Fire Apparatus Headlights: A Lot to Know

Not all firetrucks need a pump. Not all trucks need a ladder. But, one thing every fire apparatus needs is a set of headlights. In the United States, virtually every area of the fire apparatus has been enhanced, improved, and given significant funding by spec committees to improve the safety of the crews.

In an era of “Million Dollar Fire Apparatus” equipped with the latest technology from many Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) member companies, it is surprising that these purpose-built ultra-high-end tools are still sometimes fitted with headlights whose design has not changed significantly since the 1960s.

Headlight Platforms

When it comes to headlights for fire apparatus, there are two primary platforms apparatus manufacturers use: a molded headlight like you’d see on most passenger vehicles (less common) and a set of “sealed-beam” headlights, typically found in sets of four in the firefighting industry. The automotive-style molded headlight is often found on modern commercial cab chassis, and because of its mass production design focus, this design is less configurable by the apparatus specifying committee. The sealed-beam variety, however, is a platform with a seemingly never-ending list of configuration options. These options include halogen, HID, and LED source types with features like integrated halo park lamps, lens heaters, and pressure-equalizing vent valves.

When I ask firefighters “If you could waive a magic wand, what would you change about the lighting on your rig,” I consistently hear, “THE HEADLIGHTS!” It surprises me every time, especially with the frequency I see apparatus committees specifying apparatus with $40,000 of scene lights and $200 of 1950s glass and halogen archaic headlights. Why? Often, it appears to boil down to cost. A set of four properly designed and certified LED headlights can cost anywhere from $800 to $1,500 per set. Are they worth it? That depends on what’s important to you. An LED headlight should never burn out, should produce significantly more light than a halogen, and should allow for operation in any weather for the life of the apparatus.

Headlight FAQs

As technologies continue to emerge, fire departments often look for ways to upgrade their fleets. A few common questions fire apparatus manufactures are asked related to headlights follow.

 “If I need to see while I am pulling up to a scene, I’ll just turn the brow lights on”

Despite how tempting this may be, driving with auxiliary scene lighting switched to “on” above the level of the apparatus’ headlights is illegal in most states. In most situations, as vehicles approach a motorist traveling in the opposite direction, the headlights serve as an early indicator of their presence. Even around bends and winds in the road, other vehicles’ headlights serve to let you know, “hey we’re coming,” and allow you to prepare to meet them (and if your high beams are on, to switch them back to low-beam mode). When a fire truck is driving with its forward-facing scene lights on, the overwhelming power of those fixtures easily drowns out the early-indication of the approach of that passing motorist. In turn, when the vehicles finally meet, the apparatus immediately blinds the motorist as it passes. The liability of such an interaction is tremendous—thus the reason operating brow lights while driving is illegal (and a bad idea).

“I can buy a set of LED headlights on for $50 each, so why would I spend $2,000 from my apparatus manufacturer for an upgraded set?”

A properly designed set of headlights for use on roadways must be designed to comply with an extremely precise set of photometric requirements spelled out in both SAE standards as well as FMVSS108. This set of photometric requirements ensures light from the headlights is sufficiently bright to illuminate the roadway, but more importantly ensures that light from the headlight of your vehicle does not present a hazard to other vehicles sharing the roadway. Just because the truck says, “FIRE DEPARTMENT,” on it does not exempt it from the law.

When looking at headlights, make sure to check out the lens for a set of codes. One FAMA member company that manufactures LED headlights explains, “our headlights are marked DOT SAE VOR HL P 16. This marking identifies the test standard, the cutoff angle and how to aim it, the source type, and the year it was certified.” While the specific markings vary by brand and configuration, a headlight lacking this data does not conform with the requirements in FMVSS108 and is not legal for use on roadways in north America.

“I have a vehicle with replaceable bulbs. Can’t I just buy LED upgrade bulbs for these headlights?”

This is a common misconception that has the potential to open a fire department up to a tremendous amount of liability in the event of a collision. As mentioned above, headlights must be tested to conform with a precise set of photometric requirements set forth in FMVSS108. The lamp by itself is not tested; rather, the entire headlight assembly is tested for conformity. Once it passes, the headlight manufacturer codes the lens with the appropriate data denoting the configuration, etc. When the source type is changed, the headlight no longer produces an identical photometric pattern and therefore no longer matches the lens coding permanently affixed to the lens of the housing. This does not apply to making a change from one brand of light bulb to another, as long as the wattage and source type remain the same (55-watt halogen to 55-watt halogen, 35-watt HID to 35-watt HID, etc).

When more light output is desired and a new headlight module is not a viable option, one option to consider is installing a set of auxiliary driving or fog lights. These are often available in DOT-compliant LED variants for relatively low cost.

Headlights’ Impact

There are a variety of options to choose from when specifying headlights on a fire apparatus. Some are very low cost, some more expensive, but nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the headlight selection you make for your apparatus can have a tremendous impact on your ability to answer the call safely at night. Many headlight manufacturers are willing to offer demo sets, or have sales teams who can sit down with your committee to explain the differences in headlight options and types.

FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.