Red fire engines turning white

Ian Burrell
Sunday 16 August 1998 23:02

LIKE THE telephone box and the bobby's helmet, the red fire engine has become a national icon. But just as British Telecom has switched to new clear booths and police forces are experimenting with flat caps, so fire services are now painting their engines white.

The switch is based on research showing that the traditional red appliance turns black under bright lighting and is harder to spot in traffic than vehicles of other colours. It is hoped that the change will reduce the number of accidents involving fire engines and improve their response times.

One fire service has already switched to white and at least four others are preparing to follow. A report on white engines is being sent to the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association.

"If these white fire appliances prove successful it is possible that other brigades will follow suit, resulting in the familiar red fire engines vanishing from Britain's streets," said Simon Hoffman, editor of Fire magazine.

The public has responded favourably to the introduction of eight white engines by Grampian Fire Service in Scotland, earlier this summer.

Gordon Kennedy, the deputy firemaster, said: "Hopefully we will now be more conspicuous. This brings us into line with the other emergency services."

He said other fire services would be switching to white in coming months. Two Scottish and several English services have been to see the Grampian vehicles with a view to changing their own fleets.

Mr Kennedy said that the region had a reputation for trendsetting within the fire service. Its decision to change fire uniforms from navy blue to mustard - so that chemical spills would be visible - has now been copied by many English fire chiefs.

The red fire engine has been ingrained in the British consciousness through images ranging from the toytown brigade in the BBC children's programme Trumpton to the televised drama series London's Burning. The prospect of it changing colour is likely to dismay fans. But the evidence in favour of dropping tradition in favour of practicality seems compelling.

Studies carried out by the Institute of Optometrists and the Transport Research Laboratory at Crowthorne in Berkshire have shown that white and yellow are the most visible colours and that red and grey are the hardest to make out.

Similarly, research carried out for the Department of Postal Services in the United States found that 90 per cent of sensory information reaching the brain was of visual origin and that lighter colours were easier to pick up. It concluded that green was the most difficult colour to see. In Germany, drivers of red vehicles have even been advised to put on their headlights sooner than other motorists when light begins to fade.

One of the first people to become aware of the danger of red fire engines in Britain was Albert Leese, who was the chief fire officer in Coventry between 1960 and 1974. Mr Leese had noticed how invisible the appliances became under bright lighting and asked scientists from Coventry's Lanchester College to investigate.

Working with Dulux, the paint company, they concluded that the colour of optimum visibility was somewhere on the spectrum between lime green and yellow. Accordingly, Mr Leese ordered that the city of Coventry's fire engines were painted this colour. "It's not a pleasant colour," he admitted. "It's a colour that when you look at it, it gives you a bit of a shock."

But the colour change improved response times and cut the number of accidents involving fire appliances. Mr Leese wrote to the Home Office Fire Department, recommending that the colour change be taken up nationally.

"They wrote back and said, 'Fire engines have always been red', which was a very scientific answer," he said, adding that the engines had been painted red again after he stood down.

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