Sunday Fun – Red Lights

Do you have a red light outside your firehouse? Ever wonder why? Besides “tradition” or “it’s just always been there?”
Indeed some of the best stuff on this job comes from the early days of the American Fire Service.

Much like the early days of the railroad, when the brakeman would take the red light from the rear of the train and hang it from the door of wherever he was (Often houses of ill-repute, hence the red light district) the tradition of lanterns at firehouses is similar.

There have been great discussions about why fire apparatus run with the color lights they do. Most are red, some red and blue or red and green, but why red?

In my service the red lantern outside the house signified that the company, or even earlier, the hose wagon and hand pump were in the shed/building. In the early years the community served as firefighters. There is a great scene from the HBO miniseries John Adams when he returns home from a long day and someone outside yells “FIRE!” He scrambles for his coat and grabs his buckets and is out the door. Turns out it was British soldiers firing on a gathering, but that’s a different tale.

When hose carts and pumps are introduced, they aren’t simply parked on the street or in an ornate fire hall, but in a shed. The way to spot the shed was by the lantern hung on the door and a simple marking.

When the piece of equipment was taken out, the lantern was placed on it and the shed would be empty. If the door closed and others came for the pump, keep in mind everyone is mobilized to help, and the lantern is gone, they move to the next shed that keeps equipment.

The lantern on the door signifies the equipment is in place.

As companies began to specialize there was a need for volunteers to organize either at the scene or at the Company Hall. If they arrived at the hall and the lanterns were gone, they would go to the fire. If the lantern is hanging, they would organize a team to pull the gear. A lantern clearly visible from the end of the block saved each member from running to the hall to peek inside.

Here, Ladder companies hung green lanterns and steamers red. In dual company houses there needed to be such a separation to avoid confusion.

Today our ladders still run with a single green light on the front. It also makes it easier to see them coming at night so you can decide whether to lay a line and block the truck or wait a moment and let them through.

Conveniently, as the apparatus continued to evolve, the lantern became a lamp, then a light, then a beacon, now a strobe or LED. And the old position of the lantern is taken by a red light which still signifies to the community that the building is a fire hall. Although now the light is always on.

If you know of a company that shuts their lights off when they are out of quarters, I’d like to know.

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26 thoughts on “Sunday Fun – Red Lights”

  1. At my first VFD in western PA there are two red lights on the front of the building. They’re steady if all is normal and switch to flashing if the siren is activated. When the equipment returns to the firehouse after the call the lights are reset.

  2. At my first VFD in western PA there are two red lights on the front of the building. They’re steady if all is normal and switch to flashing if the siren is activated. When the equipment returns to the firehouse after the call the lights are reset.

  3. Thanks for attacking a question that just popped up for me the other day as I drove by Kansas City MO’s Station 28 and noticed the red lighting outside! Now I’ll have to wait for a night when I drive by and the pumper is out to see if the red lights are turned off. (The apparatus floor is dimly lit when the pumper is out, I have observed that.) Thanks for a fun post!

  4. Thanks for attacking a question that just popped up for me the other day as I drove by Kansas City MO’s Station 28 and noticed the red lighting outside! Now I’ll have to wait for a night when I drive by and the pumper is out to see if the red lights are turned off. (The apparatus floor is dimly lit when the pumper is out, I have observed that.) Thanks for a fun post!

  5. Great post, great writing.

    Here, in the West, some of these traditions and histories never transcended the Plains during the great migration. In addition, most of our cities aren’t that old. But this is the kind of fascinating history that makes history fun.

    When I went to college, I was a volunteer at a small town FD in SE Washington. In Washington, volunteers can put green lights on their private vehicles for when they are responding to emergencies. (Of course we weren’t allowed to go C-3, or drive over the speed limit [cough!], but it was to let others know we needed to get through traffic more easily).

    Thanks for this bit of history!

  6. Great post, great writing.

    Here, in the West, some of these traditions and histories never transcended the Plains during the great migration. In addition, most of our cities aren’t that old. But this is the kind of fascinating history that makes history fun.

    When I went to college, I was a volunteer at a small town FD in SE Washington. In Washington, volunteers can put green lights on their private vehicles for when they are responding to emergencies. (Of course we weren’t allowed to go C-3, or drive over the speed limit [cough!], but it was to let others know we needed to get through traffic more easily).

    Thanks for this bit of history!

    1. Tom,
      This is a photo of “Old Chemical Engine 2″ in San Francisco. It is now a private business but still keeps the red lights lit and the original slide pole in place. It is a stop on my Fireman’s Walking Tour of SF. Currently in editing.

    1. Tom,
      This is a photo of “Old Chemical Engine 2″ in San Francisco. It is now a private business but still keeps the red lights lit and the original slide pole in place. It is a stop on my Fireman’s Walking Tour of SF. Currently in editing.

  7. The older firehouse where i live in Danville,IN has always had three red lights above the apparatus bay doors, one above each bay. They are kept on 24/7. I have always wondered what they were for, now i know. Thanks for the post.

  8. The older firehouse where i live in Danville,IN has always had three red lights above the apparatus bay doors, one above each bay. They are kept on 24/7. I have always wondered what they were for, now i know. Thanks for the post.

  9. I was under the impression that Berkeley and/or Albany (California) turned the red light off when they were out, I’ll have to check.

  10. I was under the impression that Berkeley and/or Albany (California) turned the red light off when they were out, I’ll have to check.

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