Why are Fire Trucks Red?
By Emma Campbell
A colorful history of why fire trucks have been painted red since the 1900s; uncover the benefits of color choice and why red is right for your rig.
Even though today’s rigs vary in colors such as yellow, white, green, and even purple; If you asked someone on the street what color fire trucks are, they would say red.
The question is, why?
Red, a History
In the early 1900s, when Henry Ford launched the Model T automobile, he famously quoted:
“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.” This set the trend for roads to have mostly black cars on them.
To be distinguishable from the average road user, firehouses across the Country painted their apparatuses red to maximize visibility.
In this way, the color red ensured the safety and conspicuity of firefighters and the fire trucks they were responding in.
Today, however, cars come in all colors, and fire trucks are additionally equipped with sirens, lights, and retroreflective markings to signal road users that they are responding to or returning from an emergency.
So why is it that more than a hundred years later, we still predominantly associate red with fire trucks?
The Ergonomics of Color
Much research surrounding color choice for emergency vehicles is based on psychological studies examining human visual perception. Studies have shown that the color-transmitting cones in human eyes in dim lighting are more responsive to certain colors over others.
Extensive research has been conducted on the color lime-green versus red in dim lighting, concluding that lime-colored vehicles are more immediately apparent to the human eye than red.
This information is vital to consider in congruence with the rate of accident involvement with emergency vehicles that, according to the 2009 FEMA report, are the second largest leading cause of firefighter deaths.
This information became evident from a 4 year study conducted by New York optometrist Stephen S. Solomon and James G. King’s where they found that red is not the most visible color.
In fact, according to Solomon, “risk visibility-related, multiple vehicle accidents may also be as much as three times greater for red and red/white fire trucks compared to yellow/ white and yellow-lime trucks.”
In response, departments across the United States during the ’70s and 80’s began painting their vehicles lime/green instead of the traditional red.
Does Colour Matter?
Fundamentally, it all comes down to visibility and conspicuity.
The 2009 USFA Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity study concluded that the most important factor of an apparatus is that other road users can recognize fire trucks for what they are: emergency vehicles that hold the right of way.
So what is the right color for your rig?
Any color is acceptable so long as other road users can identify other cues such as sirens and retroreflective markings as belonging to emergency vehicles.
Fire-truck red may very well hold its place in popular culture for the foreseeable future. The fire service and the fire trucks they respond in are steeped in tradition that dates back over 100 years of helping others in trouble. The red colored fire truck is still a big part of what makes fire fighting such a great tradition and vocation.