As the smell of smoke fills the air outside, you hear a familiar sound in the distance – the wail of a siren. Before you know it, a fire truck zooms past you down the street, resembling a red streak. But as it heads towards the blaze, a simple question pops into your head. Why is it that these vehicles all bear the same color?
Now fire trucks aren’t just recognizable because of their bright red shade, of course. These hulking appliances carry some important pieces of equipment that aid the firefighters once they arrive at their destination. The biggest tool is the ladder, which can be found on the roof. You can’t miss it!
Obviously the ladder itself is unlike anything that you might have stowed in your garage at the moment. You see, fire trucks utilize a design that started out as a “spring-assisted mechanism” to lift the rungs in the air. Incredibly, the idea originated way back in 1868, the brainchild of a man named Daniel Hayes.
Since then, the “Hayes ladder” has been a mainstay on the back of fire trucks, albeit with a few alterations. For instance, the BuyAutoInsurance.com website reported that it received a major revamp during the 1950s. But the actual structure is still pretty similar to the old blueprint. Talk about staying power, right?
Going back to the trucks themselves, you might have another burning question at the forefront of your mind. Why do they look the same? Is there a reason? Well in truth, not every vehicle has an identical appearance, even though it seems that way. Sorry to shatter your preconceptions!
As it turns out, there are different “types” of fire trucks on the road right now with varying looks. The vehicles with which you’re probably most familiar are the Type One and Type Two. According to the Boise Mobile Equipment website, those are the trucks – boasting their massive frames – that you’ll see around large cities.
Why are the Type One and Type Two fire trucks so big? Well, that’s partly down to the ladder. They also carry a large volume of water too. As per the aforementioned website, the vehicles can each hold between 400 and 500 gallons. Think about how many showers you could have with that! Yet sometimes, even that’s not enough to put out the flames.
Now the fire trucks that are classified from Type Three to Type Seven differ greatly from the first two iterations. They’re referred to as “wildland engines” and unlike their larger counterparts in the city, these vehicles are used to tackle bush fires. So you’re not going to see the big boys navigating open countryside!
Much like a standard vehicle, types Three through Seven run on four wheels. But again, they’re not all the same. Boise Mobile Equipment noted that the Type Three and Type Four are slightly bigger, weighing roughly 26,000 pounds. And in terms of the water, the former carries at least 500 gallons, while the latter holds up to 750 gallons.
Although those fire trucks can handle the harsher landscapes, the types Five to Seven are easier to move around in. They hold 400-gallon tanks and closely resemble an everyday automobile – from the front at least! But while these variations all look different, one aspect of their appearance remains the same.
Of course, we’re referring to the fire trucks’ color. Regardless of the type, they all seem to boast bright-red bodies. Was it always this way, though? What did the older models look like in the past? To answer those questions, we first need to make an important distinction that could surprise you.
When describing the emergency vehicle, do you call it a fire truck or a fire engine? If you alternate between the two at will, hear this: they’re not the same thing. As per BuyAutoInsurance.com, the truck is the actual vehicle, while the engine “is a means of pumping water.” That’s one to remember for your next quiz night!
The fire engine also predates the fire truck by hundreds of years, with some suggesting that Ancient Rome and Greece had access to them. So if the vehicle itself was created at a later date, how did people go about fighting fires back then? Truth be told, some harsh lessons had to be learned.
You see, in the years after the Jamestown Fire in 1608, America’s earliest settlers made a big decision. They wanted to establish a new way to tackle the flames. On that note, the famed “bucket brigades” were the earliest examples of firefighters in New York. Individuals would stand in line and hand pails of water to one another until they reached the blaze.
As for the fire truck’s origins, the concept didn’t begin to take shape until the early 1720s. At that stage, a man named Richard Newsham came up with the idea to place a fire engine on wheels. So he designed a pump that could fit on to a chassis made of wood. It’s a start, right?
Thanks to this new contraption, the fire brigade could get to the location of a blaze much more quickly than before. And on top of that, they were able to take it into burning buildings as well. Mind you, there was obviously some way to go until these wooden vehicles started to resemble trucks.
That brings us to the year 1840. By that point, firefighters were looking to speed up the process even further. And we can certainly understand why. Taking a wooden chassis around a growing city wasn’t that practical anymore! So with a newly-designed steam pump ready to go, they called upon horses to move it.
According to BuyAutoInsurance.com, roughly 450 horses were utilized by the San Francisco Fire Department alone during that spell. But they weren’t the only animals on call. You see, Dalmatians were recruited too, as they helped to disperse crowds for the truck to get past. Yes, the dogs were essentially sirens!
And that’s how it stayed in America up until 1914. Due to the ever-improving technology of the time, fire trucks started to adopt engines that ran on gas. Yet the actual “fire engine” continued to operate on steam power for another ten years or so, before fuel replaced that as well.
It was a significant moment, as the water could now be fired out at a stronger rate. Plus, the trucks themselves were much quicker without the horses. So yes, the vehicles were starting to become more recognizable as the appliances on our roads today, while they also adopted an older piece of tech.
We’re referring to the “Hayes ladder,” which we briefly touched upon earlier. Daniel Hayes was a fireman himself, working out of New York. At the time of his invention, he and his colleagues had to rely on portable ladders to reach taller areas. It’s safe to say that wasn’t ideal!
But due to the groundbreaking spring design, firefighters could now ascend to higher spots in a safer manner than before. Quite frankly, there didn’t seem to be much of a need to update the Hayes ladder when the fire trucks’ gas engines came in. Why fix what isn’t broken, right?
So it stayed the same up until the 1950s, like we mentioned earlier. Prior to that, it still found a way to fit in with the other updates, adding to the speed of the process. Today, fire trucks are as capable as they’ve ever been, with BuyAutoInsurance.com noting that even more tools can be found in the vehicles.
But that still leaves us with one unanswered question – why are fire trucks red? Is there a reason? Well, it’s a discussion that’s been knocking around for a while now, with several different explanations. One of those can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century, according to the FireRescue1 website.
During that period, Henry Ford opted to paint the Model T Ford vehicles black. Batman would’ve loved those cars! As per FireRescue1, that particular shade was inexpensive compared to other colors, and a bit stronger. So if you were on the road back then, you’d have seen plenty of dark automobiles moving around.
According to the FireRescue1 website, one version has it that fire chiefs then saw an opening to do something different. To make the fire trucks more noticeable, they looked to adopt a brighter color for the vehicle’s body. And red seemingly won out. Yet a contrasting story on the same site suggests that it wasn’t about breaking the dark monotony on the road.
In fact, it might’ve been a purely financial decision. You see, FireRescue1 reported that the fire brigades were interested in kitting out their trucks with a pricey shade. Unlike black, red was worth far more back then, so that apparently led to the color change. Fascinating stories, wouldn’t you agree?
But away from the theories, some scientific projects have delved into the effectiveness of the color choice as well. And it makes for very interesting reading! For instance, Lt. James D. Wells Jr. produced one such report for the Florida Highway Patrol back in 2004. He was looking at emergency lights.
Specifically, Wells was comparing blue flashing lights to their red counterparts. By the end of his report, he said that the latter color was more noticeable in daylight. But that wasn’t all. You see, when the sun went down, the lieutenant claimed that the color became a lot harder to spot.
Yes, Wells was only studying lights, but another report from the past backed him up. In 1995 two men, James King and Stephen Solomon, authored a paper that looked at the fire trucks’ color. The pair examined information provided to them by the Dallas Fire Department and their research produced some shocking results.
The report was eventually published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association. Solomon and King wrote, “Fire departments have long used red as the traditional color for fire apparatus, and have been reluctant to change. [But] optometric research and literature offers ample proof that red is a poorly detected color.”
From there, King and Solomon revealed that fire trucks with a red body were more likely to be involved in collisions than “lime yellow” vehicles. Keeping that in mind, we probably know what you’re thinking. “Why didn’t fire brigades try a different color instead?” Well that’s the interesting thing. They did!
Over 40 years ago, those at the Dallas Fire Department wanted to make a significant change to their trucks. Due to the information that we just spoke about, they opted to paint them lime yellow. It’s not the nicest color, is it? Regardless of that, though, it was supposedly safer.
Yet the fire chiefs in Texas changed their minds again after a few years. They switched back to the traditional red, albeit with a white trim this time. Mind you, FireRescue1 reported that suburban areas around the country have since been utilizing the yellow shade as an alternative. The word clearly spread!
But if yellow is such an effective color on the road, why hasn’t it permanently displaced red? Well, the reaction to an older report from the U.K. might answer that question. The Coventry Fire Brigade and the same town’s Lanchester College of Technology came together to produce a paper on the subject in 1965.
Once again, the two parties confirmed that yellow and lime were very strong colors, especially in the evening. So what happened? Instead of revamping the trucks with a new coat of paint, fire brigades across the British isles went down an alternative route. Yes, they slapped “retroreflective” shades on the vehicles.
So the fire trucks now had high-vis strips that would make them stand out, while retaining their red color. And as per FireRescue1, some parts of America looked to follow the U.K.’s example too. Yet 2009 proved to be a pivotal year when it comes to this topsy-turvy topic.
At that stage, the United States Fire Administration produced a report on the dangers that emergency workers faced. As the paper progressed, the subject of vehicle color came up once again. But guess what? The experts claimed that the shade didn’t really make much difference to safety. Who saw that coming?
Instead, the Fire Administration noted that color recognition was absolutely vital in that respect. Simply put, a driver is more likely to notice a red fire truck because that’s the color they expect it to be. A lime-yellow vehicle might not have the same effect, as the history isn’t there. It’s an intriguing idea, right?
On top of that, the report backed up the suggestion that retroreflective markers made a big difference as well. So what does that mean for the future? Well, FireRescue1 reported that fire chiefs won’t be forced into altering the shade of their red trucks for now. The iconic look will live on!