Ambulance Lights – A History

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The sight of flashing ambulance lights is highly recognizable, but it was not always that way. The evolution of ambulance lights has been a long one, and it continues to this day.

Technology has greatly improved since 1869, when the first horse-drawn ambulance system arrived in New York City. Those original ambulances relied on sound to attract attention instead of lights, using a gong to alert others on the road that they were coming through.

In 1909, gas-powered auto ambulances came on the scene and with them, interior lighting to better see patients, though there were still no exterior lights in place.

Emergency vehicles were often hearses and other service vehicles, quickly modified to transport ill and injured people. Because of this, light systems were not necessarily permanent. EMS teams had to make quick changes to the existing vehicle to make it suitable for its purpose.

Visual light warning systems were as simple as a light on top of the vehicle, or a few dashboard mounted lights. In some cases, there were no visual warning systems at all.

Federal standards for exterior light alerts did not arrive until the 1970s. Until then, light requirements for each ambulance team was open to interpretation. Some ambulances had no lights, some had several, but none of them were up to the standards of today’s lighting.

Even with some standards in place, each state had various rules for colors, placement, flashing patterns of lights, and even whether or not lights were required at all. Even now, the strobe types, colors, and number of lights on ambulances still varies from state to state. Federal standards only set out a minimum regulation.

Regardless of how each state sets out its rules, it is clear, however, that emergency lights are vital for the protection of everyone on the road. Ambulance lights are one of the first things people see, sometimes before they hear the sirens. By investing in high-quality emergency light systems that meet federal and state standards, EMS professionals will be able to their job with speed and safety.

LED technology lasts longer and is more vivid than its lighting predecessors. They can be housed in light bars, light heads, and scene lights. Newer ambulance lights strike a balance between alerting drivers and illuminating a scene.

New ambulance light systems can also be used to pre-empt traffic signals and open gates. This is important, as intersections pose a large risk of collisions and other accidents.

As ambulance light technology continues to improve, we may see even greater benefits from visual warning systems. Researchers are looking at what colors, strobe patterns, and placements work to best alert other drivers on the road. They are using those findings to create the ideal emergency vehicle lights.

Whether on route to pick up a patient, traveling to the hospital, or parked at a scene, ambulances need effective lighting systems that are designed to last.

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