Should you ever wish to rile up a gathering of firefighters, to the point that punches may get thrown, bring up the notion that red is a dreadful color for fire engines. You can maximize your irritation factor by citing the work of one Dr. Stephen Solomon, an optometrist best known for proposing that fluorescent lime green is the best color for emergency vehicles. Such an eye-catching color, Solomon argued, forces even the laziest eye to pay attention, thereby minimizing collisions between ordinary vehicles and fire trucks or ambulances. Red, by contrast, just doesn’t slap around the oculars with enough force, especially late at night.
Solomon’s work helped nudge many fire departments across the nation to opt for lime-green engines during the 1970s and ’80s. But that trend may now be reversing itself, thanks in large part to a 2009 FEMA study that questioned whether visibility was as important as familiarity:
Whatever the specific color, research performed for this report suggests what is more important is the ability for drivers to recognize the vehicle for what it is. The use of a standardized color or paint scheme for certain types of vehicles may be helpful in this regard. An example is the ubiquitous “yellow school bus” prevalent throughout the United States. These vehicles are instantly recognizable and likely promote immediate behavioral responses by surrounding drivers. Similarly, U.S. Postal Service (USPS) or other mail/delivery trucks painted in a standard color may also prompt drivers to behave in certain ways (i.e., expecting multiple stops at any time). Following this principle, it is a common belief that people are more likely to identify red with a fire apparatus than other colors, regardless of the conditions.
In other words, because we all grew up learning that fire engines are red by definition, opting for another color scheme—however visually jarring—may not yield any better results than maintaining the status quo.
This has been music to many firefighters’ ears, as there has been widespread dissatisfaction with the lime-green trucks—not because they don’t work, but rather because many firefighters prefer the traditional red. It’s considered more macho and more elegant, and its backers have gone to great lengths to discredit the efficacy of lime green—some have even suggested (baselessly) that Dr. Solomon had a financial stake in a commercial lime-green pigment.
But is the switch being made too soon? The man behind the Ambulance Visibility Blog (yes, it exists) believes that red proponents have been too quick to interpret the FEMA study as a complete validation of their traditional choice. (Check out his take here.)
I’m struck by the lack of concrete evidence on either side of the debate. One thing that is clear, though: Those who embrace red do so largely for emotional reasons. Their professional identities are intricately linked to their jobs’ trademark color; to change that is to mess with who they are.