So you’re driving down the road in an unfamiliar state, let’s say that it’s Iowa or Wisconsin, when in your rear-view mirror you see flashing red lights on a big utility truck coming your way. You can’t really make out what kind of truck it is, but you see red lights flashing so you pull over to let it go by. When it does, you realize that you’ve just pulled over for a tow-truck.
Or how’s this? The same thing happens, but it’s a flashing blue light in Colorado. When you pull over, you realize that you just got pulled over by a snow-plow.
I live in Illinois and work between IL and Wisconsin and there’s quite a bit of a difference between the different lighting colors and upon who can use what color light for what purpose. As a volunteer paramedic/Firefighter in Illinois I run a blue light with no siren in my personal vehicle. Even though I rarely turn it on, I have it in case I get stuck behind a 20mph Grandma on my way to the Big One. Interestingly, the blue light gives me no legal authority or any legal leeway on traffic laws and I must obey all traffic laws even while running the light. I Wisconsin, however, volunteer firefighters and EMS people may use red lights and sirens in their personal vehicles. They have the same legal status as governmental emergency vehicles when they’re driving with their lights activated.
In Iowa, volunteer firefighters may run blue lights in their personal vehicles with no legal authority granted them, and EMS volunteers may run clear (white) lights in their personal vehicles. Volunteers for fire and EMS combination agencies may run a mixture of both, however if a person volunteers for both a separate Fire department and a separate EMS agency, they must be careful to run the clear light for EMS responses and the Blue light for fire responses.
Of course, that’s just for personal vehicles right? Allowing emergency lights in the personal vehicles of emergency volunteers is a debatable issue in some circles. I argue for responsible control of their use and think that they are needed in some communities and not needed in others. Out of the 400-500 volunteer runs I respond to annually, I probably turn on my blue light for less than ten percent of the runs. I use it judiciously, but I know others that I can say did not.
However, this isn’t a post about volunteer emergency lighting and the pros and cons of it. It’s about the messed up spectrum of colors that we use on emergency vehicles in this country. Sure, we have the same stock colors pretty much everywhere. Red, blue, amber (yellow), green, clear (white), and in some states purple (Yes! Purple!). In the southern states, blue lights are for law-enforcement only and red is for fire only. In Wisconsin, law enforcement runs red and blue lights and fire and EMS is red only. In Iowa, up until a few years ago everyone ran red lights except for volunteer firefighters. They changed the law and now allow blue on the Passenger side only. In the City of Chicago, the Chicago Police Department runs blue only and the Fire department runs Red and Green. Downstate Illinois (Read: Outside of the City of Chicago City Limts) runs red and blue for all “Authorized Emergency Vehicles” and blue lights for the volunteers. Green lights are only permitted on stationary vehicles for command lights but can also be used for private security officers. As I mentioned before, in Iowa and Wisconsin, tow trucks run red lights. In Colorado, snow plows run blue. In some states, funeral processions run purple.
Confused? I sure as heck am.
Consider this: Different lighting colors exist because different members of the driving public see different wavelengths of light in the spectrum (i.e. “Colors”) better or worse in differing ambient light conditions. Also, different colors penetrate different atmospheric and/or ambient light conditions better than others. You can see blue forever at night or in the fog, but not so much in the bright light. Red washes out to amber in the day light but is still fairly visible. Clear lights penetrate for a very long way but can be confused with light reflecting off of a surface almost the same as amber lights. We need a diverse spectrum of colors emanating from our response vehicles in order to ensure that the highest amount of drivers out there are able to see the lights. If someone’s color blind to the particular light color that we choose, they’re not going to see us all that well, are they?
The arguments that I hear for the use of lighting colors don’t hold much weight with me. Who cares if the public is able to see that an approaching emergency vehicle is Fire, EMS, Law Enforcement, ASPCA, Haz-Mat, Tech-Rescue, Volunteer, or miscellaneous. They just need to pull over and get out of the way. One color lighting schemes may give the agency a sense of personality or whatnot, but they’re certainly not the safest way to be seen. An emergency vehicle needs to throw out a lot of light across the spectrum of visible colors in order to help ensure the safest response possible.
So why are we having this hodgepodge of warning light colors? Why do people think they’re a good idea? I can think of a few advantages of having “law enforcement only” colors, as in reducing false traffic stops from people impersonating police officers, but having one color and one color only simply makes it easier for a criminal to get a hold of that one color of light. Why fire would only need red lights is a question that I can’t come up with a good reason for.
So good luck driving out there! If you see me, I’ll be on the side of the road letting a tow-truck go by. Then I’ll run my blue light in Wisconsin because we got a house fire in my district that touches the WI state line and I’ll get arrested for impersonating a police officer. Then I’ll be at work getting into a crash because someone driving out there was color blind to the color red.
Anyone want to add to the confusion? What colors do your state or country use? Is anybody else in favor of a national standard?