By Bill Adams
At some point in time, if it hasn’t already happened, fire departments will be overwhelmed with technospeak. In particular, the technological descriptions and longwindedness in advertising LED scene lighting for fire apparatus appears to have taken technospeak to a new level. Many rank-and-file firefighters (the black coats) riding in the crew cab don’t have a clue whether sales advertisements are fact or fiction. Some “seasoned” fire department hierarchy—whose last ride on a fire truck was on the rear step—may be susceptible to the glitz and glimmer of high-tech advertising and sales professionals. It is a sorry state of affairs when an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) says, “We really don’t know how that light works or why we need it, but everyone else is buying it, so we better get two of them.”
This narration is not addressing “ground lighting” required by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. Ground lighting includes the rear work area, hosebed, inside equipment compartments, waling and stepping surfaces on the rig, as well as inside the cab and the area when exiting it. To some people, the NFPA takes those requirements to the extreme with terminology such as candlepower, lumens, “fc” and “lx.”
The only NFPA statements that do not require a degree in electrical engineering to understand are where the standard says the ground has to be illuminated for 30 inches when you get out of the cab and at the rear of the rig where it has to be illuminated for a 10-foot by 10-foot square behind it. How much light is required? Would it be easy to say if you dropped a quarter on the pavement that the pavement should be illuminated enough to find it? Leave the lumens, fc’s and lx’s out of it.
NFPA 1901 Chapter 22, addresses “Scene Lighting Systems” very briefly, and it is directed at lighting from a fixed source such as a generator. Its nothing to write home about. Today, 12-volt LED scene lighting is very popular on fire apparatus. I believe purchasers are at a loss on how to describe “adequate” 12-volt LED scene lighting on a fire truck. Lighting manufacturers’ literature describing LED scene lighting can be as confusing as the NFPA’s description of ground lighting. I really don’t know what a “kelvin” is, but some scene lights are advertised as having thousands of them. Some advertise a “bright” light and some an “ultrabright” light. Lights have been advertised as producing lumens ranging from 7,000 per light head upward to 28,000 per light head. There is no questioning the efficiency and cost savings of LED lights. But, how many lumens does a pumper’s scene light need to generate?
How does an APC determine what it should purchase? Should scene lights be bright enough to read a newspaper three football fields away, or blind the pilots of low flying aircraft, or light up a 2½-story house 200-feet away from the rig? Should lights be required to illuminate the length of two city blocks or the effective reach of a rig’s preconnects or deck gun? What can the APC compare proposed LED lights to?
In the 1970s and 1980s, a very popular scene lighting configuration on pumpers and ladders was a 1,200-Watt inverter with a 500-watt halogen light on a 3- or 4-foot telescoping pole on each side of the rig. Rescue trucks and some ladder trucks had on-board generators and a 1,500-Watt halogen light on each side. Fire departments knew how effective those two systems were, and many would be content if an LED light provided similar levels of performance.
Sam Massa is the president and chief technologist of HiViz LED Lighting, a manufacturer of specialty scene lighting for the fire and emergency services market. He was asked how to specify 12-volt LED scene lighting systems comparable to the two above: one with a 500-Watt halogen light on each side of a rig and one with a 1,500-Watt light on each side of a rig. Sam speaks “technospeak” and is attuned to educating the fire service. He agreed to give “plain talk” words of wisdom for purchasers of LED scene lights equal to the 500- and 1,500-Watt halogens described.
Sam: “A rule of thumb for sizing an LED fixture is you can get roughly comparable light with 10-20% of the power of your halogen fixtures. The unfortunate reality is that changing from a halogen scene light to an LED scene light is analogous to changing from flying a Cessna to a Blackhawk helicopter. There are many variables affecting the performance of LED fixtures. There is more to purchasing an LED light than knowing how to turn it on and off. There many options out there for training resources. I’ve taught a class around the industry called The Science of Effective Scene Lighting™, which is designed to help first responders understand the complexity in lighting required to adequately illuminate their incidents. It’s been featured at numerous trade shows. It’s not brand specific, it’s not a sales pitch, and it’s something that can be viewed online for no cost or arranged in-person with a few weeks notice.”
Sam continues with the following advice:
- Mount scene lights as high as practicable on the vehicle. Elevation is the key to reducing glare. Poles, towers, or as high on the body as possible.
- Temperature is the #1 killer of LED technology. The bigger the heat sync, the cooler the fixture will operate (generally).
- Moisture is the #2 killer of LED fixtures. Look at your neighbors’ rigs with similar lights. Do they have water in them? A wet circuit board will not last forever.
- Don’t get bogged down on “lumens” “lux” or “foot candles.” It’s a half-story at best. Take a Science of Effective Scene Lighting class if you’re interested in why.
- A greater number of lower-intensity fixtures placed evenly around the apparatus will yield better results during nighttime operations than only using a few very high-powered fixtures. An even lower-intensity distribution of light with less graduation between “highs” and “lows” is easier to work under.
- This is important: Reach out to more than one scene light manufacturer to discuss the options. Ask about warranty; ask what happens in the event of failure; and ask for references! A modern scene lighting system should outlast the chassis of your next apparatus, and with the variables introduced in LED technology, the investment of time in research on the front end is worth its weight in gold on the back end.”
Sam was asked to be specific in what size light is equivalent in performance to the halogen lights described above. He referred to his FireTech “Guardian” (P/N FT-GSM), which performs like a 500- to 750-Watt halogen and his FireTech “Guardian Elite” (P/N FT-GESM), which performs like a 1,000- to 1,500-Watt halogen. He says, “Both can be surface- or pole-mounted in AC or DC, in white or black, with or without a switch, and are guaranteed for the life of the apparatus!” Access the data at https://www.hivizleds.com/firetech-guardian.
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.