The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
Ford Ambulance/Van Fuel-Fed Fires
Fires attributed to engine coolant leaks and gasoline leaks
resulting from overpressurized fuel and subsequent "spurting"
of hot fuel from the fuel tank filler neck in Ford ambulances and vans
with dual fuel tanks have resulted in several recalls and lawsuits since
1986. Excess heat from the engine compartment and exhaust system cause
fuel to boil in the gas tank. The pressure generated by heated gasoline
causes vapor lock, fuel foaming and fuel expulsion from the tank. High
volatility gasoline worsens the problem.
Based on dozens of reports of overpressurized fuel, including
16 fires and 5 burn injuries from the Center for Auto Safety and local
emergency services around the country, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration (NHTSA) in June 1986 opened a preliminary investigation
(PE86-58) into fires and fuel spurting in 1984-86 Ford Econoline E-350
ambulance conversion vehicles. By August of 1986, with hot summer weather
exacerbating the fuel pressure problem, NHTSA was receiving daily reports
of fuel spurting from the fuel filler neck in Econoline E-350 ambulances.
By September, NHTSA had expanded its investigation to include 680,000
1978-86 Ford E-150, E 250 and E-350 vans with duel gas tanks. (E-350 vans
are converted into ambulances by second stage manufacturers.) A month
later NHTSA upgraded its PE to an engineering analysis, but limited the
scope to 1984-86 E-350s. In January of 1987, the Center for Auto Safety
petitioned for a defect investigation and recall for all 1984-86 E-150,
250, and 350 regular production (non-ambulance) vans and chassis with
dual fuel tanks. NHTSA agreed to recall 7,000 1980-86 E-350 ambulance
in February 1987 and expanded its EA on ambulances to include 1980-83
E-350 dual fuel tank ambulances.
Under pressure from the Virginia Attorney General, who issued
a national alert to ambulance operators based on fires in Virginia ambulances
responding to emergencies where operators and patients were injured by
fuel spurting fires, NHTSA announced a recall of 11,000 1983-87 Econoline
vans used as ambulances in April 1987. NHTSA also agreed to CAS’ request
to open an engineering analysis of non-ambulance Econoline vans. Ford
averted a lawsuit by the Virginia Attorney General by agreeing to conduct
a nationwide service campaign to repair 22,000 1983-87 ambulances.
The summer of 1987 saw another resurgence of Ford ambulance
fires, with the city of Cincinnati suspending use of half its fleet after
one vehicle was destroyed by fire. A similar incident in Kentucky led
Jefferson County, KY to stop using its ambulances, while the Missouri
Attorney General threatened Ford with a lawsuit after an ambulance fire
in St. Louis injured 3 people. The Florida Attorney General also requested
an investigation into Ford ambulance fires. An overnight hearing by the
House Energy and Commerce Committee focused on Ford ambulance fires in
June 1987. Later that month, CAS, the American Ambulance Association,
the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Association
of State Emergency Medical Service Directors called on NHTSA to conclude
its investigation and issue a defect determination.
In September 1987, Ford announced a recall of all 1983-87
E-250 and E-350 Club Wagons and Econoline vans and chassis equipped with
7.5 liter engines and 1985 1/2 – 1987 heavy duty E-250 and E-350 vans
with 5.8 liter engines and gross vehicle weight ratings over 8,500 pounds.
Ford E-150 vans were not included in the recall. However, a full six months
passed before Ford sent recall notices to van owners.
Safety concerns continued as CAS filed a defect investigation
petition with NHTSA regarding ambulance engine coolant fires, calling
for the recall of 16,000 1983-87 Ford E-350 ambulances in May 1988. Later
that same month, NHTSA opened a preliminary investigation into 1984-87
E-150 vans for fuel spurting and fires, which were not included in the
September 1987 recall.
In July 1988, CAS urged DOT to expedite the van recall, as only 30% of
the recalled Ford vans had been repaired by July 1, 10 months after the
recall was initiated. A month later, in August 1988, Ford announced another
recall of 15,000 ambulances based on 1983-87 Econoline E-250 and E-350
chassis and vans to replace the engine compartment heater hoses.