Chiefs Rate Apparatus Colors
A survey conducted by the Ward LaFrance Truck Corporation sheds new light on what is by now a familiar controversy: What is the best and safest color to paint a fire engine?
Ward LaFrance conducted the survey as part of their program advocating the use of lime yellow as a safety color for fire vehicles. While Ward will obviously paint a fire vehicle any color the purchaser prefers, their position is nevertheless clear: Lime yellow is the most visible color, and therefore the safest.
The survey questionnaire, part of a report on the general subject of color and fire vehicles, was mailed to a statistical sample of over 8500 fire chiefs nationwide, both volunteer and paid. Over 800, or roughly 10 percent, responded. Therefore, statistically speaking, the survey return is large enough to reflect the views of fire chiefs in general.
The color questionnaire listed six questions, with room at the bottom for comments. Here are the results of the survey, question by question.
1. What color are the fire engines you now use?
Red was mentioned 734 times, far ahead of white (127), yellow (83), or other colors or combinations (70). Still non-red fire vehicles account for about one out of every four, or 25 percent of the total.
2. Have you ever specified another color besides red for a fire engine ?
Of the 861 chiefs who responded, 566 said no, and 295 said yes. That means that roughly one out of every three chiefs specified a color other than red. In view of Question 1, a larger percentage of chiefs specified a non-red color than actually have a non-red truck in use.
3. Are you restricted by law, convention, etc., as to the color of your fire vehicles?
Only 59 out of 848 answered yes to this question. Nineteen of those who answered yes were from Kansas, which does, in fact, have a state law which prohibits the use of any color other than red for fire vehicles.
4. What color or colors do you prefer for fire apparatus? Why?
This is the question that goes to the heart of the controversy. Here’s the way the chiefs answered: 334, red; 151, white; 284, yellow; and 133, other.
Based on Question 1, one point seems clear: A lot of chiefs with red fire engines would rather have another color. While three out of four chiefs have red trucks, only one out of three actually prefer it. Why do they have red trucks if they prefer another color? No doubt they inherited red vehicles and would rather not go to the expense of repainting them. Usually the switch to a non-red color comes with the purchase of a new vehicle.
As to the second part of the question, why they preferred the color they indicated, most of those who preferred red cited tradition and economy. Said one chief, “Our trucks have always been red and they’re going to stay red. That’s just the way it is here.” Another said simply, “Why change?” As for economy and practicality, one chief noted that red hides rust discoloration better than other colors. Other often-mentioned comments in defense of red were: (1) public conditioned to red vehicles; (2) psychologically red indicates fire and danger; (3) color isn’t important; (4) color visibility not that important because of flashing lights and sirens. One chief just said, “I like it.”
Of those who indicated a preference for yellow or lime yellow, the overwhelming reason was improved visibility. Said one chief, “Lime yellow shows up about 20 feet sooner at night.” Said another, “You can see it (lime yellow) day or night, in rain, snow or fog. Conditions don’t matter.” Of course, the comments on visibility also stressed safety. Said one chief, “Fire fighting is a dangerous job. We feel lime yellow makes our trucks more visible and safer. Anything we can do to increase safety we should do immediately.”
Those who preferred white and combination colors also mentioned improved visibility. But negative comments about white noted that it’s extremely difficult to see in snow and fog.
5.To your knowledge, have there been any accidents due to the poor visibility of fire fighting equipment? If so, what colors were involved?
This question was designed to find out just how important fire vehicle color actually is to safety. The results were startling. Out of 855 responses, 133 answered yes. That means 15 percent of the chiefs who answered the survey knew of a fire vehicle accident directly traceable to poor color visibility. Further, of those accidents where the chief recalled the color, 96 were red, nine white, only two yellow, and six other colors or combination of colors.
Question 5 clearly refutes the contention that color visibility doesn’t matter when it comes to fire vehicle safety. Despite all the flashing lights and loud sirens, red vehicles simply cannot be seen as well as other colors. And red becomes especially dangerous at night, when it is almost invisible to the eye.
Why is one color more visible than another? It’s simply a matter of the way the eye sees. During the day or at night, the colors in the middle of the spectrum are the most visible. Yellow falls right at the peak of day and night visibility. Red, for example, is way over the right in the spectrum, and therefore, far less visible.
While tradition still keeps many chiefs from even considering a safe alternative to red, there is no question that more and more chiefs are interested in color visibility, and its implications for safer fire vehicles. Question 6 asked, “Would you like to know more about fire engine colors? Of 815 responses, 724 said yes.