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It’s an ambulance, not an art project

“There, I said it. I do not like your pretty ambulances and I don’t think they contribute to the safety of our responders.”

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As I write this, I am finishing up a 3-week RV trip across a good chunk of the United States. As we travel the highways and by-ways, and pass through many cities and towns, I am seeing a troubling trend of ambulances that look like their color schemes and decaling designs were dreamt up by high school art students rather than vehicle safety experts.

There, I said it. I do not like your pretty ambulances and I don’t think they contribute to the safety of our responders.

I have seen patriotic ambulances with American flags wrapped all around them; rigs with mountains, rivers and other landscapes or features that the region is known for; integration of school mascots; all sorts of manipulations of the Star of Life; and eclectic mixes of colors forming wildly artsy designs. I have noticed all varieties of colors, from high-visibility florescent colors, to dark reds, blues and blacks.

Recent improvements in vehicle wrap technology have opened the doors to unlimited options in exterior ambulance designs, but are these departures from the traditional colors and markings of emergency vehicles safe? It is surely too soon to definitively tell, and I hope someone is considering studying the issue, but can we still look back at what we know about emergency vehicle visibility to make some assumptions? Do I dare compare these wild wraps to the standard high-visibility yellow and Battenburg pattern used in the United Kingdom and many other European Union countries?

WEIGH IN: At the end of the article, be sure to share your opinion on colored/uniquely wrapped ambulances.

What the research says about ambulance safety

In 1995, the Journal of Safety Research published a study that reviewed accident data for the Dallas Fire Department as they changed fire engine colors over a series of years. The data showed that pumpers with lime-yellow as part of their paint scheme had significantly fewer and less severe accidents than units with red paint schemes.

A follow-up study in 2018 reviewed data from 12 fire departments that submitted crash data. Over 2.6 million runs were included and showed that lime-green, lime-yellow or yellow engines had about half the incident rate as red-colored fire engines.

Certainly, many factors are included in vehicle safety and visibility, but overall color scheme is a great place to start.

Additionally, the FEMA/USFA Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study highlights the need for visibility, contrast and recognition to make all emergency vehicles safer while traveling and when parked on a scene. Contrast is used to make the vehicle catch a driver’s eye and stand out from all the other cluttered and congested scenery around it. Artsy murals on the side of your rig probably do not do that.

Recognition allows the driver to quickly recognize the vehicle as an ambulance or other piece of emergency apparatus so that their next thought is to slow down and avoid the area. If your community ambulances have always had a particular paint scheme or striping pattern, keeping these may help with recognition.

The FEMA/USFA Study also includes important information about the use of reflective striping, but cautions against the over-use of it.

On my RV trip, I also saw quite a few school buses transporting kids to and from their classes. They all looked very similar and none of them looked like rolling art projects. School bus manufacturers have done an excellent job capitalizing on visibility, contrast and recognition. While they may not have adopted fluorescent colors yet; anywhere you go in the country, you see bright yellow buses with fairly standard black stripes and decaling. Even without a dazzling show of red, white or blue LED lights, it takes your eye a fraction of a second to recognize the object as a school bus and you know to slow down and watch for children. This helps make school buses some of the safest vehicles on the road.

EMS providers have a dangerous enough job as it is. Our leaders can make traveling to and from the scene a little safer by following the science and recommendations that are already available.

Stay safe out there.

Michael Fraley has over 30 years of experience in EMS in a wide range of roles, including flight paramedic, EMS coordinator, service director and educator. Fraley began his career in EMS while earning a bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M University. He also earned a BA in business administration from Lakeland College. When not working as a paramedic or the coordinator of a regional trauma advisory council, Michael serves as a public safety diver and SCUBA instructor in northern Wisconsin.