Back in March 2017, there were several incidents involving Ford Explorer cop cars (Police Interceptor Utility) and carbon monoxide poisoning. Several officers were involved in single vehicle crashes for unknown reasons, some of which involved career ending injuries. At the time, the descriptions provided by the officers in those crashes seemed to point to, at least the potential of, carbon monoxide poisoning. One of the most comprehensive articles I saw about the issue was from Law Enforcement Today in which they documented a number of incidents, including one in which an officer from the Austin Police Department (TX) was involved. As noted in that Law Enforcement Today article, after the accident in Austin, the Austin PD took a very smart step and installed carbon monoxide detectors in their cars.
Here at my department, our patrol fleet is comprised of 55% Explorers, and the rest is either Crown Vics or Tauruses. Based on that makeup, when I first heard about these potential issues, I became concerned and did some digging around.
Side Note: Just for a little personal background on me, so you know where I am coming from. I have been a car guy all my life. I grew up in the garage working on cars with my dad. Prior to entering this career, I worked in a number of jobs in the auto industry (parts sales, restoration, minor mechanical work). Early in my law enforcement career, I was the Assistant Fleet Manager (a deputy position at the time) for my department. I spent 15 years in a patrol car, and I am now a full-time EVOC (emergency vehicle operations course) instructor. To this day, I still am a car guy and enjoy working on cars on my off time. So, when I say I have a bit of knowledge about cars and how cops use them, I am not just basing that on hypothetical information I read in a book. Additionally, going all the way back to my childhood years, I’ve been a Ford guy. I’ve owned six fords over the years, five of them classics, and I still own one now. I am not some Ford hater just out to bash them.
Fast forward a few months and we are still seeing reports about carbon monoxide issues in the Ford Explorers. On July 11, 2017, an article came out that talked about five (5) Austin cops being hospitalized for carbon monoxide issues. Remember where I mentioned that Austin PD installed CO detectors in their cars? Well, as it turns out, those CO detectors all showed harmful levels of CO present in the cars. In fact, a sixth cop had the detector alert him/her but they did not need treatment.
Jump forward eight more days and yet another news story about another cop in another city being hospitalized for CO exposure. This time it was a cop for the Meridian Township Police Department, and yet again, a CO detector was in the car to confirm actual harmful levels of the deadly gas.
This is legitimate problem. It is not just some paranoid cops smelling something and then getting their hypochondriac on. There is actual verifiable evidence that the problem not only exists, but also that it is not limited to just one department.
Then on July 28th, a news story hit the interwebs that says Ford plans to fix all the Ford Explorer cop cars that have carbon monoxide concerns. In that news story, the Ford representative is apparently blaming vehicle upfitters for the problem. The statement appears to blame the issue on “holes and unsealed spaces in the back of some Police Interceptor Utilities that had police equipment installed after leaving Ford’s factory.” Really? Every cop car since the dawn of cop cars has had police equipment installed in it after leaving the Ford factory. Not that a hole in the car could not be to blame, but if it were really the fault of the equipment installers, do you really think Ford would be stepping up to the plate to pay for the repairs? I smells me a scapegoat…
Back when the whole CO issue started popping up, I made a bunch of phone calls to talk to different folks at different agencies about what they were experiencing. While I am not able to name the agencies, I can tell you that one of them is a very large statewide agency with a huge fleet of cars. At the time of my phone conversations, they had about 1800 Ford Explorer cop cars. They had also experienced several officers complaining of carbon monoxide problems, and several of those cops were taken to the emergency rooms for treatment. That agency conducted an extensive amount of scientific testing using very precise testing equipment, and of all the cars tested, they only found one vehicle that they could confirm CO infiltrating the cabin, but it was not entering where Ford is claiming it enters. They found the CO entering through the steering column, and it would only do it at high speeds. That particular car also had some damage to the exhaust system, damage that is all too common on the Explorer.
Damaged exhaust system you say? Yes, and in my opinion, this is likely a major contributing factor in this whole CO debacle. Let me explain. The Ford Explorer cop car has less ground clearance than the Crown Vic it replaced. I can only surmise the Explorer’s lower ride height was done to improve its cornering/handling characteristics. In addition to the lower ride height, the lowest part of the car is the exhaust system. In fact, the lowest part of the exhaust is just behind the engine, where the exhaust down pipes turn rearward, and it is the middle of the car (side to side). It is in the best possible position, if your intent was to have it hit the ground. You see folks, cops don’t drive like regular people. We routinely have to jump curbs, go over center divides in the roadway, travel off road at less than ideal speeds, drive across freeway medians, and so on. Ford, who has been building cop cars for as long as they have, should know this. Yet, the design of the exhaust system in the Explorer seems to indicate otherwise. The exhaust is so low on the Explorer that it will not clear a fold-down pole blocking access to a bike trail (like the one pictured). How do I know? A coworker nearly ripped the exhaust off of his Explorer going over one of those.
I spoke to two of the mechanics that work on the patrol cars for my department and asked them about the exhaust systems. They both noted that nearly every single Explorer in our fleet has some damage to the exhaust system. They said that they have replaced an inordinate number of exhaust manifolds on the Explorer, but they did not keep track of how many. You remember that large statewide agency I spoke to about the CO issue? They kept numbers. They have replaced more than 800 broken exhaust manifolds, at the cost of nearly $500,000 to the taxpayers. You see, Ford refuses to pay for the repairs if there is a single scratch on the exhaust. That agency echoed the same thing that our mechanics told me, and that was nearly every car in the field has damage to the exhaust. If my memory serves me, they said that at least 80% of their fleet had damage to the exhaust.
Here is the biggest problem with the exhaust system design. The first part to make contact is the bottom of the down pipes. Depending on the severity of the contact, the rearward force on the exhaust system can cause the rear exhaust manifold (more like a traditional tube header than an exhaust manifold, but with a catalytic converter built into it) to break causing an exhaust leak. That exhaust leak is in the engine compartment, and coincidentally enough, that leak sits almost directly below the fresh air intake for the ventilation system.
Now, this is just an educated guess on my part, and please bear in mind that I am just a dumb cop, and clearly no rocket scientist, but it would seem to me that an exhaust leak just below the air intake for the HVAC system, caused by a poorly designed exhaust system, just might be the culprit. Additionally, since the piss poor design of the exhaust system, on a vehicle the manufacturer sold for use as a cop car, and should reasonably have known would be driving over obstacles, left said exhaust system in a location where anyone who understands cop car usage would have reasonably known it would be damaged. Thus it would seem to me that not only should the manufacturer be on the hook for the repairs to said damaged exhaust systems, but it would seem to me that they should also be tasked with designing a replacement exhaust system that will not be so easily damaged.
But like I said, I am just a dumb cop so what do I know…