keeping it safe Robert Tutterow
In June 2019, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association’s (CVVFA) Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI) published a study report titled, Fire Apparatus Emergency Lighting.
The report provides compelling evidence and public input on the next revisions of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, and NFPA 1906, Standard for Wildland Fire Apparatus, in stating that emergency lights are too bright during nighttime, especially once the apparatus is parked at the scene.
First, a war story. When I was a safety officer, I responded to a serious multivehicle accident on a very busy urban interstate highway. As soon as I exited my vehicle and started walking up to the scene, a motorist stopped and came running up to me. He had just passed the incident scene while traveling in the opposite direction. He exited the interstate at the next offramp and came back to the scene to lodge a complaint about the warning lights of the units on the scene blinding oncoming traffic. I immediately went to the other side of the scene and saw exactly what he was complaining about. I quickly notified the incident commander, and the lights that were blinding were shut down. Keep in mind this happened about 25 years ago before the emergence of brighter, faster flashing LED lights and drivers distracted by their electronic devices. When I mentioned this incident a few days later to a group of firefighters, one of the responses was something like, “If we blind them, they will slow down or stop instead of whizzing by at high rate of speed.” OK, and the faster you go through an intersection, the less your exposure time of getting hit or hitting another vehicle or pedestrian. Go figure.
The incidents of emergency response personnel and fire apparatus being struck while operating on the scene are well known. What is not known is how many of these (especially at nighttime) were caused by drivers being blinded by emergency lights. Many studies indicate that this has become a big problem.
The current minimum NFPA lighting requirements were developed for the 1996 revision—23 years ago. As I read the report, it was a walk down memory lane for me. The 1996 requirements were based on some actual demonstrations outside Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, during FDIC in 1993. A “conspicuity subtask group” had been established within the “apparatus safety task group,” which I chaired. Being an observer in this demonstration added special meaning to me when I read the report, which includes a lot of the history behind apparatus warning lights.
The requirements were based, in part, on emergency vehicle alternator electrical load capacity. Since those requirements were set, LED lights have emerged. They are much brighter, can flash at higher rates, and have very little electrical draw compared to older lighting systems. The principle of “the more, the better” naturally set in. Almost all lighting packages on today’s apparatus far exceed the minimum requirements.
There are interesting findings in the report. For example, it was noted that the current bright lights work just fine for daylight responses. As stated earlier, the problem is during nighttime, especially when the apparatus is parked on scene. There is a distinct difference in lighting between day and night. A fireworks show is certainly more spectacular at night than in daytime … duh! There are multiple other studies referenced in the study. One noted that the rapid flashing bright lights have a negative mental impact on firefighters working on the scene. Studies show that the lights slow down the decision-making process and add to the chaos of an emergency scene. Another study from the Massachusetts State Police showed that it had eight incidents of its vehicles being struck in the rear while parked along the roadside. One resulted in a fatality. It retrofitted more than 1,000 vehicles with a different lighting package that reduced the intensity and flash rate of warning lights while parked roadside. The number of incidents of their vehicle being struck was reduced “dramatically.”
Some of the report’s recommendations include adjustable lighting intensity for daytime and nighttime conditions and having lights be automatically adjustable based on ambient lighting conditions; to look at slowing the flash rates for nighttime on-scene incidents, perhaps with the lights not going completely off but reducing to a glow before flashing; and to differentiate lighting between responding and stationary vehicles.
Whether or not emergency lighting requirements are revised in the next revision of 1901 or not, it is important to know that if you are currently specifying a new apparatus or want to retrofit an existing apparatus, you don’t need to wait for the next revision. Most all the lighting manufacturers and apparatus manufacturers are familiar with the problem and can follow the report’s recommendations. Most importantly, do you want to operate on a scene where you are blinding oncoming traffic?
A special thanks to CVVFA’s ESRI for writing this report. A special acknowledgment goes to Tom Stalnaker, a tireless contributor to the apparatus standards development, who wrote the report.
On a final note, I still think the Roto-Ray is an iconic and effective warning light for fire apparatus.
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 41-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 Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).