Lighting Options to Consider on Your Next Apparatus

Most apparatus on the road today has some form of scene lighting in addition to its required emergency warning lighting. The scene lighting ranges from truck-mounted “quartz” lights, to portable scene lighting powered by portable cord reels or reels mounted to the truck, to light towers attached to the top of the truck. Although “air and light” trucks still exist, most new rigs have their own lighting that accomplishes the same task. “Departments, in general, are using a lot more scene lighting,” says Roger Weinmeister, president, Command Light. “Where there used to be only specialty lighting vehicles, now a vast majority of rescues have lighting towers, well over a quarter of engines have lighting towers, and many battalion chief vehicles have towers.”

Market Demand

In terms of scene lighting and emergency warning lights, fire departments are asking for more light with less power. Also important to departments and a critical factor in deciding what type of scene lighting to go with is long-term reliability. Additionally, according to James Neils, CEO of VENTRY Solutions, customers are demanding portable lighting, not just apparatus lighting. “They need to illuminate behind the house, under the bridge, down the embankment, away from the road, and so on,” he says. “They need scene lighting that can be removed from the truck and transported to the scene when the scene is not accessible to truck-based lighting. That same lighting can be used at the truck, if desired, but has that extra functionality.”

Peter Lauffenburger, global product manager, Akron Brass Company, adds that departments want high-visibility and trouble-free lights as well as anything that can allow for a safer fireground or accident scene.

Marlin Nicol, commercial sales director at the Will-Burt Company, notes that departments are asking for more lights; better lights; and lights that illuminate scenes better, take up less space on the truck, and consume less power.


When choosing the type of lighting to use on your apparatus, there are two types to consider: traditional and LED.

Scene lighting is important for a lot of reasons. Safety is the most important. Lighting the way so firefighters don’t trip and injure themselves will save on lost time and workers’ compensation claims. Then there’s the practical aspect of lighting up the scene, inside and out, at night. Many firefighters were told early on to look for the lights on vehicles outside if they become lost or disoriented inside a building. So, the benefits of lighting the scene are obvious. “Scene lighting can greatly improve your efficiency on scene by reducing shadows, showing hazardous areas, and helping motorists see emergency personnel,” says Weinmeister. “Greater light levels and lighting coming from different vehicles further improve safety and efficiency. It is important to have lighting that is quick and easy to position so it gets used early and often.”

In terms of scene lighting, LEDs are the “latest and greatest,” according to Neils. “They are solid state, so they don’t burn out,” he says. “The LED bulbs in our LED lights are rated at 50,000 hours, which is 5.7 years of continuous use. LEDs use a lot less energy, which leaves more power available from the generator to run other tools.”

So far the drawback to LEDs is cost. “They are three to four times the cost of quartz halogen lighting and 1.5 to two times the cost of metal halide,” says Weinmeister.

“For all the advances LED has made, halogen fixtures still continue to provide the best value, but most customers aren’t interested in considering halogen as an option because they perceive LED as the superior solution,” says Cameron Blain, R•O•M Corporation lighting solutions product manager. “Simply put, you can purchase 1.8 halogen fixtures and replacement bulbs for every one LED fixture.”

Neils adds, “LED technology is slowly coming down in price and going up in output.” His company offers a light that emits 20,000 lumens yet uses 240 W. “This is comparable to our most efficient halogen at 25,000 lumens and 650 W,” he says.

Lauffenburger says, “Because they are a newer technology, costs haven’t come down to the level of the halogen or incandescent technology that has been around for years.” He points out that the big advantage for traditional light technology is cost.

LED vs. Traditional Lighting

Jack McLaughlin, president of Fire Research Corporation, puts the differences between LED and traditional lighting in simple terms. “Traditional lighting is lower cost. LEDs are higher cost. Traditional lighting has higher power requirements. LEDs have lower power requirements. Traditional lights can burn out in less than 100-200 hours. LEDs are rated for 50,000 hours,” he says.

Lauffenburger says, “LED light advantages are that they provide typically brighter light, less current draw, less maintenance, light with more natural color that is far brighter than other light technologies, and instant on/off with high-power scene lights.”

Blain says LEDs can operate using 12-volt power vs. generator power, creating potential cost savings for a department if its only reason for purchasing a generator is to power scene lights. Aside from the generator savings, there are no lamps or bulbs to change over the life of the truck, and the instant-on capability is faster than the 20-second warmup time of similar 12-volt high-intensity-discharge fixtures.

He adds that while LED warning lights have helped decrease the amount of electrical load put on the truck, one would think the same would hold true for LED scene lights. However, he states, “The fixtures that are most popular with departments today all require 12 amps or more to operate.” So, for example, a truck with four to six fixtures installed would place a minimum of 48 to 72 amps on the electrical system. “This should be carefully discussed with the truck builder during preconstruction, making sure to take into consideration line loss,” he says. “To ensure the maximum amount of current reaches the fixture, we recommend using 10-AWG wire for runs up to 20 feet and eight AWG for runs over 20 feet.”

Weinmeister adds, “LEDs that use DC power to produce high output levels require large-diameter wires to carry the current. LEDs that use AC power use less current than similar lighting fixtures.”

According to Lauffenburger, LEDs are typically rated for 30,000 to 50,000 hours of continuous service, which makes them good for the life of the truck. McLaughlin concurs. “You hear the number 50,000 hours bantered around-no fire truck will ever see that,” he asserts. “So they put a light on it and it’s good for the life of the fire truck.”

As for traditional lights, Neils says they are extremely efficient and less expensive and bulb life is quite good. “We’ve had no problems with bulb life,” he says. “Our customers purchase backup bulbs just in case, but reports of burned out bulbs have been almost nonexistent in seven years of selling them.”

Nicol states that with 12-V LEDs, there will be a voltage drop. “You may have to pay attention to how far your lights are from your battery source,” he says. “If you’re running 20 or 30 feet from your battery, you’re going to lose a couple of volts. If you get below the threshold, they won’t work.” Overall, though, Nicol cites the longevity of the lights as the most important factor of LEDs lights. “The odds are that the LEDs will last longer than the fire truck, so you won’t have to replace the bulbs,” he says.


As stated, there are wiring considerations when using LED lights depending on whether a department plans to use DC or AC power to run them. This also comes into play if a department wants to retrofit existing apparatus with LED lights. “LED lighting typically consumes much less power,” says Lauffenburger. “The existing wiring can typically be used without any need for upgrading unless you are replacing a light being powered by AC voltage with a light powered by DC voltage.”

Weinmeister concurs. “Retrofitting vehicles with LED lighting is relatively easy,” he says. “Departments have to watch the wire size to make sure they can get the full amperage to the light head and make sure they have the alternator capacity to provide the power.”

How to Decide

Lauffenbuger says there are many good options available today that will provide superior light output and are far superior to technology of the past. “Customers looking at any lighting should request a demonstration and evaluate the light in their specific application and operating conditions to make sure it will perform as they expect it to.”

Blain advises departments not to make a purchase based solely on the amount of lumens/wattage advertised. “Both values are not good predictors of how a fixture will perform in the field,” he says. “Look for independent, verified data from an independent photometric lab on how much usable light a fixture actually provides.” He goes on to say that departments should realize that other variables like fixture design, cooling efficiency, and lens color play major roles in how much usable light is actually provided by a fixture. “Conduct your own independent, side-by-side test at night,” he suggests. “If that’s not possible, make use of comparison tools that eliminate the guesswork from the equation and use concrete and verifiable approaches to showing how much usable light is produced.”

Nicol says Will-Burt emphasizes the importance of having scene lighting, whether it is provided by quartz halogen lights or LEDs. “We’re finding more and more that when departments get one light tower, they see how valuable it is, and they put them on all their apparatus,” he says. “That’s our real message. The fire service is about safety, and the most important thing you need when you’re out there at night is proper illumination. You can’t use the training you put your people through if you can’t see properly.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

Warning Lights Also Offer Options

Scene lighting isn’t the only area that has enjoyed the benefits of LEDs. Patrick Hester, OEM manager, Code 3, says that over the past several years, the quality and performance of LED warning lights have improved. “The first introduction of this technology in the warning industry had a very direct focus with little off-axis performance,” he says. “These LEDs would be classified as Generation 1.” He adds that today, most of the lighting manufacturers are using a Generation 3 type of LED. “With reflectors and prescription lenses, these lights now have performance improvements that provide wider beam spreads and greater output.”

Hester sees nothing but an upside for LEDs in warning lights. “LED warning lights have little in terms of a downside,” he says. “The initial cost may appear to be higher, but they are projected to last 100,000 hours before they would fail. Halogen and strobe warning lights are likely to fail in a shorter time.” He adds that strobes carry with them the additional cost of a power supply to control the flash rates and require a three-wire control wire in their installations. “Halogen lights use a filament that is likely to break with potholes and aggressive bumps in the roadway,” he states.

Conversely, he says, LED lights do not have these requirements or shortcomings. “Two wires for the installation,” he says, “and no filament that will break.”

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