July 11

The History Behind the Color of Fire Trucks

Last Updated on August 16, 2023

Have you ever wondered, “Why are fire trucks red?” This intriguing question has an even more interesting answer. Let’s dive into the history, psychology, and practicalities of fire truck colors, and you’ll soon realize that the world of fire trucks is far more colorful than you thought.

Roots of the Red Fire Truck

Everyone has seen at least one big red truck, sirens blaring, flashing lights, barreling down the street. But not everyone knows why most fire trucks are red. Many theories have speculated, and some trace the paint color to certain historical roots. Back then, the fire apparatus was often painted red, arguably because black paint was the more inexpensive color. When Henry Ford famously introduced the Model T in 1908, he used a type of paint called “Japan Black,” because it cost effective and durable. According to Ford’s oft-quoted statement, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

This fact meant that in the era of the Model T, black vehicles were common. Fire departments chose red for their trucks to differentiate themselves. Red was the more expensive color, making it more rare and therefore more eye-catching. As is the case today, black is still a common automotive color, along with gray and white being among the most popular. Red, though seen, is not as common and stands out.

Among the many theories, another ties the paint color to Queen Elizabeth. The story goes that her royal fire department had every fire engine painted red to demonstrate prestige. Whether these theories hold water or not, the association between fire and the color red is undeniably strong and instinctual. Fire, after all, often emits hues of bright red and orange. This link has led to many fire departments around the world sticking with the tradition of red colored trucks.

The Shift to Lime Yellow

Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century, and a new color started appearing on these emergency vehicles all across the United States. Lime yellow began to replace the traditional red.

A New York optometrist named Stephen Solomon kickstarted the trend after he analyzed accident data involving fire engines. His research showed that lime yellow, also called fluorescent green, is a highly visible color, even at night or in dim conditions. Solomon’s work suggested that lime yellow fire trucks were involved in fewer intersection accidents compared to their red counterparts. The Dallas Fire Department, among many others, took note and started repainting every fire engine.

This color shift was also influenced by a voluntary national standard issued by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). After examining Solomon’s research, the NFPA released a recommendation suggesting fire departments paint each of these emergency vehicles lime green or other greenish-yellow colors. Lime shades were found to be the most visible under different lighting conditions and with inclement weather. This led to many fire departments, particularly in smaller cities, shifting their color schemes.

This evolution in fire truck colors wasn’t just confined to the United States either. In Great Britain, many departments started painting their fire engines lime yellow, further globalizing the highly visible color. Municipalities that decided to maintain red began adding bright yellow reflective striping to the vehicles. That way they had the easily identifiable red, and could also be seen in low lighting.

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Fire Truck Color Changes infographic

Beyond Red and Lime Yellow

Fire engine colors don’t stop at red or lime yellow either. They can be bright yellow and more. Today, you might even see white cabs on fire engines, or even blue and black among certain departments. Each color choice often comes with practical reasoning. For example, white cabs reduce heat absorption, while blue or black vehicles can be more visible in certain environments. Ultimately, these trucks continue to fight fires, but their color scheme will vary, with red still being the most common.

Global fire trucks infographic

Truck Color Factors

The fire engine in your community may be red, but somewhere else these emergency vehicles could take on a whole new aesthetic. Here are some factors that determine which shade you will see.

Truck Color Factors infographic


This trait determines how well the fire truck is seen during the day and at night. First responders rely on visibility so that they don’t get into accidents with civilians, and also so that they can respond quickly to emergencies. There’s no way to safely pull over for these emergency vehicles if you can’t see them.


Red was once the most expensive paint available, which helped emergency vehicles in this hue stand out. Today, there is no significant cost difference between the various colors. For that reason, this deciding factor is oftentimes irrelevant depending on where you live in the world.


Rather than straying away from red, some departments rely on people’s instinctive association of red with fire trucks. This ensure efficiency when providing emergency services. And depending on where you live, some departments maintain their current colors, even if not red, for tradition’s sake.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do fire trucks have to be red?

No, fire trucks do not have to be red. While red is a common color for fire trucks, many fire departments use other colors like lime yellow, white, blue, or even black for their vehicles.

Why are some fire trucks yellow or green?

Some fire trucks are yellow/green because research shows that lime yellow (a greenish-yellow color) is more visible than red, particularly in low lighting conditions. This increased visibility can help reduce accidents involving fire trucks and ensures civilians move over for first responders quicker.

What do the different color fire trucks mean?

The color choice is often influenced by factors such as visibility, tradition, and sometimes, the specific function of the truck within the fire department. For instance, certain special operations units within fire departments may use different colored vehicles for easy identification.

When did fire trucks become red?

The tradition of red fire trucks dates back to the early 1900s. With the emergence of the Model T and other Ford vehicles, black was the cheapest and most common color on vehicles. Some early fire departments opted for red because it was more expensive color and therefore less common.


From the bustling city streets of Tokyo to the cobblestone roads of Rome, to cities here in the USA, red fire trucks have been a ubiquitous sight. The fire engine in your neighborhood may even red, but that’s not their color everywhere in the world, or here at home. These vehicles have a vibrant and colorful history that extends far beyond the fires they fight. From the bright red paint of early fire engines to the fluorescent green of more modern trucks, there’s a reason behind each color.

Research conducted has proven the link between why the image of a fire truck is inextricably linked to the color red, but also that red is not always the best color. However, this connection is so strong that, despite the advantages of colors like lime green in terms of visibility, many fire departments continue to favor red for their fire engines. Red will likely always be the dominant shade.

The next time you see a first responders racing down the street, take a moment to appreciate not just the brave individuals inside but also the thoughtful, scientific, and historical reasons behind the color of the vehicle. And remember, the world of fire trucks is far more colorful than just fire engine red.

Are you intrigued by the colorful world of fire trucks and want to see more? Are you’re hoping to procure your own as a work or recreational vehicle. If so, head over to our fire apparatus catalog and see which trucks, sirens, and other accessories catch your eye!


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