If you ask someone to picture a fire truck, chances are they’ll conjure up an image of a large red vehicle with hoses and lights attached.
Even someone who lived decades ago, who might picture a smaller vehicle closer to a passenger car, would describe a fire engine as red.
In fact, the color is so common on emergency vehicles that the name “fire engine red” can be found on crayons, bottles of nail polish, and paint swatches.
Why is the color of fire trucks so universal across time and distance? We’ll discuss the history of the fire truck and how it may have gotten its bright red hue.
Why Are Fire Trucks Red?
There are several theories as to why fire trucks are red.
One is that the very first fire departments were made up of volunteers.
Since these volunteers were unpaid, their budget was quite small.
Red paint may have been the cheapest color of paint at the time, so it’s the color they painted their trucks and firehouses.
However, another theory completely contradicts the first.
It goes that when fire departments were composed of volunteers, neighboring towns’ fire brigades would compete with each other.
In order to make their vehicles stand out, they would paint them red, which may have been the most expensive paint color at the time.
Obviously, since these two theories are totally contradictory, they cannot both be true.
A third theory dates back to Henry Ford.
As cars became more common across the states, the majority of them were black.
Early fire departments may have painted their vehicles red to make them stand out among the other cars on the road.
Truthfully, we may never actually know why the first fire engines were red.
However, their red color does play a somewhat useful role today.
Red is a very visible, recognizable color.
During the day, red is easy for drivers to see, which is why many road signs are also red.
It is not quite as useful at night, so the trucks are also equipped with lights and sirens.
However, the most important factor when considering the color of fire trucks is recognizability.
Regardless of what color a fire engine is, it’s critical that drivers recognize it as an emergency vehicle.
This is perhaps why the trucks have stayed the same color for so many years.
It is the color we have come to expect them to be.
What Other Colors Can Fire Trucks Be?
Studies have been done concerning the best color for a fire engine to be to increase visibility.
It was found that, while red is an excellent color for grabbing attention during the day, lime green and yellow are the most visible colors, overall.
However, as mentioned previously, the color is not as important as the identifiability of the engine.
For this reason, fire departments across the world use a variety of colors for their fire trucks.
Residents of the towns have grown accustomed to the color of their fire trucks, so they are able to quickly recognize a fire engine when they see one.
For example, in Canberra, Australia, the fire trucks are a bright yellow-green color.
This is unique to Canberra, as most fire trucks in the rest of the country are the traditional red.
At one point, Canberra’s fire trucks were also red, but in the 1980s, they began switching them to green.
They state that they did this because they believed lime green would stand out today the way red used to in the early 1900s.
Because there aren’t very many bright green vehicles driving around, the fire trucks are easy to spot and very recognizable.
They also cited the visibility studies when justifying the change
By 1986, all the fire trucks had been painted this yellow-green, and they remain that color today.
While the sight of a green fire truck may be jarring to outsiders, Canberra residents have become used to it.
When they see the large, brightly colored trucks, they know immediately that they are emergency vehicles and to be alert around them.
Other fire truck colors around the world include blue, orange, pink, and more.
Is There A Difference Between A Fire Truck And A Fire Engine?
While most people use the terms “fire truck” and “fire engine” interchangeably, they are actually different things.
Fire engines are the trucks that are used specifically for putting out fires.
Fire trucks have equipment for that, but their primary purpose is saving people, not buildings.
Fire trucks are usually used more often for lifesaving operations.
They have a ladder on the back to allow them to get into buildings or help trapped victims get out.
They often are equipped with important tools, like the Jaws of Life, that help them rescue people from dangerous situations.
A fire truck’s main goal is not to put out a fire.
A fire truck may even respond to emergencies that don’t involve a fire.
They can help extricate people from car accidents or tall ledges.
Fire trucks often respond to fires but may arrive after the fire engine has already gotten there.
They assist with taking care of victims and helping to control the blaze.
Fire engines, on the other hand, are the trucks that respond to active fires.
They are equipped with hoses, tanks, and a pump.
The tank usually has a capacity of somewhere between 500 and 1,000 gallons of water.
The hoses, however, can put out around 1,500 gallons of water per minute.
To keep the tank from emptying within seconds, firefighters will often hook their hoses up to nearby fire hydrants, if that’s an option.
In rural areas, they may not have that option, so they may pump the water from lakes or rivers through the hoses to extinguish the blaze.
Fire engines often also carry lifesaving equipment like ladders and extrication tools.
How Did Early Fire Departments Work?
Obviously, fire has always been a threat to animals, humans, and in more recent history, buildings.
It is believed that ancient Egyptians used a portable water pump to put out fires.
However, organized firefighting did not exist (as far as we know) until ancient Rome.
Under the rule of Augustus Caesar, slaves were given the job of manning the “vigilant corps.”
Their task was to watch out for fires and crime and put a stop to it.
This usually involved filling buckets with water from a pump and transporting the buckets to the location of the fire.
Rome invaded England and brought over the concept of firefighters.
When Rome fell, the practice did as well until the 1600s when England became a strong country again.
With this reconstruction came the revival of old traditions.
Europe brought back the fire brigades of old and introduced a fire engine built specifically for fighting fires.
Eventually, manual pumps were replaced with hoses, and fire brigades had become a common part of European society by the 17th century.
In the United States, fire “watchers” were assigned to monitor the streets, looking for fires that would threaten the homes of those in the colonies.
When they sounded the alarm, bucket-wielding volunteers would come to the rescue.
Eventually, technology advanced here, too, and by the time the First Industrial Revolution was over, firefighters had almost an entirely new repertoire of tools to use.
It was around this time that government-run fire departments came into existence, though volunteer forces still existed, particularly in more rural regions.
Even today, volunteer fire departments can be found throughout the country.
Did Fire Departments Really Use Dalmatians?
While it’s not as common anymore, many of us still associate the spotted dogs with firehouses.
There is, in fact, a good reason for this.
Dalmatians used to be a fire station staple, dating back to the times of horse-drawn carriages.
Back in 18th century England, rich people had the dogs accompany their carriages as a status symbol.
The more Dalmatians you had, the higher your social standing.
Dalmatians are excellent runners that can keep a quick pace for several miles at a time.
When firefighters began using horse-drawn carriages as fire engines, Dalmatians were employed to run alongside the horses.
This is because Dalmatians and horses are able to form a very tight bond.
The horses trusted the dogs, while the dogs instinctively tried to protect the horses.
In fire brigades, Dalmatians helped to ward off animals that might try and attack the horses on the way to the fire.
When the carriage arrived at the site of the blaze, the dogs helped comfort the horses that were typically afraid of fire.
They also helped protect the horses from horse thieves, which were very common at the time.
After carriages were done away with and motorized vehicles came onto the firefighting scene, Dalmatians still stuck around in many firehouses.
Of course, the dogs no longer ran next to the fire engine.
Instead, they rode in the seat.
At this point, they served more as companions to the firefighters rather than as working dogs.
Today, a few firehouses still keep Dalmatians as companions and mascots.
Most notably, FDNY’s Ladder 20 has a ten-year-old Dalmatian named Twenty.
She rides in the engine and can sometimes be seen sticking her head out the window on the way to a fire.
Why Do Fire Trucks Get Washed So Often?
Obviously, there is a lot more to think about when it comes to fire trucks than just their color.
They need to function at their absolute best at all times.
If they don’t, it could have deadly consequences.
You may notice your local firefighters seem to wash their trucks more often than is necessary.
This is not true, however.
They do wash them frequently, but for good reason.
Fire trucks are paid for by tax dollars.
By cleaning the trucks regularly, they extend the lifespan of the truck, ultimately costing taxpayers less.
When any vehicle drives down the road, dirt, exhaust, and road salt get in the undercarriage and on the exterior of the machine.
These contaminants can cause serious damage, especially over time.
In order to make the fire trucks last longer, firefighters may wash them up to three times a week, depending on weather conditions.
Another reason for the frequent cleanings is to keep an eye out for any potential issues with the truck.
If the truck is covered in mud and grime, mechanical problems may go unnoticed, particularly if no one is looking very closely.
This is true of any vehicle, but it is especially important with fire engines.
If the truck isn’t operating the way it is supposed to, hundreds of people could be further endangered in an emergency.
The grime can also get in the way of things working properly.
It can keep compartments from opening, therefore becoming a serious safety hazard.
Finally, it is part of the culture of fire crews to be organized and presentable at all times.
Having clean trucks indicates a fire brigade’s professionalism and pride in their work.
What Does A Fire Station Look Like?
Every aspect of a fire station must be functional and organized so that the firefighters can spring into action at a moment’s notice.
Because an emergency can occur at any time, equipment and personnel must always be at the ready.
Many firefighters work 24 hours at a time, meaning the station needs to be a place where they can have their basic needs met.
The section of a fire station that is most visible to the public eye is the apparatus bay, the garage.
This is where the fire engines and other vehicles and equipment are kept.
They are large spaces that can usually fit at least two fire trucks, depending on the size of the district.
Firefighters usually back the trucks into the garage so that, when an emergency occurs, they can drive straight out.
There is also usually a bay for maintenance so that any trucks or equipment being worked on are out of the way.
Stations also include offices and training areas.
Typically, the fire chief has their own office in this section.
There are also usually conference rooms and computer centers so that firefighters can train, have meetings, and take certification tests onsite.
Finally, stations include living quarters for the firefighters who are on call.
There are dorm rooms where they can sleep at night (or during the day, if they spent the night dealing with emergencies).
There are also day room areas, with kitchen, dining, and living areas.
Bathrooms with showers must also be available.
Some residential areas include a fitness center or laundry room.
Of course, every station has an alarm system of some sort to alert the firefighters to an emergency.
This allows them to be sleeping, eating, or relaxing without worrying about missing a call.
What Does A Firefighter Do During Their Shift?
Obviously, firefighters don’t spend every second at work responding to emergencies.
It is important they are on call and ready to go in case of one.
However, on some shifts, they may go all day without the alarm sounding, especially in small towns.
What do they do when they aren’t saving lives?
Firefighters have many other responsibilities beyond putting out fires.
Firefighters often work schedules that involve 24-hour shifts, then 48 hours of off time.
During their shift, they first have to make sure everything is in working order and ready to be used.
This involves checking the trucks, breathing apparatuses, and other equipment.
It is crucial that nothing malfunctions when firefighters are responding to an emergency, so checking the equipment is a daily task.
As we already addressed, they often will wash the truck during this time as well.
They may spend an hour or so doing physical activity.
Fitness is very important for firefighters, as their job often involves climbing, running, crawling, and carrying people and/or heavy equipment.
Throughout the rest of their shift, they may spend time in meetings or training activities assigned by the fire chief.
They may check local fire hydrants to ensure they are working properly.
They also have to inspect businesses and other buildings to ensure they are up to code.
Firefighters are often asked to speak at schools or in community groups as well.
When not doing any of these tasks, firefighters may relax, sleep, or participate in recreational activities, like playing games.
However, they must always be ready to hop in the truck at the first sound of the alarm.