Almost everyone associates fire trucks with the color red, but why is that? It’s likely because red is the only color many of us have seen fire trucks in, so it’s hard to picture them with any other hue.
Yet, colors usually have meanings and reasons behind them – so why red? Have fire trucks always been red, and is it really the best color for them? Let’s find out!
Why Are Fire Trucks Red?
There are a few theories as to why fire trucks are red, and they all date back to when emergency vehicles were becoming more common. No one knows the exact reason, and the science behind emergency vehicle colors makes it more confusing.
But one thing’s for sure: fire trucks are red today because that’s the color we recognize for firefighters.
A Possible Explanation
Before automobiles, firefighting equipment was attached to wagons and carriages. Even back then, the wagons were painted red to signify their purpose of emergency response.
One possible reason for the color choice is that red paint was inexpensive at the time and it covered dirt well. A long time ago, firefighters were unpaid volunteers, so they might not have wanted to spend unnecessary money on things like paint. Since the transportation was red, fire stations were often painted red too.
Yet, another possibility is that people wanted the firefighting vehicles to stand out. In the 1900s, Ford’s Model T only came in black, and it was the most popular vehicle on the road. So, when fire trucks started appearing, they might’ve kept using red to stand out from the other less-vibrant cars.
By the time automobiles were gaining popularity, black was the cheapest paint color while red became more expensive. Some people believe fire departments wanted to choose the most expensive color for their trucks to avoid them getting confused with other vehicles.
It’s unclear which of these ideas are correct, and it could be a little bit of all of them. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that fire trucks have been red for as long as people can remember.
The Science Behind Emergency Colors
Even though red is a color commonly associated with emergency vehicles, science shows that it’s not always the best color to choose. When comparing red and blue emergency lights, studies show that red lights are easier to see during the day, but blue lights are easier to see at night. Yet, yellow is always more visible than both options, even during inclement weather.
Despite the information about the color yellow, fire trucks continue to be painted bright red. Some emergency vehicles have added yellow reflective markings to make them more visible at night, but since people associate fire trucks with the color red, repainting hasn’t occurred. Even if a different color would make fire trucks more visible, it might not be helpful if the color prevents people from acknowledging that the truck is an emergency vehicle.
Can Fire Trucks Be Other Colors?
Red is the norm for fire trucks, but there’s no worldwide rule that says they have to be red. Some places stray from the stereotypes by using white, black, yellow, or even purple fire trucks. They’re much less common than red, but they still serve the same purpose.
Fire trucks can be any color, but most cities will utilize the same color for all their firefighting vehicles to avoid confusion. Some places might choose brighter colors to make the trucks more visible, but it’s unclear why cities would choose darker colors. Keep an eye out for unusually-colored fire trucks because there’s probably a reason they chose not to use red.
A Failed Attempt to Change Colors
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Dallas Fire Department replaced some red fire trucks with lime-yellow alternatives for improved visibility. The switch didn’t last long, but it caused researchers to grow curious about what impacts this change would have.
New York optometrist Stephen Solomon conducted a study to see if lime-yellow fire trucks were more effective than red ones. He examined the Dallas Fire Department’s lime-yellow trucks in comparison to their red or red and white trucks. Solomon found that lime-yellow trucks were less likely to get into accidents because people could see them better.
The study showed that red fire trucks were three times more likely to end up in crashes than brighter trucks. The lime-yellow fire trucks got into half as many intersection accidents as the red ones.
Even with this information, lime-yellow fire trucks never increased in popularity. The Dallas Fire Department even returned to red and white fire trucks because that’s what the community was most familiar with.
Should the Color of Fire Trucks Change?
As it turns out, the paint color for emergency colors isn’t as important as you might think. The U.S. Fire Administration concluded that while lime-yellow vehicles are more visible, it’s more important for people to recognize what the vehicle is for rather than how much it stands out. If fire trucks were yellow, they could get confused with other yellow vehicles, such as school buses and taxis.
So, even though red isn’t the most noticeable color for a fire truck, there won’t be any big changes in the near future. The majority of fire trucks will likely remain red so people will know a fire vehicle when they see one. It might be safer if more fire trucks were lime-yellow, but it will take a slow transition for everyone to get used to that paint color.
What About the Colors of Other Highly Visible Vehicles?
Fire trucks aren’t the only vehicles with signature colors. Several kinds of emergency vehicles and public transportation options have well-known looks, and you might not notice them as easily if they get repainted.
Regardless of the image of the vehicle itself, almost every police car has red and blue lights that flash when they need to get past. Whenever we see red and blue lights, we know what it means. So, like fire trucks, these colors can’t change drastically soon or they might confuse people.
Red is likely used for police car lights because it’s seen as a warning color. It’s the color of stop lights and brake lights, so when we see it on police cars, we have a similar reaction to stop or move out of the way. Because there are so many red lights on the road, the blue lights were added to differentiate police cars from other warning lights.
Since blue and red are two very different colors, they help people see them during every time of day. Red lights are more visible during the day while blue lights are more visible when it’s dark. People with color blindness can also distinguish at least one of the two colors from other colors.
These two colored lights flash to make them difficult to ignore. Any flashing lights are sure to get a driver’s attention, but most people know that blue and red lights mean police specifically.
Ambulances aren’t as consistent with colors as other emergency vehicles, but they often have red as part of their color scheme, for similar reasons to fire trucks. Ambulance colors are more varied now because red is a difficult color to spot at night.
Rather than making a designated color for ambulances, small changes have been made to make the trucks more visible. Many ambulances are still red, but they have extra reflectors, lights, and sirens to draw attention to themselves.
Some cities have taken advantage of the fact that lime green and yellow are the most visible colors, so they repainted the ambulances accordingly. Even though most people associate red with emergencies, the sounds, lights, and reflective strips of ambulances are enough to get people to recognize what they are because their appearance was never as consistent as fire trucks.
Whether you live in a big city or have watched a popular sitcom, you probably associate taxis with the color yellow. Some countries utilize different colors for their public transportation, but it’s usually consistent in each individual city to avoid confusion.
Taxis are usually a yellow-orange color for the obvious reason: they’re easy to spot. Not many cars are that specific type of yellow, so it’s easy to see a taxi coming. Plus, yellow is one of the car colors that’s considered the safest.
Car salesman John Hertz tested out a few different types of yellow before deciding on the most successful one. Taxis were often yellow before then, but Hertz was the first to question and study the color.
Taxis are effective in the way fire trucks should be. Yet, if taxis and emergency vehicles were the same color, that would add more confusion.
In many countries, school buses are a similar yellow color to taxis. Like taxis, yellow school buses have a distinct appearance thanks to their yellow hue. Even in dim lighting, the yellow-orange color is hard to miss. It makes sense that a vehicle transporting lots of children should be one of the most visible automobiles on the road.
Some cities don’t utilize school buses but focus on public buses instead. Regular buses don’t have a cohesive color the way school buses do, likely because they’re all run by different companies. Most public buses are covered in colorful designs and ads, so even though they’re not one color, they’re easy to spot. Each bus company usually has a distinct style so you know which buses to look out for.
Fire Truck Colors Aren’t Changing Anytime Soon
Fire trucks are red, and it looks like that fact is here to stay. There are many reasons why this paint color is used for these famous vehicles, but the reason today is that nearly every person associates the fire department with the color red.
So, next time you see a fire truck pass, you won’t have to pause to wonder why it looks like that. If it were a brighter color, it would be easier to spot, but you might not know that it’s an emergency vehicle.