NFPA 1901, Hypocrisy, and Reflective Striping

Photo by Mahlon Irish

By Bill Adams

In my opinion, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, is a consensus guideline. It is not a law. Compliance is voluntary. It is, however, a nationally recognized safety standard that has been adopted both directly and indirectly by many political subdivisions. The threat of possible legal action in the event of an “incident” involving a noncompliant apparatus coerces fire apparatus manufacturers (OEMs) and purchasers to abide by its requirements.

NFPA 1901 Section 4.21, Statement of Exceptions, allows OEMs to manufacture a noncompliant rig, provided that both the purchaser and the OEM (and possibly a local contractor such as a dealer) sign off. Sentences 4.21.1 and 4.21.2 list the sign-off particulars. It is a common practice that works to the benefit of all parties, especially when the contractor supplies ancillary accoutrements such as lettering and loose equipment as well as Section 15.9.3 required reflective striping and chevrons.

A drawback to saying “we’ll take care of it later” is that “it” might not get done, or it may not comply with NFPA 1901. In particular, I am addressing the color of rear reflective chevrons, which NFPA 1901 restricts to red alternating with either yellow, fluorescent yellow, or fluorescent yellow-green. Don’t panic. There are no NFPA Police or Chevron Cops that check for compliance when apparatus are placed in service. The OEM has been paid and is on to the next deal. In all fairness to OEMs, most will address noncompliance with a customer—up to the point where it may jeopardize the next sale.

I have nothing against rear chevrons, nor do I have a personal preference for their colors whether the NFPA’s or white and black, blue and white, yellow and black, dark green and light green, or whatever. I also have no qualms with requiring reflective striping on the sides and front of a rig. If it makes the firefighters’ work environment safer, I’m for it. 

What I do question is the lack of consistency in the level of conspicuity of striping colors on all sides of a rig. Conspicuity means how well you can see it. It should be equally visible on all four sides.

Hypocrisy is defined as being disingenuous, insincere, and having a double standard. I believe some purchasers are hypocritical when addressing reflective striping and chevrons. Some willfully disregard NFPA 1901’s requirements for rear chevron colors. Yet, they will jump up and down and demand to be provided with other NFPA-compliant equipment because “they have to meet the standards.” They are hypocrites—period, end of discussion. Esprit de corps, tradition, and company pride are not justifiable reasons to disregard a safety standard you personally don’t like and only follow the parts of it you do like. That’s just wrong. 

I believe the NFPA can also be hypocritical. Disclaimer: My opinion is not based on “not getting my way” as admitted to below. It is an assertion based on principle: a belief in “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The NFPA has a public process whereby changes, additions, deletions, and modifications to its standards can be initiated. NFPA 1901, pages 12/14-A through 12/14-C explain it in detail. It works; I’ve used it before. Public input, comments, and NFPA committee reports are all public information. I submitted several changes in 2013 that were rejected. I acknowledge the NFPA’s decision but do not agree with it. Because reflective striping and colors have been and continue to be contentious topics in some circles, I feel they should be addressed in a more open forum. 

Striping and Graphic Colors
Whether reflective striping is required is not an issue. Nor are the colors of the rear chevrons. Whether fire departments specify individualized graphics on the side of their rigs isn’t either. I call graphics any lettering, striping, logos, or designs that are not required by NFPA 1901. The NFPA mandated specific colors for rear chevrons because they are supposedly the safest. I believe the same degree of safety be provided on all sides of a rig. All NFPA-required side and front striping should meet the same color criteria as the rear chevrons. If a fire department wants an individualized graphic on the side of its rigs, so be it. Let it do the graphic in any color it wants. Individualized graphics should not be part of required “safety” striping.

Under Public Input No. 220-NFPA 1901-2013 [Section No.], I suggested deleting: “A graphic design shall be permitted to replace all or part of the striping material if the design or combination thereof covers at least the same perimeter length(s) required by….” I suggested adding that the NFPA requires that “Stripe(s) shall be either red, yellow, fluorescent yellow, fluorescent yellow-green, or any combination thereof.” These are the colors NFPA 1901 recognizes for rear chevrons. I also suggested adding in the appendix: “A15. Graphic designs in addition to the striping required in 15.9.3 may be in any color.”

The exact substantiation for my suggested changes includes: 

  • When responding, placed in a fend-off position, or parked at the scene of an incident, either side, the front, or the rear of an apparatus may be subjected to oncoming traffic.
  • Each side, the front, and rear should be afforded the same level of conspicuity, at the least, in the coloring of striping.
  • The NFPA has identified red, yellow, fluorescent yellow, or fluorescent yellow-green as the only acceptable conspicuous colors for rear reflective striping, and as such, those colors should be standardized as the only ones acceptable on the front and both sides. 
  • Graphic designs should not be considered part of the 15.9.3 Reflective Striping. The scope, design, and coloring schemes of graphic designs should be at the discretion of the individual authority having jurisdiction and not the NFPA.

The NFPA’s response to my input was: “Resolution: Any reflective graphic design can be just as conspicuous as a stripe. No need to specify colors.”

My response is that I think the NFPA’s answer is hypocritical. If there’s no need to require specific colors on the front and sides of a rig, then there should be no need to require specific colors on the back of a rig. After all, the NFPA says a reflective design, regardless of color, can be just as conspicuous as a stripe. As long as the colors of rear chevrons alternate, what difference does it make? What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. What’s your opinion?

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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