FA Viewpoints: Warning Lights too Bright?

To start off the year, we asked Bill Adams (left) and Ricky Riley (right) about one of 2019’s hottest topics: warning light brightness. Opinions varied on whether or not warning lights on fire apparatus are too bright and were spawned by discussions at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regarding adding dimmable warning lights to NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. See how Adams and Riley answered the question: Are the warning lights on fire apparatus too bright?


Conduct Testing on Motorists to Find Answer

Bill Adams

Asking if the warning lights on fire apparatus are too bright is no different than asking if a glass of water is half full or half empty. There is no provable answer to either question. The correctness of an answer would be in the eyes of the beholder. The question itself is deceptive because it can incite answers that knowingly will, or can be, challenged. Perhaps that is the reason the editor asked it.

The following discussion does not reference chapter and verse from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, or any regulatory standard. Scientific data, written substantiation, and results of quantifiable testing are not provided. Technical terminology such as candela-seconds/minute, optical power requirements, goniometer, and photometrics are also excluded. Personal opinion, conjecture, and common sense are included.

The original question could be narrowly defined and perhaps even amplified. Examples: Are the warning lights so bright they cause discomfort? Are they distracting? Do they cause motorists to squint or shield their eyes? Do drivers have to turn their heads away from them?

Responses to such questions are not scientifically provable. They reflect personal opinions. However, they do represent real-life circumstances that could be contributing factors in causing accidents.

ANSWERS

Answers can be objective or subjective. An objective answer to the question could be considered impartial when there is no personal bias for or against warning lights on fire trucks. The people being questioned should not be in the fire service. Nor should they be employed by, or associated with, a warning light or fire apparatus manufacturer or dealer. They should have no skin in the game.

A subjective answer is one that is, or has been, slanted or prejudiced toward an outcome. Subjectivity can be caused by choosing the people to be questioned based on their backgrounds and associations such as the fire service or fire equipment industry. The same can apply to the people asking the questions. Politely saying, if the answer is what the questioner wanted, then it is a “correct” answer. That could result in a skewed outcome and perhaps an increase in warning light sales or possibly an unnecessary change in a regulatory standard—a crass but possibly true statement.

Another reason for a biased answer could be the enthusiasm and motivation of those who I refer to—without animosity—as the “safety gurus.” Their primary objective is the care, security, and well-being of firefighters. Sometimes passion and an overzealous commitment to “their cause” can overwhelm common sense. The result could be rash emotional decisions without close examination of factual data or due regard for cost.

WHAT IS TOO BRIGHT?

The word bright has multiple meanings—mostly they are good. Saying the moon is bright tonight should not be a problem. Saying it is so bright inside this room a light does not have to be turned on to read is not a bad thing. One dictionary defines bright as brilliant, intense, and dazzling. Standing alone, they aren’t necessarily derogatory descriptions.

However, saying the warning light on the approaching fire truck is so brilliant it is distracting is cause for concern. It is not a good thing if a warning light is so intense it forces motorists to shield their eyes or turn their heads away. Likewise is saying the light is so bright it is confusing. Then, brightness is inherently dangerous. A bright warning light that causes optical pain or distraction to motorists can cause an accident.

WRONG PEOPLE TO ASK?

Firefighters and people associated with the fire equipment industry are not the people who should be questioned. Nor should they be the ones to do the questioning about the brightness of a warning light. There is too much of a tendency to be biased.

I believe there should be an independent nonfire service entity that conducts testing (or experiments) on the motorists in the general public. Testing should be conducted on all ages of drivers from the youngest to the oldest. It should be done during the day and at night in both clear and inclement weather conditions—rain and snow. And, it should be done in different locales.

Each type of warning light (halogen, LED, incandescent) should be evaluated during the testing. Light locations on the apparatus should be predetermined and remain consistent throughout the testing processes.

One test should be when a motorist approaches a scene where a fire apparatus is in a blocking-the-right-of-way mode. Another is when an apparatus is calling for the right-of-way mode when approaching an oncoming motorist on a two-lane road. Another could be when the apparatus is calling for the right-of-way mode and is coming up behind a motorist.

OPINIONS AND REACTIONS

A key point to remember is the citizen motorists being quizzed are being asked for their opinions and how they react to the “brightness” of certain warning lights under various conditions. What is distracting? What causes a driver to turn away? What is confusing?

Questioning could be expanded to ask drivers if they know what the warning lights mean to them. Does it mean to stop, or yield the right-of-way, or be careful because there’s something really big in front of them and it’s not moving?

The data, albeit personal opinions all, should be consolidated and evaluated and given to both the fire service and the warning light industry with the charge of: “Here’s how motorists throughout the country react to the brightness of various warning lights. Use your knowledge, skills, and experience to lessen the problem or make it go away.”

There is no animosity toward the people who manufacturer and market warning lights. Nor is there any toward the safety gurus. I am sure all concerned strive to make driving fire apparatus as safe as possible for firefighters as well as the civilian motorists they share the roadways with. Users and makers of warning lights and the regulatory entities might be better served in their quest for safety if they find out how the “regular” motorists perceive and react to the brightness of various warning lights before the fire service and industry mandate it.

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.


Study the Real Reason for Accidents at the Scene

Our editor, Chris Mc Loone, has decided to start 2020 off with a question that has been swirling around for a time about warning light brightness. The murmurs that come from National Fire Protection Association meetings and some columnists who have commented on those meetings have started a larger discussion in the industry about the advancement of warning lights on fire apparatus, ambulances, and support vehicles. You can go to about any trade show and be dazzled by the amount of lights going off from an array of emergency light manufacturers and displays of apparatus outfitted with a plethora of lighting—all drawing attention to their booth or their apparatus, which is one of the main jobs of emergency lighting: to get your attention.

This question now being asked is, Is there too much attention being paid to emergency lighting, and is the lighting contributing to secondary accidents and accidents with emergency vehicles?

LIGHTING EVOLUTION

In the past, apparatus was outfitted with nonLED lighting and was just a bulb or bulbs using reflection from mirrors or speed patterns to attract attention to the apparatus. Our next move was to go to strobe lights, which was certainly a step above bulbs. And, it also helped reduce the strain on the electrical systems on apparatus. But, one of the issues with strobes was their effectiveness during the daylight hours. So, a combination of bulbs and strobes became the standard to help draw attention to our apparatus as they traveled through the streets and while parked at incident scenes. During this time, and I know it is hard to believe for some of our younger firefighters, there were no cell phones. And if there was a cell phone, the bag that it came with was larger than the actual phone. This lack of cell phones created a lack of distractions, but we will talk about that soon enough.

The lighting companies then had a breakthrough with LED technology. This compact, powerful, and reliable lighting solution provided high lumens with a small strain on fire apparatus electrical systems. This allowed for more lighting to be added to apparatus, thus increasing visibility for the apparatus. As this technology kept getting better, the lumens and the angle of the delivery of the light highly increased the way units are seen at emergency scenes.

INCREASED ACCIDENTS

During this period, occurrences of apparatus accidents have also increased, with a high number of these accidents occurring while parked at the scene on roadways and highways. Departments across the country are struggling with these deadly and costly accidents. In response to these accidents, we have tried to increase our visibility at incident scenes but with no reduction of these accidents even with the increased lumens, flash patterns, and different colored lights. We are still looking for answers to this problem.

The suggestion that our emergency lights are too bright and are affecting drivers adversely, thus making them crash into our apparatus and personnel, is a new trend. In my current position, I get to see apparatus from many manufacturers and many, many different light configurations. These rigs also have lighting systems of various ages. These rigs are tasked with running some of the busiest highways and experience some of the worst traffic in the country. Their lighting systems are what assist in keeping members protected while operating on the scene of these roads and highways. The vast difference of seeing apparatus with an aged and outdated lighting system compared to a rig that is using the latest technology and lumens is easily distinguishable on scenes—so much that after seeing some of these outdated apparatus on incident scenes, getting those rigs updated with new LED lighting is a priority as a safety concern.

It does not take any kind of science or study for any of us to know that drivers today are some of the most distracted drivers to date. I believe the real cause of this increased number of accidents, injuries, and deaths is our inability to not answer a text, surf the Internet, or talk on the phone while driving. Add the impaired driver from any number of substances and alcohol, and the chances of these accidents only increase.

MORE STUDY

The emergency lighting on our apparatus needs to draw attention to the rigs and the incident scene. Coupling the emergency lighting with the vast improvements of scene lighting, this should provide the scene with visual stimulation to help protect us while on the scene and provide lighting to allow us to not do our jobs in the dark.

I do not believe that there have been enough studies into the real reason that we keep having these types of accidents while sitting on the scenes. The data for the cause of these accidents, charges placed on the at-fault driver, and circumstances leading up to the accident are not cataloged from across the country. These data are what need to be researched because being able to be seen on the incident scene day or night is crucial to our on-scene safety. Future studies on lighting will need to be conducted in a real-world environment and in varied types of highways and topography. The lighting requirements for departments in the urban setting, suburban setting, and rural setting all vary. A standard set for all of them across the board will probably adversely affect all of them. They all have different needs for emergency lighting and on-scene lighting based on their geographic setting. One possible idea would be that with this enhanced technology and the diminished size of the lights without a loss of lumens, maybe departments should consider not placing AS many lights on the apparatus wherever there is a space. This might help reduce some of the concern about too bright lighting.

Emergency lighting is designed to bring attention to the apparatus and the scene. And, I applaud the lighting companies that are working to ensure firefighters’ on-scene safety through their products.

I look forward to another year of Viewpoints with Bill Adams and our moderator Chris Mc Loone.

RICKY RILEY is the president of Traditions Training, LLC. He previously served as the operations chief for Clearwater (FL) Fire & Rescue and as a firefighter for Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue. He also currently serves as a firefighter with the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment>Editorial Advisory Board.

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