing on a Dumpster, where it caught fire.

Department spokesman, Sgt. Anthony Bejaran, confirmed that carbon monoxide tests were requested as part of the investigation but said he could not comment further, including whether a detector had been installed in Garner’s vehicle prior to the crash.

The California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team is handling the investigation.

Could carbon monoxide poisoning have played a role in the crash?

“I think that crossed all of our minds,” said Modesto Police Department’s Mullins.

In a statement, Ford said, “We take the safety of our customers very seriously. In rare circumstances, there have been instances where customers detected an exhaust odor in Explorers and Police Interceptor Utilities. We have thoroughly investigated reports of exhaust odor and do not believe this odor condition poses a safety risk. If customers have a concern with their vehicles, they are encouraged to contact their local Ford dealership.”

Ford added that in the case of the Police Interceptors, odors can be caused by non-Ford modifications or repairs that were not properly sealed.

The Police Interceptors come to departments with some upgrades like ballistic panels in the doors. However, most modifications that make it a functioning patrol vehicle like adding cages, gun racks, light bars and push bumpers are done by the police department or contracted out to a private company.

There have been no definitive cases locally of carbon monoxide poisoning, but a few reports of exhaust smell in vehicle cabins or detectors indicating the presence of carbon monoxide.

The Sheriff’s Department, which began installing them in April, has had one complaint of an exhaust smell entering a 2014 Explorer, according to fleet manager Steve DeMass. He said the vehicle was taken to the dealership but no exhaust leak was found and the odor was found to be related to a non-exhaust repair.

Beyond just installing the detectors, Modesto Police hired a company to test all of its Explorers, Mullins said. The company tested the vehicles in numerous scenarios, particularly those that had the most consumer complaints of exhaust entry.

“Every SUV we have had has been tested and been given a clean bill of health,” Mullins said.

After the installations

The first detectors Modesto police installed in April were meant for home use so the vibrations of the vehicle were giving false-positive readings.

Police Chief Galen Carroll said there were two positive readings, one on a vehicle that was idling and one that was driving. Neither officer driving the vehicles became ill, he said. The vehicles were taken out of service until they could be tested.

The department has purchased a hand-held carbon monoxide detector and supervisors are instructed to respond to an officer’s location to test the vehicle in the event of a positive reading.

After the false-positive readings, the department switched out the detectors for stickers that contain a yellow patch. If the patch turns gray or black, it has been exposed to carbon monoxide.

Mullins said the department also is ordering digital carbon monoxide detectors designed for vehicles.

The California Highway Patrol, which Mullins said is the agency many departments look to when purchasing patrol vehicles, is switching to the Dodge Charger.

CHP Spokeswoman Jaime Coffee said the decision was not a result of the NHTSA investigation into the Explorer but a decision by the state Department of General Services, which awarded Dodge the High Speed Law Enforcement Pursuit Sedan contract in 2015.

Modesto Police have not purchased any new Explorers since it started using the detectors.

Mullins said the federal investigation, “is something that will be considered when purchasing new cars in the future. If (the NHTSA) can establish that they are safe then we will keep buying them. If not, then we will likely switch.”