Proper Application Of Emergency Lighting For First Responders

Having had the privilege of travelling through most of the Canadian provinces and many American states, we have seen many law enforcement vehicles conducting traffic stops and responding to incidents on our travels as well as firetrucks, ambulances and tow trucks.  Many emergency vehicle operators have an “all or nothing” approach to using their emergency lights, while many have an understanding of the tactical advantages of selecting which lights to use at the appropriate times.

I recently observed a traffic stop on the side of a major highway, involving a random car and an unmarked Tahoe during daylight.  The police officer had no emergency equipment activated on the side of the busy highway, most likely concerned about the “Moth effect” or people staring at lights and driving into them.  Several years ago, I would have no concern with this, but with recent changes in that area to the “move over” laws, this police officer did not have a safety lane, as people where not required by law to move over.  If the Tahoe had been hit, there would have been much more limited options for charges, and opens the police officer to liability for not warning traffic of an obstruction on the shoulder.

On the same trip, a few miles down the road, I saw another traffic stop on the opposite side of the divided highway.  The officer conducting that stop elected to leave all their emergency lights on, which was causing traffic issues on my side of the highway due to rubber necking.

The simple way to look at which emergency lights need to be activated is to look at traffic flow.  If you have vehicles approaching to the rear only, only the rear should be activated.  If traffic is coming from both front and rear, keep both the front and rear on.  If your agency is one that spends the money for a lighting and siren controller that allows for selection of groups of lights, keep enough on to indicate to traffic that an emergency vehicle is parked there.  Leaving all the lights on can be blinding, especially at night.  Turning off some of the front facing lights is phenomenal so you don’t blind yourself returning to the vehicle after making contact at a traffic stop.

Take a good look at your emergency lights in bright daylight.  Figure out what angles the lights are the brightest at, and take advantage of that when blocking intersections.  Some vehicles are great in all directions, some require parking at an angle to get more lights visible.  Don’t just turn them on and expect everyone to see them and notice them.

When you have multiple emergency vehicles at a scene, the vehicles that are closest to the scene, protected by other emergency vehicles, should have the emergency lights disabled.  The more vehicles that have lights activated, the more confusing it is for traffic, and creates more “rubber neckers.”  This can lead to secondary collisions, and more paperwork.

When it comes to the new “cruise lights” or the corner LED modules on new light bars operating at a very low power in a steady burn, they are a fantastic piece of kit for police vehicles. Try to have your agency procure them, or have them activated.  Having them on for patrols in high crime areas can help deter crime (just don’t run them all the time, or coordinate that some units have them on and others don’t.  You don’t want to always tell the bad guys you are coming).  They are a lifesaver to have when you are the first car on scene at a call, and you need other units to find you quickly.  Parking lights work in those situations as well, but cruise lights are a much better choice due to the colour and being higher on a vehicle.

Takedown and Alley lights should be included on all emergency vehicles, whether they are a “slick top” or equipped with a roof-mounted light bar.  The small size of modern LEDs, low power draw and the huge increase in safety makes this a requirement.  Additional white light to the front and sides can properly illuminate address numbers, help blind drivers during traffic stops so the officer approach is a surprise, or provide light for treatment of casualties.

If you have the ability to change your light patterns, there are many opinions out there.  Science is what matters: fast flickers get attention, but slow solid patterns get recognized.  Try to set some lights at high speed (don’t “split” lights if you can avoid it, as they are harder to see at a distance) for response driving, but keep some at a slow “wig-wag” back and forth so drivers can recognize the emergency vehicle from a longer distance to give them more warning.  It may not look as cool, but the look-cool-factor is less important than staying alive.  All of the major emergency equipment manufacturers are now have the technology available to synchronize all the lights, and tie them into the vehicle electronics.  The old “Park-kill” that disabled sirens when a vehicle is put in park can now be used to change light patterns from a fast flash to a slower flash, to allow for approaching traffic to see the vehicle better, and to take the appropriate actions of slowing down and moving over without blinding the drivers. If you don’t have the option, bring it up to your equipment guy and suggest these changes on the next vehicles coming in.

If you are the equipment guy, talk to your emergency vehicle up-fitter.  An up-fitter that is staying in touch with what’s new in the industry will be able to provide you all the details.  Look for an up-fitter that has a quality demonstration vehicle, and has pictures readily available for your perusal.  Ask for references.  A standard stereo shop is not equipped for emergency vehicle up-fitting, and tying in all the equipment such as lights, siren, radio, computer, camera system, radar, GPS antenna, etc. can cause serious issues with both the vehicle and the aftermarket equipment.  We have spoken at length with a newer company, 10-8 Equipment and Service, located in Eastern Ontario (, that has a very good understanding of what is required for different types of emergency vehicles, and is willing to properly warranty any of their work.







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