How to safely use emergency lights

Working on the highways and roadways of America is some of the most dangerous work a law enforcement officer can do. While the risks of who is in the car that is being stopped, the positioning of the patrol vehicle, how an officer exits the car, the approach of the violator vehicle and the retreat after contact is made are all vitally important in the safety of an officer, one of the most vital decisions that an officer must make when stopping on the roadway is the use of their emergency lights.

Generally in a fight, the more officers present the better the situation and that concept can just about be applied to everything we do in law enforcement with the exception of one important function. Just because we have a bunch of emergency lights does not necessarily mean that using all of them would be better. I have made this mistake more times than I care to admit. The United States Fire Administration describes this problem in their 2008 report titled Traffic Incident Management Systems.

“While it is clear that some lighting is necessary in order to warn approaching motorists of the presence of emergency responders, it is also suspected that too much or certain types of lighting can actually increase the hazard to personnel operating on the scene, particularly during nighttime operations.”

Emergency Light Discipline
The United States Fire Administration has it partly right and the mistakes I often made when it came to emergency lighting were not always as simple as turning off lights.

While there is sound evidence that more lighting is not necessarily better than less lighting and evidence does suggest that the combination of lights and flashing lights can create a gaze or “moth effect” on those that are driving towards the lights, the problem with the use of emergency lighting goes much deeper than the issue of the number of lights used.

How lights are used, when they are used, where they are located and what types of lights are used in certain conditions are just some of the topics to consider when giving an officer the keys to a patrol vehicle. Quite frankly, they are topics that I was never taught but they are vitally important to the safety of our officers and the motoring public.

Kelly Kyriakos is the Vice President of Sales for Code 3, Inc. and he has been in the emergency light industry for over twenty years. He confirms how important the proper use of emergency lighting is for law enforcement.

“There are people who want a Christmas tree on their car and that is well and good but you have to manage those lights. The critical points are making sure you have the right type of light for your conditions, where you place them and how you manage them with your controls. If you are doing those things you can really specify the type of lighting you need for your particular application. Ultimately it is about officer safety and the public’s safety.”

While at one time turning the lights completely off was the only way for first responders to render a safer stop, technology has stepped in to help. Lights can now be “dimmed” or some lights can be turned off while others remain on. Kyriakos agrees, “It makes more sense to dim the lights than to turn them off completely. There is no doubt that the switch should be configured to turn off some lights and never all of them.”

While the newer emergency lights and controls enable departments to configure their lights more safely, what about an agency that has lights and siren with no plans to replace them? “No problem” states Kyriakos. “That situation is common and one we can address. We have controls and switches that we can retrofit with older models.”

The use of lighting has taken the blame in several studies when describing the “moth effect” or drivers approaching a scene and being blinded but the entire picture is not easily observed. Lights are not the problem in so much as how they are used.

Color of Lights
Red and blue lights are generally associated with emergency responders and the question comes up as to which one is more efficient at signaling to other drivers. The color white is actually the most visible color for warning lights, followed by green and red. While white may be effective at gaining one’s attention, it does a terrible job of alerting drivers of danger ahead. The psychological effect of green being a “safe” color or “go” action does not lend itself as a credible color to use under dangerous situations. Red and blue have predominantly meant “danger” in our society, thus they have had wide popularity among first responders in regards to emergency lights.

Red lights are very important in the day because at a distance it is difficult to see blue lights but numerous data suggests that blue lights are more effective at night. The New York State Police began using blue lights to the rear of their vehicle in 2006 due to a rash of rear end collisions they were involved in prior to that and a 2004 study based in Florida also indicated that the color blue had a distinct advantage over red at night. The benefit of red in the daytime combined with the benefit of blue at night have led many agencies to use both lights in the course of duties that span all hours of the day.

Kyriakos agrees with the benefit of mixing light colors. “We’ve been a big proponent of mixing colors but tradition in some states and agencies dictate that may not be the case. The State of Florida has shown that a combination was the safest way and we suggest that, but it has to fall in the states requirement.”

Emergency Lighting Systems
Halogen and strobe lights were the mainstay in law enforcement until a few years ago. Since that time, Light-Emitting Diode Systems or LED’s have taken the market by storm for a number of reasons. They are brighter, less maintenance, less environmental concerns and they use less than a third of the power than halogens. LED’s will literally “cut” through fog and rain while halogens and strobes will “bounce” back rendering them very ineffective.

LED’s have all but eliminated the need for strobe lights. Halogens will likely remain in the market place as a low cost solution to emergency lighting.

A Practical Point of View
There are numerous studies that suggest various findings and while they all have their place in the discussion of officer safety, the street officer through experience will no doubt know what the safest means of lighting is.

Tulsa Police Corporal Dan Ward specializes in traffic enforcement and traffic control. His years of experience have told him one thing. “Lights can be dangerous if used improperly and if anything, you should have no sense of safety just because you are using a lot of emergency lights at a scene.”

Corporal Ward relays that one of the safest methods he has seen is turning off the red and blue lights and using only amber lighting when you are on the shoulder of the road. “People just tend to stay away from you and your car with the amber lighting activated.”

Indeed, it does appear that the use of amber lights should be stressed more in law enforcement. Retired New York State Police EVOC Instructor Robert Faugh states that “the amber light also sends a very specific message to those who view it: danger, caution and stay away. A driver who is drugged, drunk, elderly, tired, fatigued or confused will avoid the vehicle displaying the amber light. Amber also travels through fog, rain or snow much farther than red, blue or clear.”

The Answer
The advancement of emergency light technology has the potential to give officers a much safer environment but we must empower those officers with the information and that technology so they have additional options other than simply turning emergency lights off.

Deaths and injuries to first responders in general were one reason that on November 24, 2008, the United States Federal Highway Transportation Administration mandated the wearing of ANSI Level II Vests by workers at all times when working on the right-of-way on Federally Funded Highways. The use of lighting is equally important and while many of us, including myself, have been given very little information in regards to this issue, we should strive to know more which will ultimately make us safer.

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