Evaluating Vehicle Pre-Emption Systems

I have been writing for Firehouse® Magazine for a number of years. In that time, I have forged a lot of friendships and attained close bonds with many fire departments. Among them is the Bowling Green, KY, Fire Department. About two years ago...


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I have been writing for Firehouse® Magazine for a number of years. In that time, I have forged a lot of friendships and attained close bonds with many fire departments. Among them is the Bowling Green, KY, Fire Department.

About two years ago, Bowling Green Captain Keith Mefford was given the task of evaluating emergency vehicle pre-emption systems for the department. Contained in this column are the results of his work.

Fire departments have been pre-empting traffic signals for more than 20 years. No one can argue that a green light in the favor of an emergency vehicle provides for a safer and quicker response. An emergency pre-emption system lets a fire vehicle emit a coded message to an intersection, informing the signal controller to provide a green light before the truck enters the intersection. The system not only provides for a green light, but activates up to 1,200 feet away to allow forward traffic to clear before the emergency vehicle arrives at the intersection.

Until recently, the pre-emption market was dominated by one system; however, growing market demand and improved technology have drawn competition into the field. The introduction of new companies into the market has made selecting the proper system for your jurisdiction a more difficult task.

There are several systems available today (see table on page 34) offering a variety of technologies. The systems can be categorized into three basic types:

  • Sound-based system. Listens for a pre-programmed sound, such as a siren, and sends input to the traffic controller.
  • Optical system. Receives a pre-approved optical pattern, such as strobe light, and provides input to the traffic controller.
  • Global positioning/radio system. Monitors a vehicle's position with the Global Positioning System (GPS) and initiates a radio signal to the next intersection.

Each system should be investigated and tested prior to selecting the type to best suit your department's needs. The following information provides an overview of the process used by the Bowling Green Fire Department during its recent evaluation of the pre-emption systems currently on the market.

Will You Benefit?

First, determine whether pre-emption is right for your department. Several published reports have supported pre-emption in regard to improved response times, reduction in accidents and wear on equipment; however, several other factors must be considered before entering the pre-emption vendor evaluation process:

  • Will traffic agencies (local and/or state) approve pre-emption signals?
  • Is the funding available?
  • Will the system be used by multiple agencies?
  • Will the system be used on low priority for mass transit?
  • What impact will pre-emption have on normal traffic flow?
  • Will the municipality or an outside contractor install and maintain the system?

The evaluation process should not begin until the local fire, traffic, highway, finance and other related departments can agree on the above issues.

Vendor Evaluation

Once a decision has been made to install a pre-emption system, a thorough evaluation should be performed. Several companies have entered the pre-emption market in recent years; therefore, an investigation should be conducted to ensure that all potential suppliers are identified. Sources for such information include traffic engineering journals, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), fire service trade shows, the National Fire Academy Research Center and other fire departments.

A questionnaire should be mailed to each potential supplier. The questionnaire can be used to narrow the list of vendors for your department's evaluation. Each vendor should be contacted by telephone prior to mailing the questionnaire for notification, as well as to ensure that the address and name of the contact person are accurate.

The following topics should be addressed in the questionnaire:

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