Now, CBS News has learned there are concerns about Firestone tires on other vehicles: the ones relied upon most in an emergency, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.
Last fall, Chief Joe Jackson was rushing to a brushfire in Pinion Pine, Ariz., when his emergency call came to a screeching halt.
"Just all of a sudden this tremendous noise, 'pow!', and it was just it was almost like something coming apart on the back of the truck. One of the rear tires on the driver side had shredded on me," recalled Jackson.
With Jackson stranded on the side of the road, another fire department had to take the call. He got the tire replaced and didn't think much more of it, until he heard what had happened in Sun City, Arizona: in strikingly similar incidents Firestone tires peeled apart on an ambulance and a fire truck.
"Sun City put out an announcement asking if any other fire departments had experienced a tire shredding in Arizona. So I called their chief and told him that I thought we'd had one," said Jackson.
In Sun City, officials were so concerned, they decided to replace all Firestone tires on emergency vehicles. Bill Marshall is one of the engineers who actually drives the 20-ton firetruck. "I want to do everything I can to help the people that call 911, but I want to come home at the end of the day. And if a known tire problem separates between me and going home safe, I applaud the (city) for taking that action,"
But problems weren't just surfacing in Arizona. About the same time, an ambulance from the Children's Hospital in Columbia, S.C., was stranded twice allegedly by Firestone tire tread separations. Once, a premature baby was on board and had to be transferred to another ambulance to get to the hospital. The ambulance service replaced all its Firestone tires.
And in Augusta, Ga., the Palmetto ambulance service says it, too, is through with Firestone tires after an unusual tread separation. Often, the problems were happening on barely used tires.
"This is the first time I've ever seen anything like it. Basically, the vehicle was just traveling down the highway and came apart. You can look at the tread wear; it wasn't on there very long. This tire lasted approximately two or three weeks," explained Bruce Joyner, a mechanic for the Palmetto Ambulance Sevice.
Many of the incidents involved Firestone "Steeltex" tires, the target of a federal safety probe that began last fall. But long before that, there were questions about Steeltex tires. Four years ago, Arizona replaced Steeltex tires on 600 vehicles, including some ambulances, citing tread separation.
Now, at least two trade publications have issued national alerts, advising rescuers to carefully check their Firestone tires. Editor of Fire Engineering, Bill Manning, was among the first to investigate a possible pattern, and says it's pure luck that there have been no serious injuries.
"It's outrageous that firefighters and paramedics who are putting their lives on the line every day have this added risk of not knowing whether their tires are going to be operable. Firefighters are risking their lives every day. We don't need this kind of burden," he said.
But nobody was doing a systematic search for cases until Wayne Hollis from the Kansas Board of Emergency Medical Services decided to follow up on reports he'd heard about in Kansas.
"I sent a memo out to all ambulance service directors to find out how widespread this problem was and that's how we gathered the fact that there were 18 cases in Kansas," explained Hollis.
It didn't stop there. Hollis continued to get reports and ended up with dozens of allegations of Firestone tire problems on rescue vehicles. He compiled a list and forwarded it to federal safety officials and Firestone. Firestone sent two investigators to look into the incidents and promised Hollis a full written report on their findings, but still hasn't delivered one five months later.
CBS News asked Firestone about that, and the company said it would finish the Kansas report this week. Firestone engineers also told CBS News that there has only been one claim against Steeltex tires on rescue vehicles in a decade. CBS News asked how that could be possible when we had identified so many complaints.
The answer lies in the system Firestone uses to track problems. For example, Firestone recorded those 18 complaints in Kansas as one single complaint, then wrote it off entirely as unfounded. In fact, under Firestone's system, none of the alleged tread separations CBS News found out about were counted.
This is despite the fact that the company has implemented a new "early warning" system for identifying problems, in the wake of criticism surrunding its handling of problems last year with many Firestone Wilderness, ATX and ATXII tires on Ford Explorers.
In a statement today, Firestone said any tread separations that occurred were a result of severe usage associated with emergency vehicles. And although Firestone doesn't track tires on fire engines and ambulances, the company says it has now "begun work" to do so.
"The truth is that, in the opinion of many of us involved in rescue work, Firestone doesn't have a very good track record with honesty. We just don't believe if there is a problem, that Firestone would tell us," admitted Manning.
Jackson in Pinion Pine is also wary that Firestone might not own up to a problem. "We're going to change to another brand of tire."
He says his tiny department can barely afford the cost of replacing all their tires, but can't afford the risk of keeping them.
©MMI, Viacom Internet Services Inc., All Rights Reserved