Scene Lighting: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Xenon HID spotlights from Havis-Shields can be mounted on a ladder truck for greater scene lighting convenience.
Xenon HID spotlights from Havis-Shields can be mounted on a ladder truck for greater scene lighting convenience. (Havis-Shields Photo)
Command Light's 120 VAC HID Light Tower
Command Light’s 120 VAC HID Light Tower on a Glendale, Ariz., hazmat response vehicle. (Command Light Photo)
Pelican's latest portable LED lighting system, the 9470, is easily wheeled around emergency scenes.
Pelican’s latest portable LED lighting system, the 9470, is easily wheeled around emergency scenes.
FRC's new flat-mount LED light
FRC’s new flat-mount LED light does not require a panel cutout.

“Many hands make light work,” as the old saying goes, but in the fire service, many lights make even less work.

Scene lighting has become a pivotal part of fire and EMS incidents. At the same time, the options for fire departments looking to purchase scene lighting systems have expanded exponentially with the advent of new bulbs and innovations in power consumption.

The basics are still the same. There are vehicle-mounted scene lighting systems, which are installed at various locations on an apparatus and often extend upward or outward depending on need. And there are portable systems, powered by batteries or generators, which are usually carried or wheeled to where they are needed. While the categories haven’t changed much over time, the products have.

Roger Weinmeister is uniquely positioned to analyze the changes in scene lighting requirements over the years. He has been with Command Light of Love-land, Colo., for two decades, most recently as president. “Twenty years ago, structure fires were still a large part of call volume,” he pointed out. “They don’t have the same lighting requirements. It’s still real dark when a fire goes out, so that part hasn’t changed a whole lot. But it’s a smaller and smaller portion of typical call volume.”

From 500 To 1,500 Watts

When Weinmeister started at Command Light’s parent company, Super Vacuum Manufacturing Company Inc., he said only extremely progressive departments were looking at scene lighting. Since that time, he said, “All the scenes, especially traffic accidents, have become so much more technical with the advent of airbags and all of those subtle things on a rescue scene that are tough to see. There has really been a need to increase the lighting on scene to know exactly what you are getting into.”

The staple of the industry used to be 500-watt bulbs, he said, but that has increased to 1,500 watts and is heading higher.

“We have 1,000-watt metal halides, the equivalent of a 5,000-watt bulb in terms of lumen output,” he said. “It’s not quite standard yet, but it’s becoming more and more popular.”

Metal halides are part of the high intensity discharge (HID) family of bulbs. HID lamps give out more light and use less power than the old fire apparatus mainstay, the halogen lamp. In addition to metal halides, HID lights can be combined with xenon gas, mercury vapor, sodium vapor and several other chemicals or gases depending on their use. Many can be installed on fire apparatus without the addition of a generator.

Xenon HID lights, like those made by Warminster, Pa.-based Havis-Shields Equipment Corp., are in high demand as an alternative to energy-draining halogen lighting systems. “We are perceived as an industry leader in HID lighting, and that’s where we are kind of positioning ourselves,” said Havis-Shields Vice President Mike Bernert.

The company’s latest product is a new 35-watt spotlight with a xenon HID bulb. It can be hand-held or vehicle-mounted, and it draws 60 percent less current than comparable halogen lights.

While HID lights are popular, one of their drawbacks is they function with a ballast that must cycle between starts, which means they can take a while to restart after being switched off. They also give off heat and can be easily damaged if knocked over or hit.

Closer Look At LEDs

Those disadvantages have prompted some scene lighting companies to take a closer look at light-emitting diode (LED) lights, which until recently were common only in light bars and flashlights. LEDs can be switched on and off quickly, produce less heat than HIDs and are not as easily damaged. One disadvantage to LEDs is they are expensive, much more so than halogens, and slightly more than HIDs.

Marlin Nicol has been with Orrville, Ohio-based Will-Burt Company for 17 years. He said the light tower manufacturer is not jumping into the LED business at the moment. “We [had] an LED light tower at FDIC [in 2008], but it’s not for sale yet,” he said. “LEDs are nice lights, and they are the future, but the light intensity isn’t there at the level yet to replace what’s already out there. On the DC side, metal halides are still two to three times lighter, and on the AC side quartz lights are still much brighter.”

However, some manufacturers believe the day of the LED has arrived. “We are developing an LED light right now, and we are pretty close to releasing a side-mounted LED light for ambulance use,” said Fred Schaefer, engineering technical writer for Fire Research Corporation (FRC) of Nesconset, N.Y., which makes both vehicle-mounted and portable scene lighting systems.

Schaefer said LED lights don’t necessarily use less power than the HID lights, but it appears they work better. “Although the power and lumens from the light are not greater than the HID, the actual light you see with your eye is brighter,” Schaefer said. “We’ve already had LED green lights and traffic lights and tail lights in the industry, but to have it where it’s bright enough to use in scene lighting, that time is here.”

But FRC isn’t giving up on HIDs just yet. “One of our new products we call Bright Daylight is a complete, portable HID light and battery pack,” Schaefer said. “It gives that ability at the scene to be able to walk away from the vehicle, set it up on a tripod and turn it on.”

Now that LED appears to be the wave of the future for scene lighting, some companies previously not interested in the field are jumping into it. Torrence, Calif.-based Pelican Products is a case in point. Pelican was known for years as a provider of quality flashlights to public safety organizations. But now it sells portable scene lighting too, exclusively LED-based.

Kevin Deighton, the vice president of Pelican’s research and product development division, has been with the company for 12 years and is a close observer of its transition into scene lighting products. Deighton said it was a leap of faith for both the company and its customers.

“People didn’t really see Pelican as the go-to for scene lighting,” he said. “We were always the strong go-to company for flashlights for firefighters. We had been playing with LED since 1999. But they were never strong enough to generate any useful light that firefighters and law enforcement typically need.”

Haitz’s Law

Pelican’s concerns about LEDs and usefulness changed, however, as Haitz’s Law kicked in. Haitz’s Law, named after a retired scientist, states that every decade the amount of light generated by an LED increases by a factor of 20, while the cost per lumen falls by a factor of 10. In other words, LEDs get cheaper and better over time.

A few years after Pelican started “playing” with LEDs, Deighton said the research started to look promising. “Around 2005-2006,” he said, “we noticed that LEDs were capable of producing significant amounts of light.”

Pelican began to host a steady stream of firefighters who came through the company’s research labs to test and play with the budding technology. “We decided to take a battery pack and a number of LEDs, build it into a smaller case, stick it on a pole and see what people felt,” he said.

The result was the 9460B model, the first of Pelican’s portable aerial lighting systems. Deighton said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was interested almost right away. “We had worked closely with FEMA on Hurricane Katrina, Andrew and so on,” he said. “The FEMA guys, when they saw this, they immediately connected the dots. It allowed them to bring scene lighting to situations where streets are covered in debris, where you can’t drive trucks.”

Deighton said Pelican will never give up flashlights, but is pouring tons of research and resources into its LED line of products. It recently purchased an overseas company that allowed it to add more portable scene lighting to its product line.

“We’ve found that once we show the product, it’s sold,” Deighton said. “It doesn’t generate heat, it’s not fragile. So if a hose knocks over the tripod it doesn’t break, its energy consumption is extremely low and it doesn’t require a generator… A little light goes off in people’s head when they see this product.”

But the bottom line is, no matter what kind of bulb is involved in scene lighting or what kind of innovation is in the pipeline, fire departments are still primarily concerned with price and electric consumption.

“People want cheaper light and less power usage off the vehicle,” FRC’s Schaefer pointed out. “The difference between halogen and HID is the power requirement. To get the same amount of light, to get people to see what they are doing, you get a better bang for your buck from HID.”

Up In Seconds

Nicol, director of lighting sales at Will-Burt, said price especially figures into the decision between LED and older forms of light. “I’m guessing that next year we may have an LED product at FDIC that is good enough to start selling,” he said. “But we don’t want to be selling a product out there where we are told, ‘Gosh, that puts out half the light of your old metal halide light tower and you’re charging me more for it.’ The LEDs that we’ve looked at are quite pricey.”

Although Will-Burt does not manufacture lamps, Nicol said the company creates light towers to accommodate all different kinds of light sources.

Like Will-Burt, Command Light manufactures light towers extensively. All of Command Light’s towers feature full deployment in less than 15 seconds, the ability to hang over the side of the vehicle to increase coverage, and all-electric components – no air or hydraulics. “Firefighters are adrenaline junkies,” Weinmeister explained. “They want to get people out of cars. They don’t want to drag stuff around and spend time setting it up. A light tower can be up in seconds, and your manpower is saved for the fun stuff.”

He added that the increased use of LED light bars, which draw less power from the apparatus, has led to more powerful scene lighting. “It sent some of the power back to the vehicle to be available for other things,” he said.

“That’s dropped the amp load considerably. When you drop it out of light bars and warning lights, you can move it over to scene lighting.”

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the material used to hold all those lights up. Bernert, a 19-year veteran of Havis-Shields, said towers and tripods are still primarily made of extruded aluminum.

“The cost has been prohibitive to use any other synthetic materials for that,” he said. “As far as strength and holding up in the elements, aluminum has proven to be a good choice over time.”

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