OK…so that’s an old joke, but it does reveal a common fact that many people WONDER about: why are fire trucks red? If you ask anyone to color a picture of a fire truck, they’ll most likely color it red. Why is that?
One popular answer to why fire trucks are red 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!”
Of course, that’s just a joke with questionable logic. The real reason why fire trucks are red remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. There are, however, a few competing theories out there, one of which may contain some or most of the truth.
For example, one theory holds that fire trucks are red, because the earliest fire departments were made up of unpaid volunteers. These volunteers didn’t have much money, and red was the cheapest color of paint to use, so they painted their fire trucks red.
A competing theory dates back to the same time when fire departments were composed of unpaid volunteers. According to this other theory, however, there was fierce competition amongst the volunteer brigades of neighboring towns. Because red was the most expensive color of paint, volunteers used red to make their fire trucks stand out as a source of pride.
Of course, these two theories are related but opposite. Another theory holds that fire trucks were painted red to make them stand out from all the other vehicles on the road. In the early 1900s, Ford only offered cars in black, so red fire trucks would be sure to stand out amidst the sea of black vehicles on the road.
Standing out from the crowd is obviously a good quality for a fire truck — or any emergency vehicle — to have. But is red the best color to stand out, especially at night? Experts would say, “No!” Rather than red, studies have shown that yellow or lime green is most easily seen after dark.
Today, red remains by far the most popular color for fire trucks and a variety of other emergency vehicles. However, you will also see many other colors of fire trucks. For example, it’s not uncommon to see fire trucks that are white, yellow, blue, orange, green, and even black.