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Similar Fires Spark Probe Targeting Vehicle Part

Aug 17, 2005 | A Monday evening fire that heavily damaged a Morton-Pulliam Road residence (see related story on this page) may have been the result of a faulty vehicle part.

According to Ceffo Volunteer Fire Department Deputy Chief Doug Robinson, the fire at the home of Robert and Karla Tuck started in a 2001 Ford Expedition, which was parked in the home's attached carport.

"The highest heat was in and around the left front fender of the vehicle in the vicinity of the fuse box," Robinson said. "I will say that the point of origin is in the vicinity of that box. If I were asked, I would say the vehicle caused the house to burn…It definitely started in the vicinity of that fuse box."

The fire spread from the vehicle upward into the ceiling of the carport and then into the attic of the home.

In March, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) launched an investigation to research speed control deactivation switches (SCDS) on some Ford products. The products to be investigated included 1997-2002 model year Expeditions/Navigators as well as Ford F-150 trucks produced in model years 1995 through 2002.

The SCDS, which costs just over $20 and which is no longer used by Ford, shuts off the cruise control when the driver firmly steps on the brakes. The switch is located under the hood of the vehicle and is attached to the master cylinder on one end and wired to the cruise control on the other.

According to a recent CNN report, Ford designed the SCDS to be powered, or "hot," at all times on most of its models even when the vehicle is off and the key is removed from the ignition.

Inside the switch, a thin film barrier separates brake fluid from the switch's electrical components, according to the CNN report. Fires can occur when the film cracks and brake fluid from the master cylinder seeps into the electrical side of the switch.

While Robinson said he believed the fire began near the fuse box area of the vehicle at the Morton-Pulliam Road residence, he stopped short of saying the SCDS was the cause in this instance.

"I can't say what caused it," Robinson said. "But, something caused it to burst into flames. Something got energy and power from some place to cause that fire.

"We did not investigate any further because we are not technically qualified to point to that cruise control switch," Robinson added.

The insurance company, according to Robinson, will focus on the exact cause of the vehicle fire.

NHTSA told CNN in July that it had received 559 complaints of spontaneous fires, 253 of them in unrecalled models.

According to the ODI report, the SCDS can develop a short circuit, which results in an engine compartment fire while the vehicle is parked.

Robinson noted that the vehicle at the Tuck residence had been parked under the carport for more than an hour before the fire broke out.

Ford announced in January that it was recalling certain model year 2000 Ford F-150 trucks as well as Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators due to an extremely high SCDS failure rate when compared with other vehicles using the same switch.

"The circumstance was due to unknown causes," the ODI report read. "Because the root cause remains unclear and because other substantially similar vehicles using the same switch have much lower switch failures and engine compartment fire rates, both Ford and NHTSA continue to actively investigate the issue."

According to a published report on CNN last month, a similar incident happened earlier this year in Kissimmee, Fla.

A 2001 Ford Expedition reportedly caught fire in a garage and the house and its contents were a total loss.

According to the CNN story, a fire investigator, hired by the homeowner's insurance company, said the blaze was caused by the SCDS.

Also last month, the Detroit Free Press reported that a faulty switch in a 2001 Ford F-150 was believed to be the cause of a fire on Jan. 1, 2004, which destroyed a home in Kennesaw, Ga., claiming the life of a four-year-old girl. But no definite link between the switch and that fire was actually determined because the truck was scrapped before the owners or fire investigators became aware of Ford’s recall of vehicles with that particular switch.

For its story, on the faulty switches, the Free Press quoted Jeff Morrill, a Georgia fire expert, concerning the nature of fires in which cruise-control switches were suspect.

“A key characteristic of these fires is that they go from zero to nuclear in minutes,” Morrill told the Detroit paper, “They very quickly become robust fires without any warning whatsoever.”

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