Bladder Problems

The message was as clear as the image indelible: The inhumanity of Officer Jason Schechterle's tragically burned face was a product of the inhumane Ford Motor Company.

Ford built the police cruiser that engulfed the Phoenix officer in flames when he was rear-ended during a routine traffic stop in 2001. A Chandler officer died in a similar fire the next year.

At issue: the design of the fuel tank in Ford's Crown Victoria. The tank sits unguarded in front of the rear axle, which collapses and punctures the tank in a collision. Ford was villainized as a cop killer because the company continued to sell the cruiser to police departments without fixing the tanks even though 12 officers nationwide had already died because of the problem.

You might remember that last fall, the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department announced with much fanfare that they had found a simple solution. At a cost of $1.5 million, Phoenix would begin immediately installing high-tech puncture-proof bladders inside the fuel tanks of all 735 of its Ford Crown Vic police vehicles. Voilà: No more explosive incontinence.

Guess what? It wasn't a simple solution.

It turns out that the folks at the city have quietly been suffering through a year of bladder problems. Indeed, according to an internal memo, city officials are now considering dumping the refitted Fords altogether.

The memo, from deputy public works director Mike Lopker to assistant director John Trujillo, the guys in charge of city vehicles, discusses which cop cars the city will purchase in the future.

"The issue that finally eliminated Ford gasoline-fueled vehicles, as a consideration for this fiscal year's patrol car purchase, is the fact that the City of Phoenix cannot continue to install fuel bladders in gasoline-fueled cars," Lopker wrote. "The modification violates federal law. The car will no longer meet the federal emissions standard and Ford has withdrawn its promised support for fixing the problem once the bladder has been installed."

Even though the October 31 memo makes it clear that the city will no longer buy Crown Vics, Lopker told me last week that the Fords may still be in the mix if the company that makes the bladders can fix the emissions problem. If not, then the city will have no choice but to go to a different car maker.

The bladders are made by a company called Fuel Safe, which, for 30 years, has built specially lined fuel tanks for NASCAR vehicles. Stock cars go fast. They crash. But they don't blow up very often. Fuel Safe bladders seemed to be the solution for city officials trying to save officers' lives as well as their investment in Ford's Crown Vic.

All 735 of Phoenix's police cruisers were fitted with the bladders last year. Chandler, Scottsdale and other Valley police agencies also jumped on the bladder wagon, making the Valley's police agencies the nation's guinea pig for testing bladder technology.

Ford pooh-poohed the plan. The company said its tests showed the bladders often failed. Ford said it would design its own fuel-tank safety system that would be operational by the 2005 Crown Vic. But more realistic estimates placed the technology on 2006 models.

Phoenix decided that was too long to wait.

Phoenix police and city officials sent bladder-fitted cars for testing to see if they passed federal emissions standards. Ford offered to pick up part of the price of the $30,000 tests.

Oops. Bad news. The modified Crown Vic passed two tests, but failed the feds' third, extremely rigorous test. Apparently, the Fuel Safe tank had a small hole that emitted fuel vapor instead of cycling it back through the vehicle's carbon filter.

No big deal, everyone thought. There must be a way to run a hose from the hole back to the filter. The city notified the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality that the cruisers were slightly out of compliance with emissions standards and explained that it was working to fix the problem. EPA and ADEQ gave Phoenix some time to come up with a fix because, obviously, Phoenix was working in good faith toward an important public-safety goal.

"We wanted Ford to design a fix for us," Mike Lopker says. "Our first choice was to have the vehicle's manufacturer do the work. And it was very clear that they had given us an open-ended promise to do the work. Everything seemed very simple."

But then, something strange happened, something Lopker and his boss, public works director Mark Leonard, still can't explain.

All of a sudden, three months later, Ford changed its mind.

"They said they would help us, then boom, they said they would not," Lopker says. "Yes, it was extremely frustrating. I'm still not sure what they were up to."

I've got to wonder if Ford's attorneys realized that by being good guys to Phoenix, the company was walking into a legal minefield. If the company succeeded at making the Fuel Safe bladder street legal, the question could then be raised in court: Why the hell hadn't Ford done this before all these officers blew up?

Complicating the matter is a little-known fact in the bladder saga, a fact Ford has gone to bizarre lengths to deny:

The Fuel Safe tank bladder was used by Ford in its 1995 and 2000 limited-edition versions of the Ford Cobra, the beefed-up, tricked-out upgrade of the Mustang. In press releases, Ford calls those cars "race cars," implying that they were built only for the track.

Ford's Cobra denials are absolutely absurd, says Gary Adams, an operations manager for Fuel Safe.

"That vehicle passed California Emissions Standards with our bladders in them," he says. "They have already made our product street legal. It's clearly not that big of a deal. It is just totally crazy that they're arguing against doing it."

Ford also has received no warranty complaints on the Fuel Safe tank, Adams says.

Our public works employees can't figure out Ford either.

"They like to tell us those [Cobras] don't exist," Lopker says. "We kept reminding them of the fact that they were street legal and they kept ignoring us. I mean, it has come to the point where we don't know what else to do with Ford."

The only real recourse is to stop giving the bastards any more of our city money. More on that later.

So, frustrated with Ford, the city turned to Fuel Safe for a solution.

Now, Fuel Safe's engineers are frantically devising a little cork and tube to run vapors to the Crown Vic's carbon filter. Adams said last week the company was only days away from an easy fix they plan to give the city for free. The installation of the device will take about 15 minutes, he says.

"We definitely can do this," Adams says.

Once Phoenix gets the parts, Lopker and Leonard say, they'll run the Crown Vic through the emissions test again.

"At this point, we are still dedicated to making the bladders work," says Leonard, who notes that the city has had no fires in cars equipped with the bladders. "We still feel these are the best solution to making our officers safe."

That said, though, it is purchasing crunch time for city officials who need to buy about 120 new police cars to replace the fleet's oldest vehicles. But they're not sure Fuel Safe can come up with a solution and, since Ford has been such a pain to work with, officials are seriously looking at other car companies to supply new police vehicles.

The city might buy some Chevy Impalas, which are smaller than the Crown Vics. Officials also would have considered alt-fuel Crown Vics, but the police argue that the alt-fuel tanks take up too much space in the trunks. Many cops want Chevy's new cop Tahoe, but the vehicle is unproven as an everyday police vehicle.

The really tough question will come next year, once Fuel Safe has made the Crown Vic safe and clean again. At that point, the Crown Vic, with the Fuel Safe modification, very likely will be the most effective and safest cop car on the market.

Then, like a domestic abuse victim who keeps returning to her attacker, Phoenix might have to get back in bed with Ford.

But consumers aren't confronted with such dicey, complex purchasing issues. Knowing now what Ford will do to save money, I simply plan to never again give them any of mine.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-744-6549.

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Robert Nelson