Form vs. Function

By Richard Marinucci

The most basic fire engine function is delivering water. As the fire service has expanded its role and discovered better ways to deliver service, the fire engine, or pumper as it is called in some parts, does more than take water from a source and deliver it to the fire.

Engines carry special rescue equipment, ground ladders, and forcible entry tools that provide some rudimentary truck company functions and other items that support overall fire department operations such as generators and lights.

Since the fire engine basics are essentially the same, it begs the question-why are there so many different looks to these pieces? Obviously manufacturers have their own “architectures” and designs that help identify their products. Chassis manufacturers, whether commercial or custom, also contribute to styling differences-either because of the basics of the chassis or the chassis’ impact on fire truck manufacturers’ ability to design the final apparatus.


Obviously the most important things for a fire engine are to be able to provide the core services along with any other ancillary requirements. Overwhelmingly they do, and fire departments get the service they desire and the engine remains a workhorse. Yet many departments also consider the look of their apparatus as important. The appearance of the fire engine has some intangible benefits to a fire department. If this were not the case, manufacturers could stamp out clones and push out more vehicles.

The look of fire apparatus is as much about personal taste as anything else. Everyone has an opinion of what the truck should look like and their own preferences. This is not unusual. Automobiles are different looking, and buyers often consider styling as much as or more than functionality. The selection of fire trucks is not much different, although there isn’t as much variety or as many options. There are only so many ways you can design an engine.

Paint Scheme

One of the most interesting discussions regarding fire trucks is about color and color scheme. Since the beginning of the fire service in this country, red has always been identified as the color of a fire truck. Almost all children’s books confirm this! But approximately 30 to 40 years ago, lime green was introduced in the interest of safety. The color was promoted as easier to see and helpful in preventing crashes. This pitted traditionalists against those who considered themselves more progressive. Lately this debate has not been as high-profile as it was, although there are still occasions where the debate continues.

Regardless, it opened up more discussion regarding the color of fire apparatus. Today you can see many different colors of fire trucks, some very nontraditional. They can be black, blue, orange, green, yellow, or some other variation. Some informal conversations I have had with some department personnel revealed that the reasons vary from a departmental tradition, to a desire to be unique, to a fire chief’s preference. There are probably more reasons. Some have said that they want to copy another department that they admire.

Besides the color itself, there are color combination choices-white over red, black over red, and so on-and reflective material that offer a lot of options. Even on the back of the vehicle, where National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards require reflective material, departments adjust the design to their tastes while complying with the standard. Other markings promote branding and style. There are many ways to affix reflective tape, and departments are taking the opportunity to show off their creativity and individuality. Some select a more modern design while others retain some sense of tradition. Either way makes no difference and allows for creative expression.


Although many truck components allow for little change in form, there are some things departments do to dress up their appearance. It can be with the wheels and tires or even the exhaust system. Again, this is often personal preference but may be subject to budgetary constraints or possibly political issues. Vehicles that appear too showy could be considered a waste of taxpayer funds and subject an organization to excessive scrutiny. There is a fine line between looking good and going too far. It is important for the fire chief and organization to know the limits and respect them.

Fire Truck Definitions

To some, a fire truck is a fire truck. As long as it is reliable, carries the right equipment, and delivers the water to the fire, it is a good piece. For others, the apparatus can be a significant point of pride and identity. It can help establish the brand and help with marketing and public relations. There is no doubt that the appearance of a fire engine is important to many, and that is a good thing. It sends a message to the members of the organization and to the public being protected by it.

Some people believe that there is no need for anything more than a basic-looking fire truck. But, others will argue that the pride that can be generated in an organization can help in many ways. The benefits are not easily measured or quantifiable, but those with experience can attest to the value. Those most proud of their vehicles are likely to treat them better and make sure they are maintained in peak condition. The pride can also extend to the public, as long as the vehicle is not over the top, which can generate more support for the emergency service. And don’t forget the children. Good-looking, shiny trucks really impress them and, hence, their parents.


Pride in vehicles can translate into pride in everything. Those organizations that pursue excellence know that it requires all components of the system to pursue excellence. Having and maintaining vehicles that look good can instill better discipline and camaraderie throughout a department, which can translate into improved teamwork and a culture that works toward continual service improvement. Although you can’t always judge a book by its cover and appearances are somewhat superficial, there is a correlation between performance and the pride that people have in their organizations. If dressing up a fire engine improves morale and doesn’t appear overdone, there is some benefit to the department.

The beauty of a fire engine certainly is in the eye of the beholder. So many things can contribute to the overall appearance including the color or color combinations and various external components. Firefighters of all ranks prefer to ride around in something that looks good. Having pride in their apparatus is a good thing and has some effect on performance. Working in good surroundings with good-looking equipment helps motivate personnel to maintain the trucks and sends a message that their performance should match.

It may not seem like a big thing and it probably isn’t. But sometimes little things distinguish really good organizations from the great ones. Know where the line is between having a good-looking truck and overdoing it, and get something that will make the organization and community proud.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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