Why are Firetrucks Red?

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Most everyone has heard the joke about the child calling the fire station to report a fire. When asked how to get to the fire, she replies “Duh, in the big red truck.” The joke usually gets a chuckle or two but have you ever asked the question? Why are firetrucks red?

Many stories and jokes circulate about why the firetrucks are red. According to many sources online including Wonderopolis, the story goes something like this. “Because they have eight wheels and four people on them, and four plus eight makes twelve, and there are twelve inches in a foot, and one foot is a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was also a ship, and the ship sailed the seas, and there were fish in the seas, and fish have fins, and the Finns fought the Russians, and the Russians are red, and fire trucks are always “Russian” around, so that’s why fire trucks are red!”

Old Red Volvo Fire Engine

Photo: By Alf van Beem

Again, usually good for a chuckle but is there science behind why firetrucks are red? According to Rockland Firefighters, fire engines were first painted red back in the 1800s. Competition between fire brigades was fierce. Each department wanted their fire engine to be the fanciest, highest quality, prettiest fire engine around. Because red was the most expensive color of paint available, most crews chose it for their fire engines.

Other sources cite the tradition of painting fire engines red going back to the early 1920s when Henry Ford began mass producing automobiles. Mr. Ford believed the customer should come first and get whatever they wanted in their automobiles. He said they could have any color they wanted, as long as it was black. Because so many black cars were covering the roads, fire engines were painted red to stand out.


Photo: Public Domain/Anna Langova

All of this is folklore but there really is science to back up the choice of red as the color for fire engines. According to Truly Geeky, emergency vehicles such as fire trucks should be large, brightly colored, and have an easily recognizable shape. Psychologically, we have been trained to associate red with danger. After all, it is the color of both fire and blood.

In addition, the color red is made up of the highest light wavelength. The higher the wavelength, the stronger the color and the further away it can be seen. Think of a rainbow. What color do you notice first?

Some studies show that lime green actually shows up better than red but still if you ask someone to draw and color a picture of a firetruck, most of them automatically reach for red.

Let’s leave it up to you. Why do you think most firetrucks are red?