One hypothesis claims that the earliest fire departments consisted of unpaid volunteers. Since red was the cheapest paint available back then, they ended up painting all the automobiles of their fire department in red paint.
Fire trucks are red because back in the 1900s, roads were mostly filled with black-colored cars manufactured by Ford. Therefore, the striking red color of fire trucks stood out amongst the sea of black vehicles vying for space on the roads. However, this is just one of a few different hypotheses regarding the seemingly universal color of firetrucks.
Although colors don’t have an inherent objective meaning, we invariably tend to associate certain colors with certain messages or ideas. For instance, the color green usually denotes a ‘go ahead’, white is considered to be the color of peace, and red is considered a warning shade in most settings.
These ‘man-made’ associations with certain colors come in pretty handy in many situations. The use of distinct-colored lights in traffic signals is probably the most recognizable example of this phenomenon. Another example is colored vehicles. Take school buses, for instance. School buses are painted yellow because yellow is considered to be the most ‘observable’ color on the road. As a result, people drive more carefully around school buses, which is excellent news for the children inside.
Similarly, unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably noticed that most fire trucks (if not all) on road are red. What’s the reason behind that? Why have fire departments all over the world chosen the ‘color of danger’ above all others as their signature color?
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Fire engine red: The color of fire trucks
A fire truck is a vehicle that is specially designed, manufactured and equipped to respond to fire, medical, hazmat and extrication emergencies.
Thanks to their special lights, markings and bright red color, fire trucks are some of the easiest vehicles to identify in the ocean of automobiles on the road. One of the most notable features of fire trucks is their intense, bright red color.
It’s interesting to note that in many English-speaking nations, ‘the fire truck color’ is commonly referred to as ‘fire engine red’. Most traditional, older fire departments in the United States use this “fire engine red” color to paint their fire trucks. That being said, there are many fire departments that don’t necessarily follow this unofficial norm of painting their fire trucks red.
Why are firetrucks usually painted red?
There does not exist a specific, universally-accepted answer to this question, but there are a few hypotheses as to the red appearance of firetrucks.
Back in the 1900s, when Ford had a monopoly over manufacturing automobiles, the roads were filled with Ford vehicles, which were mostly black in color (as black paint was durable and quite cheap).
In the sea of black metallic objects on four wheels, bright, intensely red fire trucks stood out pretty decently. Therefore, drivers had no difficulty in identifying fire trucks and consequently giving them room on the road.
Another hypothesis claims that the earliest fire departments consisted of unpaid volunteers. Since red was the cheapest paint available back then, they ended up painting all the automobiles of their fire department in red paint. Interestingly, yet another hypothesis proposes that red was actually the most expensive paint back then, and people painted their fire trucks red because it was a source of pride!
The usefulness of red fire trucks
Red fire trucks make sense because the color red has the longest wavelength amongst all colors in the visible spectrum, meaning that it can be spotted best from a distance. That’s why ‘stop’ signs are usually painted red.
Furthermore, red symbolizes danger in many cultures, which accentuates the importance of red fire trucks when they’re barreling down the road with their flashing lights and wailing siren. Also, people have become so used to seeing red-colored firetrucks that fire departments don’t really see any point in changing their color.
However, recent studies confirm that the human visual system is most sensitive to wavelengths between 510 nm and 570 nm (greenish-yellow) (Source). That’s one of the primary reasons why school buses in the US are all painted yellow. Furthermore, research has shown that people have trouble seeing red in low-light conditions. As a result, if it’s nighttime or too foggy/hazy outside, you’re more likely to overlook a red fire truck than a greenish-yellow one.
Data shows that red fire trucks have been involved in nearly three times more accidents than lime-green ones. A New York-based optometrist named Stephen Solomon conducted a study pertaining to road accidents of fire trucks and subsequently promoted the use of ‘lime yellow’ in the United States, beginning in the mid-1970s. Another study promoting the use of yellow emergency vehicles was published in 1978 in Australia.
All in all, it’s true that yellowish-green emergency vehicles are more easily spotted, regardless of the ambient lighting conditions, which is why many fire departments have switched to yellow fire trucks. Even so, I’m quite certain that red fire trucks are here to stay, at least in the near future!