How to buy emergency scene lighting

Working a complex MVC scene is difficult enough without fighting the dark to see victims, equipment and debris

What you can’t see can hurt you! Never is that statement truer than when firefighters and EMS personnel respond to an emergency event. Whether it’s a structure fire, a motor vehicle crash on an interstate highway or a hazardous materials incident, those responders must be able to see potential hazards within minutes of their arrival.

Emergency responders must also be able to continue working safely, effectively and efficiently until all tasks are completed. The appropriate illumination of the emergency scene should be a key tactical benchmark for incident commanders. Tower lighting on fire apparatus can make completing these difficult tasks more efficient and effective.

Emergency scene lighting benchmarks

Elevating the lights greatly reduces the amount of glare exposure to on-scene personnel.
Elevating the lights greatly reduces the amount of glare exposure to on-scene personnel. (Photo/Oxford Fire District)

Before beginning your search for the right illumination solutions for your fire department, it’s important to understand some basic science about lighting.

Wattage is the measure of the rate of energy conversion or transfer – the power required to operate a fixture or appliance. Lumen is the measure of the total amount of visible light emitted by a source.

There are two common myths regarding useable light: Increase the wattage and you increase the useable light, and increase the lumen rating and you increase the useable light. Both of those statements are false.

Manufacturers are providing more light by reducing the heat buildup in the fixtures, using a lens that is 100 percent transparent and using a housing that maximizes the outward direction of light energy rather than allowing the housing to absorb that light as heat. Thus, a 900-watt fixture can deliver more useable light than a 1,500-watt fixture.

Another lighting myth is that more lighting equipment produces more light. More lamps on the scene produce more light, but not necessarily more useable light, according to two organizations that develop information and standards regarding lighting, particularly workplace lighting, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES).

Delivering the necessary useable light to support the tactical requirements of the incident action plan is the scene illumination benchmark. ANSI and IES define useable light as the minimum level of light necessary to perform a task safely, effectively and efficiently.

“Say you’re at a MVC where you’ve got paramedics trying to provide advanced patient care with parking-lot-level lighting when they need operating-room-level lighting,” Roger Weinmeister, owner of Command Light in Fort Collins, Colo., said. “By elevating the light and focusing it, you can project a higher quality of light to where it’s needed. That’s where light towers on apparatus are a big advantage.”

Fire apparatus scene illumination options

Powerful LED lights are dominating the lighting market in all sectors, not just public safety. They produce more useable light, create less heat and have longer service life than the leading quartz bulbs. Many fire departments have ordered new fire apparatuses with LED lights all around, because more light is good, right?

But how good is it when half of your light output is always on the side opposite the emergency?

You can get the same effect by mounting four or six LEDs on a single tower, giving you the ability to use all the LEDs on whatever side of the apparatus you need it.

Grouping four to six lamps amplifies the light. “That’s why sporting venues have banks of lights instead of individual lights on a pole,” Weinmeister explained. “By grouping your lamps, your total illumination is greater than what each of those lamps delivers by itself.”

Elevating the lights greatly reduces the amount of glare exposure to on-scene personnel.

What to consider when purchasing apparatus-mounted tower lighting equipment

Here are a few key performance metrics to use when looking for the right tower lighting equipment for your fire apparatus:

  • How automated are the tower functions? What’s the total time to fully deploy and make the tower operational?
  • Quartz halogen bulbs or LEDs? Weinmeister says quartz halogen bulbs are comparable to LED lamps in lighting performance and less expensive.
  • AC or DC power for the lamps? According to Weinmeister, using DC power for LEDs can eliminate the space and cost of AC generators. However, DC power for LEDs can increase the amp draw on the apparatus, so take care when specifying AC versus DC for tower-mounted LEDs.
  • How will the tower operate in adverse weather conditions – cold, heat, rain and snow?
  • What wind speed is the tower rated to withstand?
  • What maintenance is required for the tower?

“I like to tell a potential customer that if they’re ready to light up the scene of a bad car crash, they’re probably going to be ready for just about anything else that comes along,” Weinmeister related.

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