Pretty Stripes and Pumpless Ladders

By Billy Goldfeder

Dear Nozzlehead,

My volunteer department recently received a new tower ladder (more than $1 million and no water or pump), and while it is a beautiful rig, I noticed our leadership decided to stripe the back of the rig with red and black chevrons to match our red and black colors. When I questioned this (thinking they had to be bright yellow and red), I was told that as long as there are stripes, we are fine. My problem is that, especially during the day, you can’t see the stripes. I was also told that the department added more warning lights to this apparatus so no one should have trouble seeing it.

I am curious as to your opinion on if a fire department can have chevron stripes any color it wants. Am I whining for no reason?

— Sorta Seeing Stripes

Dear Stripes,

First, I want to quickly comment about your million-dollar tower ladder—the one with no pump or water. Unless you are in a metro-urban area where you are assured several engine companies will arrive with you, why would anyone order a truck company without a pump and water? Actually, not too many years ago in a large metro city, a truck company (no water/no pump) arrived at a fire with people trapped, and the engines were significantly delayed—by several minutes, not seconds. Not only were the firefighters unable to fight any fire but a life was lost. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but some who were there say it might have. The media and the families wanted to know. 

Think about this: A one-million-dollar FIRE engine pulls up and cannot provide the basic expectation of the people who need it, the same people who bought the damn thing

“But we are a TRUCK company.” 

Well, actually, you are a FIRE department, and in 2018, with poor turnout, less staffing, and all the challenges we are facing (especially in suburban areas such as you describe), it is inexcusable to spend one million dollars on something that can’t apply water ... QUICKLY.

I have a friend who is specing a new ladder in a community much the same as yours and doesn’t want water or a pump either. The firefighters want it to be a “true” truck—a “true” truck because they like that, but it may have nothing to do with what they actually need. I told him to put a pump on it, put a roll-up door OVER the pump, and then letter the door “TRUCK COMPANY.” Now you can be “true” and “pretend” there is no pump. Yet when they pull up to a working fire (and they have) and it is your (or someone else’s) house on fire, they might actually be able to fix the problem—or at least stop it from getting worse.

REALISTICALLY evaluate your community fire problem by stats and fire load, life safety, and fire flow and access requirements. UNDERSTAND what resources (firefighters and apparatus) are available (by stats, not emotion) when a fire is reported (day, night, weekend, holiday, etc.). Now, if a waterless truck is potentially first due, and it doesn’t have an engine company already on scene or right on its tail as statistically and realistically proven, it’s time to rethink what your firefighters traditionally LIKE vs. what the poor people having the fire may NEED. A pump with some lines and a tank on a truck company is nothing more than a long lasting and more effective “water can,” and all “true truck companies” have those. 


So here is the deal. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, is very clear about the color of those stripes. Each stripe in the chevron shall be a single color, alternating between red and either yellow, fluorescent yellow, or fluorescent yellow-green.

• Not robin’s egg blue. 

• Not midnight black. 

• Not Kelly green. 

• Not pink flamingo. 

Reflective and contrasting red and bright yellow. “But we don’t like that because it looks terrible.” As I have been telling myself for years, looks aren’t everything. 

I “get” how we “love” how our fire apparatus looks, I absolutely do, and that’s very cool. Esprit de corps is a big deal and the rig is reflective of the company. However, when a bunch of firefighters and “conspicuity” experts get together over many years (in the United States and the United Kingdom, who have done it this way for decades) and determine (using facts and science) that, to minimize rear end crashes, certain colors work much better than others, why wouldn’t we simply do as suggested? 

In speaking with Jack Sullivan, veteran firefighter and noted subject matter expert from Emergency Responder Safety Institute, he states that the key for the chevrons is that they should be fluorescent and reflective, fluorescent for daytime high visibility and reflective for night ops. The original intent of NFPA 1901 for the chevrons was that fire apparatus anywhere and everywhere in the country would look the same from the rear for approaching traffic.

Of course, your department did what it wanted and, like a few others, will then own that responsibility. It chose “attractiveness” vs. science-based proof that one is better than the other. And after all, the NFPA standard is a standard, not a law, so it doesn’t HAVE to be followed. However, it’s kinda like the parent telling the kid to not do something but the kid wants to find out for himself because even though the parent knows, the kid allegedly knows better. 

So, while some fire departments tell the manufacturer to “waive” that standard, at some point, if someone runs into it or whatever, some ambulance-chasing court dweller will figure out why the standard was a better idea, and then life’s gonna suck for a lotta people for a while. Why not just follow the standard?


I like warning lights. Some might say I like them far more than would be considered normal. My staff car has a “supersized” warning light package, and I like it. I also like quick-access handlines, full-flow nozzles, master streams, large-diameter hoselines that actually allow a pumper to pump capacity—silly stuff like that. However, I have also learned that overdoing things can cause more of a problem than what we were originally intending to fix or manage.

For example, after major research I have determined that deck gunning a car fire is normally overdoing it. And the same goes for warning lights. While responding, I think the more conspicuous our vehicles are with a “move out of the way” message the better. However, once we are on scene, we are starting to learn that less lighting may be more. Because of today’s intense LED warning lights, systems and standards exist telling us to lower the amount of light so that our folks, and the public, can perhaps be safer at a scene.

So, while your leaders may think they are doing well by adding more warning lights to make up for the lack of proper striping, they may be setting their taxpayers, the public, and themselves up for a not so bright future. See what I did there? 


One of the foremost leaders in making sure today’s firefighters and EMTs are safer on the roadways is a wonderful friend of mine, and many of you, Steve Austin. Steve joined the fire service in 1963 and is an active life member of the Aetna Hose Hook & Ladder Company of Newark, Delaware, one of Delaware’s largest and most active volunteer fire companies. A past president of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association and a world-recognized expert in fire/arson investigations, he is a life member of the IAAI.

Perhaps Steve’s greatest passion is his work in protecting firefighters, EMTs, and other responders on roadways, which he does through his work (since 2001) with his team, which is hosted by the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association (CVVFA), where he is a life member. Steve leads the CVVFA’s “Protecting Emergency Responders on the Highways” initiative that advocates improving the safety of police, fire, and emergency medical service personnel while operating on the streets and roadways.

While I could write pages about Steve and his background, I mention him in this month’s column because I am thrilled to congratulate him as a co-recipient of the prestigious 2018 CFSI/Motorola Solutions Mason Lankford Fire Service Leadership Award. Steve’s leadership in helping us all survive on roadways is second to none, and we offer him a heartfelt CONGRATS for this well-deserved award! (Please take time to visit and learn about its free online training program for your firefighters and EMTs.)

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