By Robert Tutterow
During a conversation at the 2013 Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), the subject of chevrons on the rear of fire apparatus came up. It remains a controversial and often misunderstood subject in the fire service. Through observations at FDIC, periodicals, news reports, and personal observations during my travels, I have noticed there are several units that are not compliant with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, especially as it relates to the colors. Somehow, there are departments that have managed to choose their own colors to match the overall paint scheme of the apparatus. Are the manufacturers doing this? If so, are they receiving a written liability waiver from the fire department? Or, is the manufacturer allowing the fire department to add chevrons after delivery?
Color Not an Option
NFPA 1901 standard started requiring chevron striping for all apparatus contracted on or after January 1, 2009. There is no requirement to retrofit apparatus contracted before that date. In addition, ambulances have the same requirement for all units contracted on or after January 1 of this year according to NFPA 1917, Standard for Automotive Ambulances.
The standard does not allow fire departments to choose their own colors. That seems to be the part of the requirement that causes the most controversy and misunderstanding. It was a subject that received a lot of discussion within the NFPA technical committee when the requirement was originally proposed. Letting fire departments choose their own color would have been an easy decision. However, the technical committee was also aware that a lot of work was being done to make emergency responders safer while working highway incidents. I have written before in this column, and still believe, that the “roadway” is the most dangerous environment in which today’s fire service now works.
The technical committee discussion led to overall incident traffic management. It became familiar with a document called the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” (MUTCD) that defines the standards used by road managers nationwide to install and maintain traffic control devices on all public streets, highways, bikeways, and private roads open to public traffic. The MUTCD is published by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) under 23 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 655, Subpart F. Part 6 of the MUTCD is an entire section on “Temporary Traffic Control.” As the committee reviewed this section of the MUTCD it became apparent that the chevron striping was a form of supplemental highway signage.
Therefore, it seemed the proper language should specify the colors rather than leave it up to the buyer. For example, what if highway signage (especially warning signs) was left up to each individual jurisdiction? It is a good thing there is a standard shape and color for a stop sign and that a traffic signal has three colors-red, yellow, and green-with red at the top and green at the bottom. Imagine traveling around this country if every fire district chose the size, shape, and colors for its stop signs. Think about the last road trip you took. How many fire districts did you cross? As I write this column, I have just completed a two-hour road trip and I know I traveled through 25 to 30 different fire response districts.
I was amused when I read about a fire chief who said he wanted his chevrons to match the color of his apparatus (not red) because the people in his community were familiar with that color of apparatus. OK-I suppose that the only people that travel the roads of his community live in the community. With this background, the committee took a standardized safety position and specified that the chevrons shall be red and yellow.
Red and yellow were selected because they were the most conspicuous in all lighting conditions. Many people think the chevron striping is only beneficial during night time and believed that white and red would be a better requirement and would look better on red fire apparatus. However, daytime visibility is also an issue. During the committee’s chevron debate, a photo was shown of two fire apparatus operating on a stretch of interstate highway. The photo was taken from an overhead bridge some distance from the incident scene. This forward-thinking department, the Plano (TX) Fire Department, had already put red and yellow chevrons on its apparatus. The red and yellow were very conspicuous against a “sea of concrete.” It was obvious that white and red would not have been nearly as conspicuous, with white being almost non-visible.
Yes, there is a liability issue. If a fire apparatus contracted on or after January 1, 2009 has different colors, someone is taking on tremendous liability. Using a different color requires one of two things:
- The fire chief or responsible party for the fire department has signed a waiver releasing the manufacturer from any liability if there is an incident involving someone rearending the apparatus.
- The manufacturer has consciously made an apparatus that is noncompliant to a safety requirement of NFPA 1901-something no reputable manufacturer would ever do.
How does a fire department-i.e., fire chief-defend this decision? Yes, NFPA standards are voluntary. But, they are the recognized standard in the United States judiciary system. Also, a different color combination does not meet the intent of the standard. Will chevrons prevent someone from rearending an apparatus? No. However, they will reduce the number of occurrences. And by having the required color chevrons, your department has provided a warning to the motoring public in a manner that is consistent with nationally recognized standards. Red and yellow chevron striping is not about pretty. It’s about emergency responder safety. What’s your priority?
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).