Cantankerous Wisdom: Garbage Trucks and Fire Trucks

By Bill Adams

The Raisin Squad consists of us older folks—the white hairs, geezers, seasoned citizens, and past-their-prime players in the fire service. We have an inherent tendency to latch onto a topic and not let it go. It is no different than trying to take a bone away from a hungry dog.

Some Squad members are staunch believers of using large-sized “high and slow” flashing lights on fire apparatus when in the Blocking the Right-of-Way mode. We preach about the effectiveness and “nationwide acceptance” of large high and slow flashing lights on school buses as well as similar sized alternating flashing lights at railroad crossings. Of course, we have zero scientific data or substantiating testing results to prove the theory. Our presumption is most motorists think like us and if they don’t, they should.

Because of COVID-19, the Squad is still banned from morning coffee at the fire station, and it’s too damn cold to sit outside and have a cup. So, early mornings I’ve been sitting in the house looking out the window like a typical nosey neighbor. Early on trash pick-up day last week, I watched the refuse trucks (aka packers and garbage trucks) plying the neighborhood.

Aha! They all had slow flashing amber lights on the back. Now think about it—how often do you read about motorists crashing into the back of parked garbage trucks? Those trucks are on the road day and night. They stop at every residence and commercial business. They are not getting rammed with any degree of regularity. Why? My conjecture is the motoring public is acclimated to avoid driving into large stopped vehicles displaying amber flashing lights.

The various refuse companies had unique lighting configurations. All their trucks had lights in the rear upper and lower corners. One pattern had all four flash at once. Another had the high left and lower right alternate flash with the high right and lower left lights. Yet another had both on the left side alternate flash with both on the right side. It appeared they flashed at no more than 60 flashes per minute. Some had halogen lights, and one had LEDs—but not real “bright” ones. The point is all lights were amber, they flashed slowly, they weren’t blinding, and they outlined the size of the vehicle. If it works for garbage trucks, why can’t it work for fire trucks?

Amber Only?
National Fire Protection Association 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, allows amber lights in all zones when in the blocking the right-of-way mode. When responding (calling for the right of way), amber can be used in any zone except forward facing. Remember, it says “allows” and “can be”—not that they have to be.

My biased opinion is amber should only be used when parked. Public perception is—again in my opinion—that amber flashing means there’s something real big in front of you that is not moving. I also believe the lights should not be distracting or cause discomfort to the eyeballs. They ought to be slow flashing. Make it simple. Save the fast-moving, twirling, rotating, oscillating, throbbing, spinning, pulsing, gyrating, or “intense” lights for responding.

One concern for using rear amber lights when responding is motorists behind the rig might not differentiate a directional light from a warning light. It could be tragic if a motorist doesn’t realize the apparatus is turning or changing lanes in front of him.

There’s a trend for younger firefighters (usually those younger than 40 years of age) to have many, high tech, bright, and fast moving warning lights of multiple colors whenever a rig leaves the barn. That’s an argument for a later day as well as keeping the red, blue and white lights or combinations thereof also just for responding only. When a rig has stopped, the warning lights should make the public aware it has stopped.

The Law
It might be advisable for purchasers to check state and federal rules and regulations on WHEN a fire truck has to display a warning light or lights. When parked on a public highway and NOT blocking the right of way, does a rig have to display warning lights? Is the law applicable when a rig is actively working an emergency scene regardless of blocking a public highway?

Does the law mandate any parked fire truck must be identified as a fire truck? Are the legal requirements the same for being stopped as they are for responding?

Protect the Troops
When a rig is responding, firefighters are relatively protected inside the cab. When working an emergency scene, firefighters are not protected by the cab. They could become unintended targets for inattentive or impaired motorists.

Perhaps additional “area-specific” scene lighting at night might be beneficial when parked on roadways. It is very common for highway crews doing road repairs at night to use elevated light towers with scene lighting pointing straight down, illuminating a given work area and sometimes even just a limited area. If it works for highway workers at night, why can’t it work for fire trucks at night? Maybe the DOT and garbage truck operators are on to something.

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.

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