Are “High and Slow” Warning Lights Feasible?

By Bill Adams

Discussions about dimming fire apparatus warning lights have abated somewhat but haven’t completely disappeared. They definitely haven’t reached the point of honest debate where deliberation and examination of facts may result in a conclusion acceptable to all parties. Perhaps if the topic is ignored, it will go away.

Tom Shand provided this photo of a 1958 Seagrave pumper with fixed stationary red lights mounted through the front corner posts. Today’s full light bar aficionados might acquiesce in having lights similarly mounted on new rigs.

Some are apprehensive nothing will be accomplished until just before proposed changes are due for the next revision of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. Equally foreboding is, at that time, there will be another rush to expedite changes to the standard based on emotional reactions “to get something done” rather than as a result of unhurried testing, analysis, and unbiased investigation. Oh well, what is is.

NFPA 1901 criteria for warning lights include two modes of operation: calling for the right-of-way (responding) and blocking the right-of-way (stopped). This article does NOT address warning lights when responding. However, some comments made could be applicable to that mode. It addresses warning lights used in the blocking-the-right-of-way mode.

Harvey Eckart supplied these two delivery photos (2-3) of older Mack apparatus with high mounted red flashers.

The fire service and lighting industry should be mindful the motoring public has no clue or care about what NFPA 1901 is or says. It doesn’t have to. Most have probably never heard of it. Motorists are obligated by law to respond to certain colors of warning lights designated by their state—or the Federal government. I don’t believe states teach motorists how to react to flash rates or whether lights are rotating, flashing, oscillating, pulsing, or throbbing.

Harvey Eckart supplied these two delivery photos (2-3) of older Mack apparatus with high mounted red flashers.

Warning lights on emergency vehicles are “sending a signal” to motorists to respond and to do whatever the motorists were taught when taking a test to receive an operator’s license. They probably had to acknowledge it in writing! How motorists respond or react to warning lights is mandated by laws—not by the NFPA. They might be required to stop or yield right of way, or pull to the right and stop, etc. NFPA 1901 has nothing to do with it.

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Stupid, inattentive, medically impaired, and drug- or alcohol-impaired drivers might not pay attention to the rules and regulations of the road let alone warning lights.

I believe the only nationwide “accepted and expected” response to warning lights is when they are displayed on school buses and at railroad crossings. Elevated alternating flashing red lights mean STOP. There’s either a stopped school bus in front of you or a train is, or will be within seconds, crossing the road in front you. That’s pretty much standard from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

An elevated amber light or alternating flashing amber lights are generally accepted to mean SLOW DOWN and/or USE CAUTION. Flashing amber lights on a school bus means be prepared to stop because the red lights are coming on soon. That also is a nationwide norm. When an amber light or lights are displayed on vehicles other than school buses, the general consensus is to use caution because there’s something (that’s possibly very big) that is slowing down or has stopped in front of you.

The analogy is similar to amber traffic light signals. A single amber flashing traffic light means caution—the other guy might be exercising the right of way. Or, if it’s a multilight traffic signal, amber means get ready to stop because the red light is coming on next.

The Penfield, NY Fire Company provided this photo of one of their former rigs—a 1971 Young Crusader. It featured two large red flashers mounted each side above the windshield.

Proponents of using multiple forward facing warning lights whether they are spinning, flashing, oscillating, or whatever should not panic. Use them and all the strobes, Roto-Rays, Mars figure 8 lights, and flashing headlights you want when responding—providing, of course, they don’t obscure directional lights and blind or distract motorists. This concept for high and slow warning lights is intended for use in the blocking-the-right-of-way mode. The rig is stopped, and you don’t want anyone to ram it or the firefighters working around it. Hopefully the public is aware that is what the warning lights mean. They might if the light color(s) and flash pattern(s) are similar to school buses and railroad crossings.

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Years ago, many rigs featured red warning lights—about 6-inches in diameter—one each side above the windshield. Most rigs had similar lights facing the rear. Some flashed simultaneously, however, just like school buses and railroad crossing lights, many were alternating flashing. Did the fire service copy the school buses and the railroads or was it vice versa?

The high and slow concept still works today for school buses and railroads. Could it be still feasible for fire apparatus in the blocking mode? I am not proposing going back to the identical warning lights of 50 years ago. The concept might be worth investigating.

Somewhere within the bowels (my term) of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) are requirements for school bus warning lights. Discounting the recent swing-out arms with warning lights, the requirement for the upper lights is, I believe, each lamp lens must be 19 -square inches and alternately flash from 60 to 120 cycles per minute. As a reference, the area of a 5-inch round light lens is 19.6-square inches, and the 6-inch size is 28.27 square inches.

The United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration publishes the Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook. It says new red flashing lights at rail crossings must be 12-inches in diameter, with a 35- to 65-flash rate per minute. Just like a school bus—the lights are large enough to be “color visible” and are slow flashing, and motorists all over the country know what they mean.

Author’s photo of a 1940 Mack with similar high flashers. The fender mounted combination light and siren had a slow flashing light with over 36-square inches of “red” facing forward. There is no recommendation to go back to warning lights of yesteryear however a similar size light or lights, whether they be LED or halogen flush or surface mounted may have merit today. You can see it, recognize it and hopefully will stop or get out of the way!

Railroad crossing lights must be visible at a certain distance. If there’s such a requirement for school bus warning lights, it’s probably in FMVSS Standard No. 108, SAE School Bus Warning Lamp J887. Some European countries mandate warning lights on emergency vehicles must be “recognizable” at a certain distance from the vehicle “in bright sunlight.” Should NFPA 1901 require something similar for warning lights rather than requiring a candela/seconds per minute requirement that most firefighters don’t understand?

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Table in NFPA 1901 shows the Minimum Optical Power Requirements for Large Apparatus. It is an interesting read. Lower warning light power requirements in the blocking mode are only 15% of the upper lights in the responding mode. Could today’s minimum requirements be changed to the maximum power requirement for all warning lights when blocking the right of way?

Would it be blasphemous for the NFPA to require ALL warning lights in the blocking-the-right-of-way mode to be amber and flash slowly? Is there a way to address warning lights, especially at night, that reflects common sense and is not expensive to implement? LED lights shouldn’t be so bright they distract oncoming motorists or blind the pilots of low-flying aircraft. One light manufacturer says the amount of current flowing across an LED chip determines how bright the light is.

Perhaps the manufacturers should be challenged: “Make an LED warning light that is not distracting to motorists, yet meets NFPA 1901 and does not have to be dimmed or regulated at night.”

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.


This article does NOT address warning lights when responding. However, some comments made could be applicable to that mode. It addresses warning lights used in the blocking-the-right-of-way mode.

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