When you see a truck speeding down the street with its sirens blaring and lights flashing, there’s no mistaking it for anything other than a fire truck. And even though fire trucks come in all shapes and sizes, there is one common denominator between them all: their color.

Why are fire trucks always painted red? It turns out that there’s a pretty interesting history behind it. Let’s take a closer look.

When did fire trucks become red?

These days when you see a fire truck speeding down the street, its red color is probably the last thing on your mind. After all, with all the other vehicles on the road, what stands out most are its sirens and strobe lights. But it wasn’t always this way. In the industrial age, fire departments painted their wagons in different colors to identify their status and individuality.

The first ever instance of firefighting was in ancient Rome. However, these early fire engines were nothing like the ones we have today. The first fire engines were more like carts pulled by horses or men. They weren’t very effective at putting out fires.

antique fire engine

Antique fire engine, Seattle, 1905

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that fire trucks began to resemble the ones we know today. By 1925, gasoline-powered fire engines became more common as the century progressed. But throughout the years, a common feature of early fire trucks was their color; they were painted bright red.

Knox Fire Engine

A later model of Knox’s first modern fire engine, manufactured in 1905.

So how did the red fire truck come to be?

Theory 1: Unpaid volunteers didn’t have enough money to paint the truck any other color

One popular theory is that the early fire departments painted their fire engines red because the volunteer firefighters who operated them had no money to paint them any other color. This theory suggests that people used red as the most commonly color because it was the cheapest color of paint available.

Theory 2: Fierce competition among volunteer firefighters led them to use more expensive red paint

Another theory is that the first responders who operated the early fire engines competed with each other. They painted their wagons red to stand out from the rest. This theory suggests that red was the most expensive paint color available, but the firefighters used it anyway to show that they were the best at their job.

Theory 3: Ford only offered cars in black, so they used red to make their trucks stand out

The third and final theory is that the paint color of early fire trucks was red because Henry Ford only offered its cars in black. This theory suggests that since all of the other vehicles on the road were black, the fire trucks needed to be a different color to stand out.

Are fire trucks supposed to be red?

Red is the most visible color in the spectrum, which makes it easier for people to see a red fire truck from a distance. It is also a highly contrasting color, which means it stands out more against its surroundings. Contrast can be helpful when a fire truck needs to be seen in low-light or nighttime conditions.

What is fire engine red?

The bright, vivid red used on fire trucks is so distinctive that it has its name: “fire engine red.” There are also swatches of paint in this vibrant color. According to the color experts at Pantone, fire engine red has the hex code #CE2029. It consists of 74% red, 11% green, and 15% blue, with 84% saturation and 81% brightness. 

Do fire trucks come in other colors?

Yes, fire departments across the world use a variety of colors for their fire trucks. While the most common color is red, you can also find fire trucks in various colors, including blue, orange, lime green, fluorescent green, and even pink.

Pink is not a very common color for fire trucks, but some departments have used it. The pink fire truck symbolizes support for people affected by cancer.

pink fire truck

Guardians of the Ribbon – 2011 Pink Heals Tour, North Charleston

Photo by Ryan Johnson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Canberra, Australia, features one of the most eye-catching colors of fire trucks. There’s a very practical reason why Canberra chose such a bright color for their fire trucks. It’s because a bright yellow-green color is highly visible from a distance.

yellow green fire truck

HP Bronto Skylift of the Australian Capital Territory Fire Brigade in Canberra. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Are lime yellow or lime green fire trucks safer than red?

According to a recent study by Stephen Solomon, a New York optometrist, lime yellow fire trucks may be safer than traditional red ones. The study found that the brighter color is more visible during the day and night, even in low lighting and dim conditions. This increased visibility can help drivers avoid accidents. It can also help firefighters get to the scene of an emergency more quickly. 

In addition, the study found that lime yellow fire trucks are less likely to be involved in accidents overall.

While the reasons for this are not fully understood, the increased visibility of the trucks may make them more likely to be seen by other drivers. They can then take steps to avoid an accident. Whether or not greenish yellow colors of fire trucks are safer than using red, they certainly offer some benefits that could make them worth considering.

What is the best color for an emergency vehicle?

Depending on our cultural background and personal experiences, different colors can trigger different psychological responses. For example, we associate red with danger or aggression because it raises our heart rate and blood pressure. Conversely, we see blue as calming and reassuring because it lowers heart rate and blood pressure.”

Of course, these are just generalizations; not everyone will have the same response to every color. However, it’s important to consider how some interpret different colors. So if an emergency vehicle is supposed to stand out, we want people to see it and react appropriately.

In addition to considering the psychological effects of different colors, we must also consider how those colors will look in different scenarios. For example, let’s say you’re looking for a black cat in a dark room. Is it going to be easier to find the cat if the painting of the room is entirely black? Or is it easier if there is some other source of contrast, like a white rug or a lamp, that makes the cat stand out?

The same principle applies to emergency vehicles. We want them to be noticeable, which means they need some contrast relative to their surroundings.

So, what’s the best color for a firetruck? The short answer is that there isn’t any one “best” color; it depends on the situation. In general, we want emergency vehicles to be highly visible so that people can see them and react accordingly. Different colors can affect our emotions and physiology, so choosing a color (or combination of colors) that will contrast nicely with its surroundings while also sending the right message is important. 

Ultimately, the most important thing is that emergency vehicles, such as fire trucks, are big and bright, so they’re impossible to miss.

In 2009, the NFPA released an update to their 1901 standard for fire trucks, which now requires all vehicles to have chevron reflective striping in red and yellow on the front, sides, and rear. Reflective striping helps to make red fire trucks more visible at night.

chevron markings on the rear of fire truck

Here’s a photo that shows the NFPA 1901 approved chevron markings on the rear of a fire truck. Boonie45, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, why are fire trucks red? While there are many colors of fire trucks, red ultimately won out because of its unique combination of visibility and emotional impact.

Today, most fire trucks are red not only because it is tradition but also because it would be difficult to unlearn our association of red with fire and urgency.