Emergency Warning Lights & Parking Procedures

July 6, 2006
The 1999 U.S. Fire Administration "white paper" identified the over use of blinding, confusing, and distracting warning lights as a major cause of accidents, injury and death at emergency scenes

Since the early 1950s, when the beacon ray replaced the single flashing light, we have seen more and more lights added to our emergency vehicles. It was believed that if 35 watt bulbs were good, then 100 watt must be better. If two lights made it safer, then six must make it really safe. How about a million candlepower strobe system?

We have reached the point where the warning lights are becoming the problem at emergency scenes and actually making the area less safe for our vehicles and personnel. In the last 10 years lighting your vehicles up like a Christmas tree has become the norm. When moving on the highway this may be ok, but when you are stopped or parked it is not! The 1999 U.S. Fire Administration "white paper" on this topic identified the over use of blinding, confusing, and distracting warning lights as a major cause of accidents, injury and death at emergency scenes.

We all know of emergency personnel who have been struck, killed or seriously injured and emergency vehicles that have be hit by drugged, drunk, fatigued, elderly or just confused drivers. Many of these operators stated "they were blinded or confused by all the lights". In New York State alone, an average of 80 emergency vehicles are struck while parked off the highway, on the side of the road, with all the red warning lights in operation each year. This takes place more than we would like to admit. How many close calls have you had?

Too Many Lights Distract Drivers

Every emergency vehicle has more than enough warning lights and is equipped so that if it is the only vehicle parked at a scene, the light laws are complied with. The problem is that when there are six or seven emergency vehicles at a scene, all the warning lights are left on and the area actually becomes unsafe due to all of the blinding and distracting lights. Those driving in the area of the emergency look at the vehicle warning lights and do not see the personnel who are working in the area near these vehicles. What effects do all of these warning lights have on the crowd and your own crews? Under some conditions, these warning lights also blind us! This is a major safety issue that has been ignored for too long. It is a known fact that the warning lights, at a scene will effect the crowd, shut them off and many will walk away. We set up a "carnival" and wonder why people flock to it!

The Illinois State Police and California Highway Patrol studies questioned the use of light bars on their police cars and the safety of the officers while engaged in their duties next to the roadway. The collision rate for emergency vehicles displaying lights while parked next to the highway were two and a half times higher for the same 100,000 miles driven than for non-emergency vehicles. Many highway patrol and state police departments are going to the slick top cars for safety, better mileage and productivity. Many have "arrow sticks" in the back window.

What Color Lights Are The Safest?

What about color? The knowledge of human perception calls into question the use of warning lights when the vehicle is parked off the highway. Red lights send a message: emergency, stop and invoke irrational behavior from motorist. They also tend to draw persons to the scene or area of the emergency. The psychological reaction to red is rage, anger and hostility. The human eye is more sensitive to red light during the daylight than at night. Instead of warning people to stay away, the red emergency light actually draws drivers towards the lights. This so-called moth effect refers to "a state of narrowed attention associated with excessive concentration on some object or task with the resulting loss of voluntary control over response." People drive where they look! Drugged, drunk, fatigued and elderly drivers have driven right off the roadway and into the parked vehicles displaying red warning lights.

In New York State amber lights are not prohibited. Amber filters allow 60-percent of the light from the bulb to pass through, red allows 25-percent. The amber light also sends a very specific message to those who view it: caution - stay away. A driver who is drugged, drunk, elderly or fatigued will usually drive away from the amber light. Amber also travels through fog, rain or snow much farther than red, blue or clear. In California all emergency vehicles may display at least one amber light to the rear. The New York State Police reported 15 to 20 cars were struck while parked on the side of the road annually when only the red lights were displayed. They now have an amber lens on the driver's side rear flashing light position in the bar and report a drastic reduction of cars hit while displaying the amber light. Federal KKK Ambulance specs - to meet federal funding standards - require one amber light on the rear. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) allows amber in all four directions from fire vehicles when in the "parked" or "blocking" mode.

The NYS Motor Vehicle Commissioners rules and regulations, Part 44, allows the use of amber lights by any vehicle involved in a "hazardous operation". If you have a blue or green light and an amber light, you can only use one light at a time for the activity that you are involved in. Part 44 allows 100 candlepower at 35 watts for clear lights.

There is no restriction on vehicles that are allowed to display red or red and white lights; they can use amber along with the red or red and white lights. The NFPA does not allow amber to be displayed from the front in the "response or "moving" mode. Blue light is more visible to the eye at night. Blue does not blend in with the many red lights used at night or on vehicles at night. A bill that just passed over the governors desk allows police to use blue to the rear on their cars.

What is the answer? For parking situations we should limit the use of the warning lights. Warn only from the direction that the traffic is coming towards the scene. You will be amazed how the total scene will calm down when the warning light usage is reduced. Equip the rear of your vehicles with at least one amber light to send that message "caution, stay away". Be careful how you use your headlights, spot lights and other flood lamps as you may be blinding oncoming drivers and other personnel on the scene. Equip you vehicles with "arrow sticks". Both New York State Department of Health & NFPA advise shutting down most of these lights. On controlled access roads no warning lights to the front!

On The Scene, Shut Off Some Lights

Many Fire, EMS & Police are using this limited use procedure at all scenes. The Phoenix, AZ, Fire Department recommends reducing the warning lights, displaying amber and using the hazard flashers to make the scene safer. On the controlled access highways, the vehicle closest to on coming traffic stops several hundred feet prior to the scene, activates the four-way flashers and displays only rear-facing lights.

All other vehicles should shut off all the warning lights and park in a safe position at an angle, if possible. The results have been much more control over the traffic that is moving past the accident or situation. The other lane keeps moving without the gaper's block, they slow to 40 MPH or so and keep on going, even though there are several emergency vehicles at the scene in the other lane. This same procedure can be used on other roadways with minor modification. In the blocking mode they only display amber lights!

At all fire and emergency scenes the same procedure can be used. My fire department and ambulance squad (Rush, NY, Fire/EMS District) has used this procedure for 15 years with excellent results! The reduced lighting policy is used with distracting, confusing and blinding warning lights being shut down. Adequate warning is provided with one red and one amber light along with the hazard flashers. Most of our equipment has an amber arrow sticks built in the rear, which are also used.

NFPA 1901 standard address the warning light problem and has taken it out of the operators hands with automatic shut down of blinding warning lights. NFPA also requires a response and blocking mode of operation, amperage load monitoring system and a restriction on how many amps the lighting system can draw. These requirements were way over due! If you have an older vehicle you can obtain the same results by the switches on the dash, use them to shut down most of the lights when parked at the scene.

Precautions Once You Arrive On Scene

Cones and/or Flares - When using flares and/or cones use the examples that the DOT and road construction crews provide. Place them far enough back to give proper warning and spread them out. Set up your scene as a work zone as soon as possible.

Parking Considerations - If possible park you vehicles on one side of the street and at an angle towards the curb. Park back at least 100 feet. If you're going to protect the scene with your vehicle do so in a manner that will provide the desired protection. After reviewing numerous collisions where emergency vehicles have been run into from the rear it has become clear to me that the protection that people think they are providing in front of their emergency vehicle does not exists. Even heavy fire apparatus with the brakes locked and wheels chocked, have been driven up to 100 feet when struck by a vehicle that didn't weigh ONE-THIRD as much! Firefighters, police and EMS personnel have been killed in these collisions. If you stop back 100 feet and angle the vehicle to the right, you are providing the pump operator a safe area and if the vehicle is hit it will go to the right side of the road and not up into the scene. If you have to cross the road to accomplish your mission angle the vehicle to the left. Both of these angle procedures also keep the blinding headlights from making your scene unsafe.

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