Why are fire trucks red?

Fire trucks being painted the colour red is such an ingrained norm that there is even a colour called, ‘fire engine red’. But just why are fire trucks red?

The earliest known fire engine was developed by Richard Newsham, an English inventor, in 1721. He painted his engine red. So, that seems to be where it all started. However, there is no settled explanation for why the garish tint has almost universally continued to be adopted.

There are a couple of dominant theories to explain why.  

First, to make them clearly identifiable. When motor vehicles were first introduced, the vast majority of them were painted black. Henry Ford’s domination of the market was achieved through standardising his product. If you wanted a Ford, you had a choice of black, black or black. With all of the black cars on the road, it was hard to miss a big red fire truck.

Second, it was a frugal choice. The earliest fire departments were not well-funded enterprises and consisted wholly of volunteers. Their lack of resources led them to make choices based on what they could afford. Red was apparently a cheap paint colour and so they went with that. Even when they become government funded and their financial position improved, they couldn’t justify the colour change because people has become so accustomed to fire trucks being red that it was considered a safety risk to change the colour.

Despite the ubiquity of red fire trucks, not all of them are actually red. Some fire departments have elected to paint their trucks yellow, green and pink. In modern times, it seems that the choice of base colour isn’t as critical as it may once have been. Irrespective of their colour, they all come with sirens, flashing flights and fluoro strips which makes them almost impossible to miss.

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