Az. Reported Tire Trouble in 1996

Monday, September 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHOENIX (AP) — While Bridgestone/Firestone says serious safety concerns arose only this year, the tiremaker took complaints of tread separations and blowouts in Arizona seriously enough as far back as 1996 to send a half-dozen engineers on a special inspection mission and to help pay for replacing a wrecked vehicle.

According to government officials interviewed by The Associated Press and state records examined by AP, the complaints by agencies that relied heavily on light trucks, such as the Department of Game and Fish, were numerous and specific in terms of pointing out problems of tread separation and blowouts.

Setting a pattern for its response over the next four years, the tiremaker said it could find no specific defect responsible for the tire failures and suggested drivers were underinflating their tires, overloading their vehicles or otherwise misusing the tires. Some agencies rejected the explanation and started relying on other brands years before Bridgestone/Firestone would announce its recall of 6.5 million tires.

Among the models Game and Fish experienced problems with were certain Firestone Firehawk ATX tires, which had blown out so often employees had their own name for them.

``We called them 'Deathhawks,' '' a field supervisor, Dave Conrad, said. ``Almost every one of our guys had one of those tires go bad on them.''

Firestone paid $20,000 toward replacing a Ford Bronco owned by the Yuma County Sheriff's Office in southwestern Arizona after officials there pressed a 1996 claim against the company following a tread separation-related accident involving then-watch commander Lewis H. Wilbur.

Wilbur, now a deputy, was out of work with injuries for two months after the June 1996 crash.

``They're just now realizing they had a problem? That's bull,'' he said. ``They knew four years ago.''

``Why would they pay for another vehicle if they didn't know they had a problem?'' he said.

The AP first contacted Firestone representatives regarding its findings more than a week ago and received no direct response. Then the public relations firm fielding Firestone questions resigned. The AP went back to Firestone Friday and presented its findings again, asking company executives to respond.

On Monday, Firestone spokesman Dan Adomitis said he was unfamiliar with the details of the company's 1996 activities in Arizona.

Even so, it is not unusual for a manufacturer to resolve product problems as a customer satisfaction effort, especially for a law enforcement agency, Adomitis said. ``But it doesn't mean the entire line had problems warranting a recall.''

Adomitis said Firestone took appropriate action by investigating the complaints. Without finding any safety defects, that's all the company could do, he said.

``Probably these tires were going off road into some fairly rugged terrain on a regular basis,'' Adomitis said. ``That doesn't necessarily tell you something is going on in manufacturing.''

If the test results had shown clues of a defect, Adomitis said, ``I would hope that this would have been more of a red flag for us.''

``We went in and stepped in and did this voluntarily because of the concern that was out there,'' he said. ``We are still looking for a root cause out there.''

The company in August recalled three light truck and sport utility vehicle tire models — size P235/75R15 Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATXII and Wilderness AT. That followed reports of accidents, dozens of them fatal, in which the tread would separate from the tire casings, causing blowouts and accidents.

Last week, NHTSA issued an advisory for consumers to replace additional sizes of the Wilderness AT and ATX as well as other models — the Firehawk ATX, ATX 23 Degree, Widetrack Radial Baja and Widetrack Radial Baja A/S.

Firestone disagrees with the NHTSA advisory's conclusion that other tires may have problems.

``We're working with the best information we have at this time,'' Adomitis said. ``We believe we have the near universe of this contained within the recall.''

The Arizona Game and Fish Department's written complaint to Firestone in 1996 described tread separation problems within its 400-vehicle fleet, which is made up primarily of pickups, light duty trucks and SUVs.

It also reported similar problems experienced by the same kinds of vehicles in the Department of Public Safety and the Yuma County Sheriff's Department.

Included was a report from wildlife manager Lowell Whitaker, who said he had two blowouts in two days while driving a state-owned one-ton Ford truck with Firestone tires. Whitaker's report didn't identify the tire model.

``Needless to say at this point I do not feel comfortable about using Firestone tires,'' Whitaker wrote in a June 1996 memo to his supervisor.

According to government and manufacturer memos obtained from the state, Firestone sent six engineers to Arizona during the summer of 1996. Over four days, they inspected about 900 tires from 175 vehicles belonging to Game and Fish, the public safety department and the sheriff's office. Some blown out tires also were examined. The company took 37 tires back to its laboratory in Akron, Ohio, to cut them apart and check for defects.

In a 1997 letter sharing the test results with state officials, Bridgestone/Firestone Field Engineer Ron C. Snider said the company found no safety defects with the models, which included the Firehawk ATX, Firehawk RMT, Wilderness AT, Radial ATX, Steeltex 23, Steeltex ATX, Steeltex ASR and FR480.

Inspectors, ``did not observe any conditions that would have led to a loss of air in any tire,'' Snider wrote. ``Three tires had the top belt coming away from the bottom belt. We were not able to determine the core cause of this detachment, but this could have been the result of service conditions (underinflated, overloaded, high percentage of off-highway use).''

The Radial ATX tires tested included the size involved in the current recall. The Firehawk ATX tires included some of the sizes involved in the NHTSA advisory. The Wilderness AT tires were of a different size than those involved in the recall or NHTSA advisory. The other tires checked were models not involved in either action.

Despite the company's findings, Game and Fish began replacing its Firestone tires as they wore out with other brands, said purchasing manager Katherine Babonis.

At Bridgestone/Firestone's recommendation, the department started training sessions on proper tire inflation, how to detect wear and how to properly repair punctures using both a rubber plug and an internal patch, Babonis said. It gave all employees a tire gauge.

Yuma County continued to use Firestones but also began buying other brands when replacements were needed, said Kenny Thomas, head of fleet maintenance for the sheriff's department. Yuma County Sheriff's deputies had complained in particular about the Firehawk ATX, the type of tire involved in the Bronco accident, according to county documents.

``We knew we were onto something back then,'' said Deputy Yuma County Attorney Charles Platt, who pressed the county's claim on the Bronco. ``There seemed to be an abnormal amount of problems with this tire manufacturer.''

In 1998, the Department of Public Safety complained about more tire failures among its fleet of 400 trucks and 60 SUVs. It received a credit from Firestone for the cost of the tires and bought replacements from another manufacturer.

The agency no longer uses Firestones on its trucks and SUVs but still puts them on some of its 1,400 patrol cars, DPS spokesman Kevin Wood said.

The Attorney General's office stopped using Firestone tires of any kind on its 20-vehicle fleet last year after learning of some of the other agencies' problems and a 1999 rollover accident resulting from a blowout on a Ford Ranger pickup, agency spokeswoman Pati Urias said.

The investigator driving the truck was wearing a seat belt and received minor injuries. The tire was a FR480 size P195/70R14. That was one of the models tested in 1996. It is not part of the current recall or the NHTSA advisory.

The office did not complain to the manufacturer, however. None of the agencies filed a complaint with NHTSA.

This week, Firestone faces another round of Congressional hearings with questions about the safety of its tires and when it learned about possible problems. The new hearings are led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.