Inside the Apparatus Industry
Story & Photos by Bob Vaccaro
It’s been a while since I covered the topic of emergency vehicle lighting. The fire apparatus manufacturers have been doing a great job of conforming to NFPA 1901 and its lighting requirements; I’ll discuss more about that standard in a minute.
Probably the best product to hit the emergency vehicle lighting market has been the LED. Not only are the new-generation LEDs brighter, but maintenance is virtually non-existent and the power requirements are less than half that of the older lightbars and strobe light systems that have been in use for the past 40-plus years.
Listen, during my early fire service years, they were still using single beacon rays on the roof of most fire trucks. When we moved into the era of the lightbar, the Federal Twinsonic was a state-of-the-art emergency vehicle light.
We’ve come a long way since that time. While it’s cool to see some departments add more lighting, such as twin Mars lights and Buckeye Roto-Rays, on the front of the apparatus cabs, if you’re going to do this yourself, make sure that your apparatus batteries and alternators can handle the load. By the way, have you seen the LED Buckeye Roto-Rays? Like other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), they’ve adapted their older designs with the new technology.
Now back to NFPA 1901. Just what does this standard say about emergency vehicle lighting? Look at A.13.8.1 (in Annex A) in the rear of this fire service bible. It breaks down the warning devices into upper-level and lower-level optical warning devices about which I’ll only cover some of the highlights. You’ll have to read the full standard to get information on voltages, switches that are required for operation, as well as siren controls and the zones of lighting that different warning devices need to cover.
The upper-level optical warning devices provide warning at a distance from the apparatus, and the lower-level optical warning devices provide warning in close proximity to the apparatus.
Per A.220.127.116.11: “Under typical conditions, the specified optical warning system provides effective, balanced warning. In some situations, however, the safety of the apparatus can be increased by turning off some warning devices. For example, if other vehicles need to pass within close proximity to the parked apparatus, the possibility of distracting other drivers can be reduced if the headlights and lower-level warning lights are turned off. In snow or fog, it might be desirable to turn off forward-facing strobes or oscillating lights to reduce the visual disorientation of the apparatus driver.”
Purchasers might want to specify traffic flow-type lighting, such as amber directional indicators for use in alerting approaching motorists to blocked or partially blocked highways.
Another area of concern is the use of flashing headlights. Per A.13.8.12: “Flashing headlights are often used in many areas as warning lights and provide an inexpensive way to obtain additional warning to the front of an apparatus. Daylight flashing of the high beams is very effective and is generally considered safe. Nighttime flashing could affect the vision of oncoming drivers, as well as making driving the vehicle more difficult. If flashing headlights are used, they should be turned off when the regular headlights are used and should also be turned off with all other white warning lights when the apparatus is in the blocking mode. In some areas of the country flashing headlights are prohibited or limited to certain types of emergency vehicles.”
Steady burning headlights are not considered warning lights and can be illuminated in the blocking mode to light the area in front of the apparatus.
Don’t forget that each manufacturer has an NFPA 1901 lighting specification catalog that you can use to decide how you want to light your vehicle. After investigating the different emergency vehicle lighting manufacturers, you can usually spec an individual manufacturer and the type of lights you want on the vehicle, provided it meets the standard. Most manufacturers will work with you to help plan your vehicle lighting requirements and how to go about it. Just ask questions and do some research before you attempt this endeavor.
Bob Vaccaro has more than 30 years of fire-service experience. He is a former chief of the Deer Park (N.Y.) Fire Department. Vaccaro has also worked for the Insurance Services Office, The New York Fire Patrol and several major commercial insurance companies as a senior loss-control consultant. Vaccaro is a life member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
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