Houston police, sheriff’s office checking Ford fleet after reports of exhaust leaks in Austin

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Reports in Austin that officers are getting sick from exhaust leaks in certain patrol cars has local agencies checking their vehicle fleets to make sure officers here are safe.

Over the past two weeks, at least five Austin police officers were treated for possible carbon monoxide poisoning, according to a report Sunday from the Austin American-Statesman

The department uses ‘Police Interceptor Utility Vehicles,” essentially a Ford Explorer designed for use by law enforcement officers.

“We have investigated and not found any carbon monoxide issue resulting from the design of our Police Interceptor Utility Vehicles,” Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt told the paper.

“We know police modify these vehicles, which can contribute to exhaust-related issues. We have provided instructions to help seal these modifications and are ready to inspect any vehicles with this concern.”

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APD has been transitioning its entire fleet to Ford interceptors. The Houston Police Department, meanwhile, varies its purchases between several different models, to keep too many vehicles from getting sidelined by possible recalls.

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While APD has been struck hard, HPD and other local agencies say they have not seen the same problems. The Houston Police Department’s fleet contains 434 Interceptors, said Kese Smith, a department spokesman. 

“We’re aware of what Austin is experiencing and the steps they’ve taken,” he said. Maintenance officers were performing random tests on the department’s fleet, but had not found any leaks in the Interceptors, he said.

HPD Senior Officer Shawn Palin, a fleet officer, said that the department had received odor complaints from drivers of two unmarked Ford Explorers, but could not confirm the smell stemmed from an exhaust leak.

The department has not received any complaints about its 434 Ford Interceptors, the vast majority of which were purchased in 2016 and 2017, he said.

“I want to protect my officers and cars as much as possible, but I don’t know if we’re having that issue,” he said. 

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Houston Police Officers Union Vice President Joe Gamaldi said the union was aware of the problems in Austin and officials are monitoring the situation in Houston.

“Obviously we’re concerned whenever something like this comes out,” he said. ‘However, after we notified the department, they have been proactively testing exhaust in all Ford Explorers and have yet to find any any problems.”

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Harris County Deputies Organization President David Cuevas likewise said he had not received any complaints from his members.

“If there was an issue involving exhaust leaks with the vehicle and officer safety, our department would have notified us,” he said. 

Federal regulators have received more than 150 complaints across the country in recent years about Ford Explorers produced between 2011 and 2015, according to a letter from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the Ford Motor Co.

Documents show Ford issued a “technical services bulletin” about the problem. A report from CBS in February alleged that number had grown to more than 450 complaints.

Harris County has about 130 Ford Explorers, including 56 in the sheriff’s office, officials said. 

In addition to sheriff’s vehicles, the Explorers are used by the county’s deputy constables and the district attorney’s office, said Bruce High, chief of Harris County’s Central Technology Services.

High said the county has ordered carbon monoxide detectors to install in all of the vehicles, and they are scheduled to arrive on Thursday.

“As soon as we get them … we’ll take them to the substations and get them installed,” High said. “All the agencies are aware of the concerns and working with folks that drive them.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had one deputy complain of nausea but officials have been unable to confirm whether it was because of an exhaust leak, said Cedrick Collier, a department spokesman.

“Although inconclusive, we have ordered that all Ford Explorers be outfitted with the carbon monoxide detectors,” he said. “In the meanwhile, temporary detectors will be installed for safety measures.”


St. John Barned-Smith covers public safety and major breaking news for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Send tips to st.john.smith@chron.com.

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