Ohio troopers union wants cruisers equipped with fire suppression

Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Copyright 2006 The Columbus Dispatch

Oct. 10- The state troopers union is demanding that the State Highway Patrol purchase cars with fire-suppression systems after two troopers and a woman died in a fiery collision.

The 2005 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor in which Sgt. Dale R. Holcomb and Trooper Joshua P. Risner died was not equipped with the option.

The car and a pickup truck driven by Lori Smith, a Vinton resident killed in the crash, were consumed by a fire fed by gasoline from the patrol car's ruptured tank, investigators said.

Auto-safety critics say the location of the Crown Victoria's gas tank makes it vulnerable in rear-end crashes, with 20 police officers killed in fires since 1994.

The Ohio State Troopers Association has no evidence that a firesuppression system would have saved those killed in the Sept. 28 accident near Gallipolis.

"We don't know," said Herschel M. Sigall, the union's lawyer. "But the union is convinced that ... a firesuppression system is essential if you are going to continue to use the Ford."

The union will demand safer patrol cars in upcoming contract negotiations and ask legislators to make their purchase mandatory, Sigall said.

Arizona, Connecticut and New York require the fire-extinguisher systems on Fords they assign to state police.

Among the 985 marked Crown Victorias on the road, the Ohio patrol has two equipped with the firesuppression system offered as an option by Ford beginning with 2005 models. The patrol is considering adding the system to future Ford purchases.

Highway Patrol Superintendent Paul D. McClellan's "No. 1 priority is the safety or our officers," said Staff Lt. Shawn Davis.

A patrol safety committee continues to examine the merits of the $2,500 system, he said.

The union has raised firerelated safety concerns about the Crown Victoria, used by 85 percent of U.S. police agencies, since 2003, Sigall said. The union withdrew a grievance it filed last year after officials said they would purchase "substantial numbers" of cars with fire-suppression systems, Sigall said.

Davis disagreed, saying the patrol agreed to test the system by buying a few cars but did not commit to a larger number.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Ford are aiding the investigation of the Gallia County crash and the role of the gas tank in the fatalities.

The patrol car driven by Risner was speeding on a rainy morning when he lost control and spun backward into the path of Smith's pickup truck, investigators said.

The patrol still is looking for answers to why the patrol car was speeding with its lights and siren activated. The troopers had not been dispatched on a run.

The patrol car suffered massive rear-end damage that ruptured the 19-gallon gas tank, located behind the rear axle, soon after it had been filled, investigators said.

"There is no vehicle made by any manufacturer that would survive" the 100 mph-plus combined impact of the Gallipolis crash, said Ford spokeswoman Jennifer Moore.

Ford cautions that its firesuppression system may not be effective in extinguishing fires involving more than 4 gallons of spilled gas.

The company began offering the option after earlier installing shields on certain parts of Police Interceptors to help prevent the tank from being punctured in rear-end collisions.

The location of the gas tank in the vehicle's crush zone makes it prone to leaks and fires, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. He said police agencies should not purchase the Crown Victoria without also ordering the fire-suppression system, and Ford should make it part of the base purchase price.

The Center for Auto Safety has criticized Ford's refusal to install gas-tank safety shields on the Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars sold to the public.

Ford has settled or lost several lawsuits filed by families of dead officers and others alleging poor gas tank design and safety.

Ford officials say their cars are safe and that the police vehicles exceed federal safety standards for rear-end crashes. Federal authorities have found no safetyrelated defects.

Civilian cars are not equipped with gas-tank shields because they are less prone to high-impact rear collisions, Ford has said.

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