Illinois State Police (ISP) Trooper James M. Sauter’s March 28, 2013, death troubles me. He was young, loved to serve and was nothing short of outstanding in the performance of his duty/job.  Now he’s gone.

What’s being done by those in authority to prevent other Trooper Sauter-like events?  The Illinois State Senate did pass a Resolution, SR 0327, honoring his service and memory… others with authority were “…saddened by [his] tragic loss…” and had “…heavy hearts… .”

Heartfelt words are easy, require little effort and do not cost very much.  How are those in authority with “…saddened…” and “…heavy hearts…” going to solve a long-standing problem?

After numerous contacts with those in authority nothing has been communicated indicating what tangibly will be done to give other IPS Troopers an edge over a fire-related disaster such as the one that ended Trooper Sauter’s young life.  These individuals have the information to prevent more of these type events, yet they are silent.

I have a suspicion-monitor that was created and honed during my years as an accident investigator.  It has pegged after meeting a wall of silence about Trooper Sauter’s unnecessary death.

It appears that Illinois State Trooper James M. Sauter may be a victim of State agency neglect or, at best, indifference.

Factually, Trooper Sauter survived the collision between his standing Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (CVPI) and a semi-truck; but he still died.

Trooper Sauter’s autopsy report gives a clear cause of death description: “…thermal injuries… .”  These were caused by a fire created from ignited, atomized, fuel that exited the CVPI’s fuel tank during the early phase of the collision event.  Trooper Sauter was most likely entrapped in its cockpit.

The autopsy report states, “A moderate amount of soot was present on the vocal cords and within the trachea extending into the mainstream bronchi. A small amount was also in the esophagus and admixed with the gastric contents.” This provides a good clue that Trooper Sauter was very much alive and most likely struggling to escape while in the inferno and smoke created by a poor fuel tank design.

Over the past ten-plus years there have been 40+ police officers killed nationwide in the same manner as Trooper Sauter. All were victims of the CVPI’s poor fuel tank placement and its lack of a proper fire suppression system that would have prevented the ignition of atomized fuel during a rear-end collision event. The WWW has extensive history, test data and technical information on this subject.

Since about 2004, two CVPI fire suppression systems have been available.  One costs about $4,000 and the other $700, per CVPI.

The $4,000 version is reported to negatively change the CVPI’s handling characteristics due to its weight, requires an array of tools and takes a skilled mechanic about 8-man hours to install on one car.

The cost-effective $700 version does not change the CVPI’s handling characteristics, requires simple hand tools, basic mechanical skills and can be installed in the time it takes to change the CVPI’s engine oil.

During 2005, the Illinois State Police leadership had the opportunity to retrofit its CVPI’s with a cost-effective, functional, fire suppression system that didn’t change the vehicle’s handling characteristics. It chose not to on the advice of an auto industry “expert” who apparently was ignorant of the cost-effective system’s performance.  This very system has consistently demonstrated its capability to prevent the types of fires that killed Trooper Sauter and many others.

Although none of the State of Illinois’s State Police Trooper CVPI’s have a fire suppression system installed on them; including Trooper Sauter’s 2008 CVPI, a number of other State Police agencies are now, and have been for a few years, retrofitting their CVPI’s with the cost-effective fire suppression system. One state uses a portion of DUI and speeding fines to pay for the retrofit.  Illinois could do the same.

Police Officer associations nationwide need to lobby strongly for the above-mentioned retrofit.  Perhaps if they did, the news media would give this issue more than a passing look.

The men and women serving our society as police officers, be they local or state, deserve the best equipment as they voluntarily put themselves into harms way on the citizen’s behalf.  So, why is this situation largely ignored by those who have the power to influence?

Time heals the saddened and heavy hearts of Illinois’ bureaucrats.  Will they do anything to prevent similar accidents that claimed Trooper Sauter’s life?  Or, are their words of sorrow an expedient way to show some form of expected compassion?

The slow response to actually remedy the CVPI problem begs the question: Are our law enforcement officers simply disposable human resources?  For the most part, Trooper Sauter and the 40-plus Officers lost to the CVPI’s exploding fuel tank certainly appear to have been.

Who will step up to give the “thin blue line” a better chance of survival?  Who?

Tom T. Conroy is a pseudonym for a retired NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator who investigated more than 500 fatal and non-fatal aircraft accidents over a period of 15-plus years. 

For those readers wishing more information on the two fire suppression systems and other related CVPI information, the following are provided.  Please note- since about two months after Trooper Sauter’s death, Ford’s “proving” film, test protocol and associated verbiage are no longer able to be located on the WWW; and that includes their own web sites.

What is available is Ford’s proving film via YouTube, but not the test protocol.  Ford’s, web address now states, “To be done…/showroom/ CVPI/ FireSuppression.asp.”

Here’s Ford’s proving test protocol for their fire suppression system.  It was obtained from their  web page which is no longer making this information available:

  • 75 mph hit with a mid-size vehicle (Taurus).
  • 50% offset left – The 50% offset is so that only one frame rail is engaged (worst case analysis).
  • 200 oz. of fuel.  Note: That’s about 2-gallons.
  • Solid rocket motor, burning for 2 – 3 seconds, to ensure fuel ignition.
  • No punctures to tank – fuel introduced by separate system at a constant, known rate.  Note: Not very realistic.
  • Fire suppressed automatically by onboard system.  Note: If still available on the Internet, watch the Ford produced video.  Count the number of seconds between the Taurus hit, fuel spill (not atomization) and fuel ignition.  Is this real world simulation or not?