Emergency Lights, how effective are they?

Mike Gauldin

This is more for the emergency responders out there, but is a pretty good read. It's about how effective certain types of emergency lighting are in different situations (ex Night & Day) and how different types of lights add up (halogen & strobe). It was written in 2003 by a Ford commitee, so LEDs and some of the newer technologies are omitted.

When I used to set up some fire vehicles Mike, we has some specs (I can't remember where we got them from) from some government source outlining recommended lighting for various types of response vehicles. OF course this was all before LEDs.

Blue= terrible for daytime best at night
red=effective same day and night
amber=most effective at night and low visibility conditions
white=most effective color during day, very effective at night moving, should not be used stationary (i.e. wigwags on while parked) most effective for traffic clearing of all colors

Strobes=work better than halogen for piercing low visibility
blue=again, better at night
red=can wash out during the day depending on the wattage
amber=2nd most effective strobe color
white=most effective strobe color, can be blinding at night, should not be used stationary on scene at night

I am sure the LEDs have changed all that. We used to have charts for various types of vehicles/apparatus that would tell you what type and how many lights should go where for optimum safety and effectiveness. There are a lot of opinions out there, and I wish I could remember where we got those from as it was some sort of government outline deal.
That'd be cool to have (since I can't afford LEDs yet, hehe). LEDs have changed the scene big time. A guy I used to know that sold lights for Whelen was working on doing some true hide-a-way LEDs in the body of something like an undercover police car where the lights are flush with the body with a coat of paint over them under the clear coat. Sort of the same deal as show trucks/cars use painting over their taillights so you can't see them until they're on. He was planning on putting them in the trunk-lid, fenders, and rear quater panels. Then the usual strobes in the headlights and taillights.
When I was on the fire dept. I had both a fully outfitted caprice complete with labels.

I later got a newer model and did it slicktop with all hideaways until they changed the policy to where you HAD to run some roof lights if you were going to run CODE3. Can't seem to find a picture of that one except the hood of it when it as in the paper when we did the MADD thing.

LEDs change the whole concept of emergency lighting. The low power usage combined with VERY BRIGHT output make all sorts of compact and darn near invisible things possible nowdays. Good for vollies that want a low profile approach and I guess for cops that want a no profile approach. :wink:

5-10 years from now the current halogen rotators will have gone the way of the rotating sealed beam and mechanical flashers (ever see one of those?).
Was your newer model the next one after those? I have a '93 Ford PI I'm working on getting a motor for. It's got hood scoops and flowmasters :) I had to get a new search-light for it, and I'd like to put some lights in it down the road when it gets running. It'd be fun to use while chasing LP storms on pavement. Until then, I'll stick with my 4x4.

Yeah, I've seen them. I've always wanted to get an old fire truck with some vintage lights. You know, the foot tall box-lense ones, hehe. Those rock. I love the old highway patrol sports cars with those air-dam lights on them. I just found a pretty cool and cheap LED light. I might have to get one of these.


If I could find some more room for a switch box, I'd be set. I drilled a panel under my stero and put a main on/off, and four switches to control wig-wag, tail-light flasher, front stobes, and rear strobes. Eventually I want to put some oval-strobes in the front fenders (on the side) and in the rear side windows, then put LEDs in the rear window and windshield, along with the front strobes I already have and add some blue halogen flashers on my brush guard.
Originally posted by Mike Gauldin
Was your newer model the next one after those?

Yep, mid 90s bean shaped ones. It was an ex drug task force car with full PI package, dark metallic grey. Lent itself very well to fire dept. duties.

You know, the foot tall box-lense ones, hehe. Those rock. I love the old highway patrol sports cars with those air-dam lights on them.

Oh yeah, many of them went under the trade name Visabar which became the common name for lightbars for many years. Many of those are actually collectors items now.
Well, it's always good to have an emergency light to use if you come across an accident (like the one that happened in front of me on Saturday on the New York State Thruway where the car flipped and landed on its side on the guardrail). But...when responding to fire calls, it's well know among those of us with years on the job that they don't work and usually cause more harm than good. People will just stop in the middle of the road. So, I have one but don't use it normally...and we have around 275 fire calls a year.
Originally posted by HAltschule
But...when responding to fire calls, it's well know among those of us with years on the job that they don't work and usually cause more harm than good. People will just stop in the middle of the road. So, I have one but don't use it normally...and we have around 275 fire calls a year.

I think that has a LOT to do with your response area too. In your area there, it's quite a bit more congested that the area I was in for instance. It was a 3.5 mile run code3 just for me to get to the station to get a truck. We covered an area regularly just in our part of the county that covered over 50 square miles. There was about 20k people living in that area and all of them spread out. In our case, having the lights was critical, because we had open roadways with traffic on an average speed limit of 55mph with traffic lights about every 1.5 miles.

Additionally, we covered about 15 miles of I20 which we had calls on average of 5 a week, 2/3 of those major accidents. Having to shut down lanes of the largest corridor of traffic in the area all travelling at 70+ mph, you want the most warning power you can get. It wasn't uncommon for us to position SEVERAL lighted vehicles in the shut down lane as far back as a mile from the scene.

Being able to cover large distances AT SPEED was critical to our resonse times. Especially for those of us doing first responder stuff because the closest ambulance was anywhere from 10-30 minutes away, and that was IF it wasn't out on another call. Fires were just as bad as it was, well, in desert territory with dry fuels and old structures around in an area where people burned their trash all the time. Lots of mobile homes that go up in minutes.

We were fortunate that in our area, 99% of the drivers respected that warning lights and gave us right-a-way, and for the 1% we had a VERY supportive S.O. that loved to grab those drivers and bring them to the scene and make them stay there until we were done, sometimes hours later.

I can see where being in a more congested area, it might not be nearly as effective though. I've read on some fire message boards and the situations in various areas and dept. SOP and how it's all handled seems to vary widely from coast to the plains to the coast.
An retired Oklahoma Highway Patrol captain I know used to always tell his men that if there's a lot of backed up traffic, not to use sirens (this was before most patrol cars had just rear-facing lights, just the old lightbars). When people in congested traffic see lights/hear sirens, they tend to do stupid things, so it's better if they don't know your there until you pass them. I like to use them while on a scene if I'm parked in front of a vehicle that's in the road-way. While lights don't always help 100%, they reduce the chances of someone not realizing your stopped.
The travel distance point you bring up is a good one. The type of setting also is important. I can see the light being helpful out in the midwest or plains where there is a lot of visibility and little if any traffic. It will probably work well there. But, on the big roadways here in NY, forget about it. Half of the time they don't yield correctly for the fire trucks, ambulances or police let alone a volly. Quite sad actually...