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How to buy light bars

Many considerations go into purchasing the right lighting solution for your police department’s patrol vehicles

By James Careless, P1 Contributor

Police vehicle roof-mounted emergency lighting has come a long way from the single beacon rotating lights – often referred to as “cherries on top” – that first entered service in the 1940s. Today law enforcement agencies can choose from a range of sophisticated emergency light bar options to warn motorists to make way for approaching patrol cars, avoid officers at roadside stops and stay clear of areas cordoned off during emergency situations.

Of course, increased choice presents police chiefs with additional decisions to make when selecting new light bars for their cars, SUVs and trucks. Here are some suggestions to make the selection process easier.

Where do you work?

The working environment in which a department operates shapes the kinds of incidents its officers respond to, and their most pressing lighting needs.

An urban-based PD needs brilliant light bars that grab drivers’ attention from a distance, so that their cars can cut through traffic easily. A rural PD needs light bars that can serve many purposes, from warning and steering drivers away from highway roadside stops, to illuminating search areas in dark, unlit countryside.

Your department’s particular working environment should guide your selection of light bars. Ideally, the new light bars should do everything your old lighting system did, plus offer enhanced illumination to officers to do their jobs safer and easier.

Get the right brightness

A lumen is a unit that indicates how much visible light is being emitted by a lighting source. Like horsepower in a car engine, the more lumens a light bar emits, the better. So ask vendors for their light bar lumens output information so that you can compare their light outputs accurately.

These days, most light bars are being fitted with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) rather than halogen light bulbs. This is good news: Solid-state LEDs provide more light, longer lifespans and better durability than any bulb-based lighting system can.

Consider the lighting patterns and options

Today’s light bars offer LEDs in color mixes that include red, blue, white, amber and even green. This selection is managed by a series of color (single and multi-color) and flash patterns controllable within the vehicle.

Besides using a mix of red-white-blue flashes to make motorists actually pay attention to patrol vehicles, light bars can direct them left or right using moving amber light patterns. Meanwhile, incident scenes can be illuminated by putting the light bar in full-white always-on mode.

To choose the right set of colors and patterns, look through each vendor’s suite of options and see how easy they are for officers to select during high-stress situations. Also check if each vendor’s color/flash patterns are compliant with regulations in your state, such as California Title 13.

Size and shape matters

There is no doubt that low-profile light bars have less wind resistance while looking undeniably cool. But in some circumstance, taller bars may be a better choice because they are more visible in a motorist’s rear view mirror.

Meanwhile, a straight light bar may be harder to see from the side, compared to one shaped in a V or W configuration. Since the purpose of a light bar is to be seen at all times, choosing a V- or W-shape over a straight bar may be a better choice.

Consider compatibility, usefulness and ruggedness

Unless you are only outfitting new police vehicles with pristine equipment, new light bars should be compatible with the department’s existing siren/light bar control heads. New light bars should also not impair or eliminate already-installed features that officers currently rely on.

New light bars should also be rugged and reliable in all conditions. This means being able to endure the bumps and shakes of high-speed pursuits, and working within the jurisdiction’s temperature and rain/snowfall extremes without fail. They should also be easy to service and repair; preferably without removing from the car rooftop whenever possible.

About the author
James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering law enforcement topics.