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How fire trucks got their color

Opinions on what color is best won’t surprise you, but why they got that color might


Red has long been the standard color of fire apparatus.

There’s probably not a more controversial topic in the fire service than what firefighters consider to be the “right” color for fire apparatus. Whether their apparatus is red, yellow, green or Carolina blue (as is Chapel Hill, N.C. apparatus), firefighters are passionate that theirs is the right color.

So how did different departments come up with the color chosen for their fire apparatus? There are almost as many answers as there are fire departments.

In the department where I served for 26 years, the Chesterfield County (Virginia) Fire and EMS Department, our fire apparatus began changing from the traditional red to its current yellow in the late 1960s under the County’s first career fire chief, Robert L. Eanes. The subject of how our apparatus came to be yellow was never really a topic of discussion during my career.

When I posted my query seeking information on this topic across several social media platforms, one of CFEMS’s current members, Chris Harding, responded.

“Chief Eanes talked at our ALCO [Applied Leadership for Company Officers] class. My notes referenced the fact that when he took over, the fleet was in shambles and the 50-plus units were falling apart,” Harding wrote. “He said that one night when he had to tow a vehicle out from a scene, his friend showed up with this shiny, freshly painted tow truck yellow in color.

“It was interesting to me that he remembered all of that. He then said that later he spoke to an optometrist friend of his in upstate N.Y. (Oswego) and confirmed that yellow was an appropriate and safe color.”

The New York optometrist was Stephen S. Solomon who would later publish an article, “Fire Truck Visibility: Red may not be the Most Visible Color,” in the journal, Ergonomics in Design in April 1997. Today, Dr. Solomon is the chief executive manager of Visibility in Motion, LLC, a research and consulting firm in Owego.

Standing out

On a science note, for the light spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, the first color that becomes difficult for the human eye to discern in low light is red. So, maybe the folks with the dark blue trucks are on to something.

Retired Master Fire Mechanic Anthony Bulygo of the Santa Clara County (California) Fire Department, said their apparatus are all white with gold reflective stripes. But it wasn’t always that way.

The change from “slime green” and red color schemes was done back in the 1970s, he said. The tongue-in-cheek reason given for the change surrounded the issue of mutual-aid fires where all rigs were red. Bulygo said the fire chief at the time said that, “We are the best and we need to be seen as the best and stand out.”

The Maple Grove (Minnesota) Fire Department uses a white over red paint scheme. Maple Grove is a relatively young, second-ring suburb of Minneapolis and its fire department came into being in the mid 1970s. Maple Grove hired Roger Kochera as the first full-time fire chief to organize and manage the newly created fire department.

“Chief Kochera had come to Maple Grove from Farmington, Minnesota, where the fire trucks were painted white,” said Maple Grove Deputy Chief Tim Bush. “Maple Grove incorporated white over red to acknowledge the background of Chief Kochera. We continue that tradition to this day.”

Post a question about what color a fire truck should be painted on a social media site or online forum and it won’t take long to get comments from all directions. The most prominent are those who categorically state, “Real fire trucks are red,” or something to that effect.

Bit of science

Regardless of what color your fire apparatus is painted, the critical factor is how visible it is to other drivers when it is out providing service.

In April 2009, the U.S. Fire Administration published the “Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study.”

That report — produced in a partnership between USFA and the International Fire Service Training Association, with support from the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice — analyzed emergency vehicle visibility and conspicuity with an eye toward expanding efforts in these areas to improve vehicle and roadway operations safety for all emergency responders.

The report’s emphasis was placed on passive visibility, conspicuity treatments and identifying additional studies underway on active technologies such as emergency vehicle warning light systems. The report listed seven key findings.

  • The increased use of retro-reflective 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.
  • Fluorescent colors (especially fluorescent yellow-green and orange) offer higher visibility during daylight hours.
  • There is limited scientific evidence that drivers are drawn into highly visible emergency vehicles.
  • It is theoretically possible to overdo the use of retro-reflective materials and interfere with drivers’ ability to recognize other hazards.
  • Effectiveness of the Battenburg pattern in the U.K. appears primarily related to its association with police vehicles in that country.

The latest revision to NFPA 1901: Standard for Motorized Fire Apparatus, 2016 edition requires retro-reflective striping in multiple locations on new fire trucks. The reflective striping specifications are designed to make the apparatus more visible and conspicuous, especially for the drivers of vehicles approaching the apparatus from the rear.

By now we should all know that we can never assume that approaching drivers see our apparatus.

So paint your trucks whatever color you believe helps make your apparatus stand out and helps build a sense of pride and ownership in your members. Just make sure that it’s appropriately marked.

This article, originally published Nov. 23, 2015, has been updated.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.