70s throwback: Lime-yellow fire trucks fade out

What's most important is the ability for drivers to recognize a vehicle for what it is rather than its colour, says report

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 Senior Editor

The 1970s gave a lot to the world, from the sublime to the ridiculous — and the fire service was no exception. It was during this decade that the logic behind the traditional color of fire trucks first began to be questioned by some.

Red, so the argument went, was not as visible as other colors. The color of choice for the forward-thinking and progressive? Lime-yellow.

Some departments made the break with tradition in the belief that a change in color scheme could improve the visibility of fire trucks, improving safety for civilians and firefighters alike.

The Pinellas Park, Fla., Fire Department was one of them. In 1972, it ordered its first lime-yellow truck. As older vehicles were phased out over the years that followed, they too were replaced with apparatus colored in the new style.

However, the department is now going back to its roots. The St. Petersburg Times reported this week that, with a request by the department for three new rescue units, a council member questioned Fire Chief Doug Lewis over the current color scheme.

The chief polled his firefighters, and more than 70 percent of those who responded said they wanted a return to red. The end result is the new rescue units — and subsequent trucks ordered in the future — will be a deep red similar to the 1925 American LaFrance fire engine that the city still has and uses for parades.

"Since the 1970s, the fire service has come a long way with advances in retro-reflective materials on vehicles and lighting, so we aren't concerned we will lose any safety at all in going back to red," Chief Lewis said.

"We are kind of looking forward to going back to red. We have put in orders for three rescue units and we will probably need to be ordering two engines in the next budget year, which means half our fleet by then will be back to red."

A study released in September last year highlighted best practices for emergency vehicle visibility and conspicuity.

The report by the USFA, in partnership with the International Fire Service Training Association, covered retroreflective striping and chevrons, high-visibility paint, built-in passive light, and other reflectors for fire apparatus, EMS vehicles and law enforcement patrol vehicles.

"The report basically suggested that the most important thing for drivers is to be able to recognize the vehicle for what it is, whether it be a post office vehicle, a school bus or a fire truck — it's about what people are accustomed to seeing," Chief Lewis said.

"Red is the most recognizable color for fire trucks in the United States."

Key findings in the study were:

  • The increased use of retroreflective materials holds great promise for enhancing the conspicuity of emergency vehicles.
  • Both visibility and recognition are important facets of emergency vehicle conspicuity.
  • The use of contrasting colors can assist drivers with locating a hazard amid the visual clutter of the roadway.
  • There is limited scientific evidence that drivers are "drawn into" highly-visible emergency vehicles.
  • It is theoretically possible to "over-do" the use of retroreflective materials and interfere with drivers' abilities to recognize other hazards.

One section in the study focuses on the selection of different paint colors for emergency vehicles, referencing the existing literature available.

Most comes from Stephen S. Solomon and James G. King; Solomon is a practicing optometrist and consultant on color and safety while King is an electrical engineer who holds patents for electronic circuits that carry out numeric algorithms. Both have long-term experience as volunteer firefighters.

They suggested the predominant color scheme on United States fire apparatus change from red to lime-yellow, reasoning that yellow-green is an easy color for the human eye to discern in both day/night lighting conditions, as well as providing contrast with typical backgrounds.

In 2002, according to the USFA report, UK researchers proposed a single-color paint scheme, using fluorescent orange, as the appropriate choice for emergency vehicle visibility/conspicuity under most environmental conditions.

"Whatever the specific color, research performed for this report suggests what is more important is the ability for drivers to recognize the vehicle for what it is," the USFA document said.

"An example is the ubiquitous 'yellow school bus' prevalent throughout the United States. These vehicles are instantly recognizable and likely promote immediate behavioral responses by surrounding drivers. Similarly, U.S. Postal Service (USPS) or other mail/delivery trucks painted in a standard color may also prompt drivers to behave in certain ways (i.e., expecting multiple stops at any time).

"Following this principle, it is a common belief that people are more likely to identify red with a fire apparatus than other colors, regardless of the conditions."

Jack Sullivan, director of training at the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, said the issue has always provoked debate.

"It started back in the 1970s with some publications and studies that were written by some folks in the business who claimed that fire trucks that were lime-green or similar versions of that color were much more visible than red," he said.

"They alluded to the fact that if you used this color in fire trucks they would have fewer accidents. Over time, since the 1970s, all kinds of colors have been used in the fire service but for the most part, even after 30 years, fire trucks are still predominantly red."

People recognize and relate to the red color more than lime-green/yellow, purple or any other color out there, according to Sullivan.

"A lot of people working for departments that have lime-yellow/green trucks have always pushed to go back to red trucks, and I don't think there are any statistics out that support the claim that lime-green/yellow trucks are involved in fewer wrecks than red trucks."

FireRescue1 Editorial Advisor Chief Adam K. Thiel, who gave input to the report, said, "The existing research on emergency vehicle conspicuity in the United States suggests that we need a great deal more information on how drivers react to vehicles with different conspicuity treatments."

"The really important question, and the missing link in the research, is how surrounding drivers notice, and react to, emergency vehicles in the complex traffic environment."

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