The evolution of apparatus emergency lights

When I started in the fire service, the standard was the old-fashioned, red, rotating light with a chrome base

We took delivery of a new aerial apparatus last month. It, of course, has all the latest and greatest innovations and national standards, from a 100-foot aluminum ladder to a 2,000 gpm pump – I’ll get hate mail from the north on that one – and cool air conditioning, which is a must in this part of the world.

It was outside the other night and I marveled at the emergency lighting package it came with; I almost needed a welder’s helmet and glasses just to look at the front of the truck.

It has a Roto Ray warning light that spins on the front that I bet you could see from outer space; it’s bright. It has lights everywhere else, as well, which started me thinking – never good.

I wonder about the day when firefighters will look back and say, “Hey, remember those silly LED lights they used to use?”
I wonder about the day when firefighters will look back and say, “Hey, remember those silly LED lights they used to use?” (Photo/Pixabay)

Early apparatus emergency lights

When I started in the fire service, the standard was the old-fashioned, red, rotating light with a chrome base, often referred to as a bubble gum light. It was a call back to the bubble gum dispensers you used to bug your parents for a dime to spin the dial.

The rotating beacon was the norm, and some places even had two on the cab roof. The lights on the back, which was pretty much it back then, were sometimes illuminating lamps or pancake lights. The pancake lights were a flat, two-sided blinking light in a chrome housing that were usually mounted on the rear corners with the spot lights. They did very little to warn people approaching the apparatus from the sides.

A company who shared a name with a planet made oscillating lights, which were popular. Some were mounted flat on the front of the truck, while some were in a housing much like a siren with red lenses. I have a friend of in Baltimore who is a connoisseur of these.

I’m seriously dating myself here, but here goes. A school teacher, a librarian in fact, whose husband was a volunteer fire fighter when I was in grade school, used to bring me fire service magazines after her husband had read them. They were black and white and I was reminded of an ad in one of them. It was for a rotating light and the bulbs rocked up and down projecting light up in the air. The ad noted this light could see over hills and warn motorists of your approach.

Later in my career, a major breakthrough featured a technological triumph when you could purchase a red rotating light (or, maybe it was strobe?) with siren speakers incorporated into the base of the light. What would they think of next?

And, everything was on the roof; sirens, speakers and air horns. It’s no wonder my hearing is terrible, now (was that the doorbell?). Naturally, we had all the windows down so the sound was brain rattling. I’m glad everything eventually got moved down to the bumpers.

Then, of course, we had the tried-and-true mechanical siren, known by several different names:  the mechanical siren, the Q and one place I worked at called it the free roller – I never quite got that one. At some places, the mechanical siren is the only siren they use.

I used to drive an engine which had the siren mounted on the front facing of the grill. When the siren hit the top octave, the entire cab would vibrate.

The electrical drain of all this technology was that of a small city. Whenever a new apparatus was specked out, the major concern was the availability of an alternator capable of handling the light show. You had to include an alternator the size of Dover, Del., to keep up with the demand.

When you activated the mechanical siren, you would see the voltage gauge dip and hear the air conditioner lose strength.

In a faraway place and time, many years ago, I worked part-time for a small town fire department. There were maybe one or two of us on duty, supplemented by volunteers. If an ambulance call came in, the two of us would respond. If a fire call came in, we would pull out on the pad and wait for volunteers to arrive.

One of our volunteers was legendary for the emergency lights he had on his vehicle. In the small, south Jersey town I grew up in, the volunteers had blue lights on their dash. I think the correct name was teardrop, although I always heard them called Kojack lights, named for the television show police detective.

Anyway, this guy had a full-size van and equipped it with an air horn, a rotating beacon light on the roof, plus a mechanical siren; you could hear him coming from blocks away. The station sat off a main drag and when he made the corner, he would be on the mechanical siren. His headlights would go off and the rotating light on the roof would go dim. As the siren would descend from its crescendo, his battery and alternator would exhale deeply, and his lights would come back on.

It was great theater, and it was worth the fire report for a false alarm at the nursing home just to witness this. Plus, he had to stop at the corner gas station to refill his air horn tank after every run.

Apparatus lighting comes into its own

I can vaguely remember the first time I saw a light bar – I think it was on a police car. I was fascinated. This long rectangular thing had independent lights inside of it, and in the middle was the electronic siren. What kind of sorcery was this? Remember the one a manufacturer made with all the little independent lights on a light bar? They are still in use today some places. You could control them from inside.

Next came disco and strobe lights. Remember the funny noises they made? You could hear the lights flashing, and when they went out, you had to replace the bulbs or the strobe pack.

Now, we have entered the miracle age of the light-emitting diode. They are small, compact, hardly draw any current and they are bright. With their compact size, they can be put almost anywhere, as long as you can get power to them. The alternator hardly notices when you turn them on. They can easily fit on the side of running boards and virtually anywhere on a police car.

I wonder about the day when firefighters will look back and say, “Hey, remember those silly LED lights they used to use?”

Let me hear from you.

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