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The Green Firetruck Heresy : Some studies say red is not a safe color. But chartreuse just doesn't excite the masses. : City Smart / How to thrive in the urban environment of Southern California

Urban Notebook: Reports from the metropolitan front

July 07, 1995|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First, they sprang Crystal Pepsi on us. Then they trotted out blue M & Ms. And now, in yet another brazen assault on Americana, comes a scientific study calling for chartreuse fire engines.

The very notion of chartreuse rigs--theoretically more visible and therefore safer--strikes some firefighters as un-American. Battling blazes in a sickly greenish pumper truck seems somehow off-kilter, like eating under aquamarine McDonald's arches or saluting an orange, white and black Stars and Stripes.

"In people's minds, fire engines should be red," Oxnard Battalion Chief Henry Lenhart said.

"I don't think there's a kid in the country saying, 'Get me a yellow firetruck,' " Los Angles Fire Capt. Dick Dreher said.

Indeed, red firetrucks have served America well for at least a century. They've been updated, sure, with sparkling reflective strips, probing strobe lights and ear-popping sirens. But most have retained their distinctive color.

"Lime green might catch your eye, but then you'd say 'What \o7 is \f7 that?' " Los Angeles Fire Capt. Gary Clark said. "You'd say, 'Oh, man!' " he added, screwing up his face in a hideous expression that declared "Blech!" in no uncertain terms.

In dozens of communities across the country, residents have been forced to get used to lime-green or banana-yellow firetrucks, including Ventura and Santa Bernardino counties and Glendale. A few cities have even experimented with blue, purple, black and white engines. Some firefighters profess to prefer those offbeat hues.

But many others would agree with veteran Los Angeles Firefighter Richard Hernandez that firetrucks should be red. Period.

"We like red for the same reason we grow mustaches--it's traditional," Hernandez said.

Breaking such fiercely held tradition can be demoralizing. Just ask Santa Monica's deputy fire chief, Ettore Berardinelli.

For 15 long years, he and his troops hustled around town in detestably perky citrus-colored rigs. Confused citizens twice flagged down the chief's car--thinking it was a taxi. Then, last year, the department returned to red. Berardinelli swears morale shot up.

"They're real proud to have red again," he said. "A lot of people will laugh at that, but . . . I'm not making this up."

In Oxnard, too, Chief Randy Coggan said "the community is ecstatic" about the Fire Department's decision to switch back to red rigs after two decades of yellow.

"I doubt there was a single person who came up to us [during the yellow phase] who didn't say, 'Fire apparatus is supposed to be red,' " he recounted.

That conviction proved so unshakable that kids had a hard time grasping the existence of sunny yellow ladder trucks--even when they saw them up close. Schoolchildren who toured Oxnard fire stations used to draw thank-you notes that politely corrected the wacky color scheme they encountered. "More than half of their pictures would come back red, even though they didn't see a single red truck here," Battalion Chief Lenhart recalled.

Oxnard and Santa Monica opted for chartreuse trucks back in the 1970s, when New York ophthalmologist Stephen Solomon produced research claiming that sparkling lime-yellow paint would boost the visibility of emergency vehicles. His warnings of a red menace won some converts. But the trend died quickly.

Now Solomon is crusading to revive the chartreuse fad, with a fresh study published in the Journal of Safety Research.

Solomon's statistics show that in Dallas, where the fire fleet is two-hued, red engines crashed into civilian cars twice as often as lime-yellow engines. His conclusion: Red is a lousy color for emergency vehicles.

Merrill J. Allen, a professor emeritus of optometry at Indiana University, has backed him up. "Red is just about the worst color you could use," Allen said. "This tradition stuff is just in your mind."

Grudgingly, firefighters agree that they would jettison tradition if they were convinced a chartreuse truck would save lives. But neither the National Fire Protection Assn. nor the International Assn. of Fire Fighters has found Solomon's studies credible enough to recommend lime-yellow paint jobs.

So fire chiefs fall back on tradition.

"We've all grown up with red," Los Angeles City fire engineer Jim Coburn said. "We don't want anything less."

As proof, Toys R Us clerk Derren Davis simply needs to point to the pawed-over shelves of the truck aisle. There are orange ambulances and white ambulances. Blue police cars and black-and-white police cars. Yellow racing cars and green racing cars. But every last firetruck is red.

Lingering in the truck aisle, 9-year-old Kevin wholeheartedly agreed. When his younger brother, Andy, whispered that he would happily play with any old fire engine (as long as it made noise), Kevin turned scornful.

"I like \o7 red \f7 firetrucks," he said firmly, "because that's the original color."

That affinity for red represents more than just nostalgia. We are all trained to expect firetrucks to be red--just as we are conditioned to believe Pepto-Bismol will be pink and Cheetos will be orange.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the power of pigments to identify products. In a 9-0 decision this year, the justices ruled that companies can trademark "color, pure and simple" because "it can act as a symbol that distinguishes a firm's goods and identifies their source."

In this case, the goods are municipal rescue services. And the color link is strong.

Forging an association with a new color might be difficult. As UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian explained: "People don't learn that easily.

"I know as Americans, we always like to try new things," Mehrabian added, "but there are times when traditions really are worthwhile."

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