In January of 1981, the fire department of New York City began taking delivery of 80 American LaFrance pumper trucks to replace older models in their fleet. Seventy-nine of these new firetrucks were red, the color that has been associated with fire departments from their earliest days. One, however — the pumper assigned to Engine Company 65 in Midtown Manhattan — was painted a bright yellow.
What goes through your mind when you see a yellow firetruck?
“It means it’s not ripe,” Scott Graham, public information officer for the Montgomery County fire department, told Answer Man. “It needs to sit out in the sun and turn red.”
Scott would say that, given that Montgomery’s firetrucks are red. But that isn’t the case with every fire department in the Washington area. And so, after exploring the colorful world of fire hydrants last week, this week Answer Man is exploring the colorful world of fire engines.
That yellow FDNY firetruck, and 10 more bright yellow ones that were delivered the next year, was something of an experiment. Alarmed by collisions involving fire apparatus, some safety experts suggested that it was the color of the trucks that was the problem, especially at night. Wouldn’t a color lighter than red be easier to see?
Optics and vision experts were consulted, and the result was that many U.S. fire departments dabbled in colors other than red, usually white or an eye-searing greenish yellow. Even Washington’s fire department had a few white firetrucks in the 1980s.
But as Jack Lerch, FDNY's honorary chief, wrote in an
e-mail to Answer Man: “Opponents correctly stated that the usual adult, or even a young child, when asked to describe a ‘fire engine,’ would state that it was a big red truck.”
In New York City, at least, Jack wrote, “most people had never seen a lime yellow fire engine and did not know what it was until they heard the siren and saw flashing red lights.”
No additional yellow equipment was purchased, and three of the New York trucks were repainted red. D.C.’s dalliance was similarly short-lived.
“When people see red trucks, they think firetrucks,” said Mark Tennyson, curator of the District’s Fire and EMS Museum. “Red is traditional, and the fire service usually is traditional.”
As Montgomery’s Scott Graham said, “You always go back to your roots.”
But not all fire departments have the same roots. While larger county-funded departments in our area have red trucks — or what’s known as white over red: red body with white cab — some local volunteer companies get a little friskier.
After all, they paid for the fire engine. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to customize it?
The trucks of the Riverdale Volunteer Fire Department are black on the bottom and white on the top with a gold stripe in between, and have been ever since the company was founded in 1923. “It definitely stands out,” said Chief Chuck Ryan.
The trucks of the Glenn Dale Volunteer Fire Association in Prince George’s County are a mustard yellow with a black stripe. Those of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department are white with blue stripes. The Greater Springfield Volunteer Fire Department has white equipment, too, but with red stripes.
The Walkersville Volunteer Fire Company #11 in Frederick County has trucks of a very fetching shade: a light blue that wouldn’t look out of place on a robin’s egg.
You know that firefighters are proud of their traditions and their equipment, because nearly every fire company Web site has a tab marked “Apparatus” so that people can see photos of the big toys.
The Centreville Volunteer Fire Department has trucks of the bright, greeny yellow that New York experimented with. Centreville likes that hue so much that the text on the department’s Web site is the same fluorescent color.
People still argue over which colors are more visible, but today there is no official standard for firetrucks.
“The trend is to utilize reflective striping and chevrons and emergency lighting, as opposed to depending on the color of the apparatus,” said Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Association.
There’s another reason besides tradition that most firetrucks are red, said Arlington County’s Capt. Gregg Karl.
“Our firetrucks are leased,” he told Answer Man. “At the end of the lease, when you turn them back in, it’s easier to sell a red and white truck, as opposed to white or green. People want the traditional red firetruck.”
Prince George’s is taking delivery of trucks in its new color scheme: White over red will replace white with a red stripe. “Apparently, there’s more resale value,” said Mark E. Brady, the fire department’s chief spokesman.
Whatever color it is, when a fire engine comes toward you with lights flashing and siren blaring, get out of the way.
Send your questions about the Washington area to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To enjoy previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.