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An Old Flame : Santa Monica Fire Department Abandons Lime-Green and Returns to Red Trucks


To some, there is nothing like a red firetruck.

In the 14 years that Santa Monica has had lime-yellow Fire Department vehicles, people would occasionally hail his command car, thinking it was a taxi, said Deputy Chief Ettore Berardinelli. And, according to firefighter lore, someone even tried to board a hook-and-ladder rig with 50 cents in hand, supposedly mistaking it for a bus.

"This automatic color association never materialized with the yellow color," Berardinelli said.

So the city is abandoning lime-yellow as the color of its fire engines and ambulances, with five new red-and-white trucks due in early August.

The city's move is part of a nationwide turn away from a trend that saw thousands of America's firetrucks painted lime-yellow in the 1970s and early 1980s because it was believed they would be more visible.

Now, however, with advances in sirens, traffic signals, reflective tape and flashing-light technology, many departments are going back to the traditional color. This makes some vision researchers and fire officials who are fans of the brighter coloring so angry that, well, they're seeing red.

"Oh, no! Stupidity," groaned Merrill J. Allen, professor emeritus at the School of Optometry at Indiana University and author of "Vision and Highway Safety," when he heard about Santa Monica's decision.

"One out of 50 men cannot see red," Allen said. "Red is a dark color to start with . . . and to have one out of 50 men out there who can't see your emergency vehicle, that doesn't make sense."

But Berardinelli cited other studies, including one by J.H. Bustanoby who stated in his book, "Principles, Colors and Mixing," of red's "striking, aggressive visibility and compelling vibration . . . universally accepted as a danger signal."

"There is an automatic association of red with fire and fire vehicles," Berardinelli said. "Citizens continue to question firefighters about why their emergency vehicles are yellow." Lime-yellow also shows dings more clearly than red does, he said.

The five new vehicles, pumpers with the capacity to spray water and two kinds of foam, are equipped with the latest in flashing, oscillating and rotating lights on all sides, along with electronic sirens and devices that automatically change traffic signals to green.

They will immediately go into the front line at Santa Monica's four firehouses, freeing some older trucks for reserve duty and allowing the city to put the rest up for sale or donate them to its sister city, Mazatlan, Mexico.

There is no extra cost involved, Berardinelli said, since the five new trucks would have run about $298,000 each, no matter what the color. While the department expects to repaint a 10-year-old hook-and-ladder truck at a cost of up to $18,000, there are no plans to repaint the lime-green reserve fleet.

One of the more enthusiastic boosters of lime-green trucks has been Stephen S. Solomon, an optometrist and longtime volunteer firefighter in Owego, N.Y., which is not far from the site of the old Ward-La France factory, where lime-yellow firetrucks were first produced.

According to Solomon, any department that goes to red, or the trendy combination of red and white, is risking higher accident rates and more costly insurance policies.

"The research we've done has shown that with lights and sirens, firetrucks that are red have at least double the number of serious accidents than lime-yellow trucks," he said.

His own volunteer department is getting a 10% discount on its insurance premiums because its trucks are lime-yellow, he said, "and insurance companies don't give discounts on myths and feelings and the warm fuzzies."

Although he has his supporters in some fire departments, universities and government agencies--the Federal Aviation Administration requires yellow-green paint for airport fire and crash vehicles--Solomon acknowledges that he occupies something of a hot seat.

"Firefighters don't like my work," he said.

Indeed, the International Assn. of Fire Fighters has issued a statement finding "significant methodological problems" with Solomon's findings.

Specifically, Solomon did not allow for factors such as driver experience, traffic volume, weather conditions and time of day when he concluded that red fire engines have more accidents, the union said.

"He's correct when he's talking about the light spectrum and colors, but you're not talking about a firetruck careening down the street with flashing lights and sirens," said union spokesman George Burke.

Until more research is conducted, the union believes that the choice of paint should be a matter of taste.

The National Fire Protection Assn., an industry group, takes a similar position.

"With any color . . . there's going to be conditions under which it is not as visible as other colors," said Carl E. Peterson, an assistant director of the association. "Obviously, a chameleon tint might be the ideal."

That's a product that has yet to hit the market. Until it does, the voice of tradition speaks loudly in the fire service.

"It's just like the flag--why change it from red, white and blue to make it more visible?" said San Diego Fire Capt. Allan Macdonald. His department tried lime-yellow but changed back to red in the early 1980s.

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