Let Me Google That For You

No Seriously, Why Are Fire Trucks Red?

Especially given that red fire trucks have three times more accidents.

by Sam Nichols
10 January 2018, 2:28am

A 1940s CFA fire engine. Photo of a photo at the Fire Services Museum of Victoria

Welcome to our new series, Let Me Google That For You, which sees us answer life's big questions. Or, more specifically, sees us answer the most googled questions in the English language.

When we think of a fire truck, the colour red seems intrinsically linked to fire. But actually, basing a truck’s colour scheme on fire doesn’t necessarily achieve priority one for fire trucks—which is visibility. A 1995 study on the influence of colour in fire vehicle accidents found that red fire trucks were actually involved in three times more accidents compared to lime green/yellow fire trucks.

This is probably explains why fire trucks aren’t all red. In the United States and in Europe, for example, fire trucks range in colour from pink, purple, to green. Here in Australia, we have lime green fire trucks in the ACT, but most other states still persist with red. And this takes us all back to the original question: why are most fire trucks still red?

This horse-drawn fire engine serviced regional Victoria from 1891

Fire fighting equipment has been red for a long time. The earliest known fire engine was developed by an English inventor named Richard Newsham in 1721. Newsham’s engines were painted red and could spray 380 litres of water a minute, quickly making his the world’s favourite fire engine. And while it’s unknown why Newsham went with red, he’s generally credited with making the colour synonymous with fire engines.

Here in Australia, red was never agreed upon as the colour of choice, so much as it became the default colour for financial reasons. Here, municipal fire brigades were formed haphazardly (as in the US) via a combination of insurance companies and volunteers. It wasn’t until the 1890s that state capitals formalised their operations—and colours—and at this time, bright, easily-seen acrylic colours were limited. Fire departments took whatever the state governments gave them, and in Melbourne, the fire brigade was allocated its paint by the Tramways Board.

David chillin'

“The colour red started off because it was just the best they could get,” explains David Russell, curator of the Fire Services Museum of Victoria. “It’s also why we’ve got green doors on this place, because it’s tramway green. At that time, red was the most visible colour the Tramways Board had, and as a result, everything related to fire trucks was painted red.”

So that clears that up, but doesn’t explain why fire trucks are still red. Because, as another firefighter named Bruce explains, “Anything to improve firefighter and public safety sounds like a good option to me. I'd be into fluoro green, but I'm also the sassiest—and by that I mean gayest—member of the team so I might be the only one.”

There is little evidence however, that the colour of the truck is its most noticeable feature. A 2003 report from the NSW Fire Brigade agreed that red isn’t the best colour, but argued that lights and sirens do more for noticeability than paint.

The trucks at the Melbourne depot

“In the early days, fire trucks worked on an alarm system with bells,” explains Bryan Robertson, the Vice President of the Fire Services Museum of Victoria. “But now, they run an alarm system where the pitch can be varied. People might not recognise a fire trucks if they’re not red, but those audible and visual signals are enough of an indicator.”

And there Bryan gets at something important. Because we’ve all grown up with red fire trucks, to the point where a colour change could just about make them unrecognisable. So as long as the lights and sirens are doing their job, and the fire trucks are putting out fires, then arguably sticking with tradition is just fine.

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