About Emergency Police Lights
Police and emergency lights come in various forms and use different types of technology. In this article, we review the evolution of police lights, the latest lighting that you will find on law enforcement vehicles, and the most popular questions asked.
Rotating Police Lights
Rotating or revolving lights are what we usually think of when we consider police lights. Traditionally, these lights contain a single bulb that a curved mirror spins around to create rotating beams of light that look as if the bulb is moving in a circular direction. This effect can also make it look like the light bulb is flashing.
Large rotating lights were made up of up to four bulbs as a sealed-beam lamp that rotated together. These also came as single beacons or larger lightbars that spread out across the police vehicle. Later on, lightbars started to use diamond or V-shaped mirrors between lamps, which produced the effect of having several flashing lights operating simultaneously.
Regardless of how many light bulbs were contained inside a rotating light fixture, the beacon worked the same way. A plastic dome covered it for added protection. The dome was usually a solid color, although it could have been two different colors. Multi-colored domes were sometimes one color in the front and another in the back. It was also possible for the dome to be clear and the lightbulbs themselves to be different colors. A siren enclosure may have sat between two domes that can house mirrors, rotating beacons, and fixed-beam lights.
Rotating light beacons can use several different types of bulbs. The most common type today is LED technology that simulates rotation. LEDs are bright, durable, and cost-effective. LED emergency vehicle light products are now almost mainstream and prominent in police departments across the country. Older technology such as incandescent bulbs or quartz-halogen bulbs used in rotating lights are quickly being phased out and are hard to find.
Steady Burning Police Lights
Steady burning lights operate much as the name suggests – they provide a single, constant flood of light. They are not designed to draw attention but rather for utility. One way they are often used is as floodlights on scenes. In this type of instance, the purpose of steady burning lights is primarily scene illumination – helping first responders and police officers adequately see what they are doing.
Steady burning lights can also be colored lights that are used to alert motorists to the presence of an emergency or hazard. In this type of situation, the steady burning light would be used simultaneously as a rotating or flashing light instead of operating solo. This is not always the case, though. Some emergency vehicles have historically only used steady burning lights.
Prevailing Technology – LED Police Lights
LED lights are becoming increasingly popular among emergency service departments in the United States. There are several reasons for this. First, LED lights tend to be more efficient in conserving vehicle battery power and are longer-lasting than other types of lights. They do not have filaments that will burn out, increasing their longevity and making them a cost-effective alternative to traditional light sources.
Next, LED lights are very bright, creating super-bright police lights that are nearly impossible to miss. They can be seen from far distances, which is critical for drivers of emergency vehicles who rely on other motorists to pay attention and get out of their way when responding to an emergency call. Their brightness makes them stand out even on sunny days. Because their brightness can quickly become a safety hazard, most states limit how bright an LED light display can be. A common limit is no more luminous than the light 300 candles burning at one time would emit.
LED police lights can be used in single beacons or light bars. Either way, most police units opt for a clear, colorless dome with red and blue colored lights instead of a colored dome with colorless lights. Because they are so bright, having a colored LED light just makes more sense. It is also possible to make LED lightbars extremely thin. This can reduce wind resistance without adding a lot of weight or bulk to a police vehicle. They can also be made very thin. This ability can be useful for new and innovative applications. For instance, a police squad could install an LED-based light under a sun visor that can simply flip up when the police officer needs to turn on the lights.
LED lights are often used in a similar way to strobe lights. One difference is that it is easy to program LED police lights to incorporate various flash patterns. Police officers can use electronic switches to directly turn them on and off instead of discharging a capacitator through a tube full of gas, like conventional strobe lights.
One drawback of LED police lights is that they do not produce a lot of heat when they are in use. This is becoming a growing concern in colder areas because the LED lights may not get warm enough to melt snow or ice that accumulates on the light fixture. Snow and ice buildup can make it more difficult for motorists to see an emergency vehicle’s flashing lights, leading to a potentially dangerous situation. This can be avoided with regular inspection.
Strobe Police Lights
Conventional strobe lights operated by means of sending a large current through a gas tube, which would ionize the gas and create bright, brief flashes of light. The light that was produced would make red lightbars look more fuchsia or even purple than red because it had a blue emission.
The intense light put off by strobe lights increased visibility for police officers and emergency responders. However, the quick flashes created some other visibility challenges. The result was a new design that emitted several flashes in a row from one lightbulb and then doing the same with the other. This gave the human brain and eye a minute to focus on the source of light.
Since the proliferation of LED lights in emergency vehicles, strobe lighting operates differently. What we see today as strobe lighting is more a mimicry of the traditional strobe effect. LED lights have been designed to provide illumination with several short-term flashes. Strobe lights are not always as effective as rotating lights or conventional lightbars. Some departments do not like to use strobe lights because they can make it difficult for motorists to determine how far away a police car is.
Mounting Emergency and Police Lights on Cars and Trucks
There are several ways that emergency and police lights can be mounted. There are also different places on or in a vehicle that might make tactical sense to mount emergency lights. Here’s a rundown of how mounting police and emergency lights commonly works.
Historic Roof-Mounted Single Beacon
Rotating beacons were first introduced in the United States in 1948. Since then, they have become synonymous with law enforcement. In recent years, single beacons have been primarily replaced by light bars. The Michigan State Police was the only state police department in the U.S. to keep using single beacon lights until 2018. They were finally replaced by an LED lighting system designed to keep police officers and motorists safer. Beacons are also used on some other types of vehicles that do not have a conducive way of installing a lightbar, such as construction equipment vehicles.
Single beacon mounted lights often operate using rotating lamps or mirrors. They can also use strobe lights under a translucent dome. The most economical single beacon mounted lights are just blinking incandescent bulbs. These are often no longer seen, as LED lights have replaced most incandescent bulbs in police lights across the country.
As far as mounting a single beacon, many of them can be mounted using a magnet. This is beneficial for people such as volunteer firefighters who are authorized to use an emergency light on their vehicle but do not need to have it readily available all the time. It is an easy and cost-effective way to mount the light quickly and temporarily. These are usually round or aerodynamically shaped.
The Prolific Light Bar
As technology progressed, so did mounting options for police and emergency lights. The lightbar referred to a metal bar that sat on a vehicle’s roof and held two rotating light beacons in its earliest days. It also had sirens and stationary lights. Then, light beacon manufacturers began to make more complete lightbars, similar to what many of today’s police departments use.
Modern light bars are made up of a single unit. Lightbars can use LED-based lights or halogen lights. They can also be configured in various flash patterns, including strobe, rotating, or fixed. The colors and tiers of color shades can be changed, depending on the situation at hand. For example, a police officer could shift the light forward using clear halogen lights to illuminate a stopped vehicle. They could also shed amber or red light toward the vehicle’s rear to keep a scene protected.
Some law enforcement agencies prefer buying custom-made lightbars specially designed to meet their needs and utilization purposes. For example, agencies that want a way to illuminate a vehicle’s side might want to get light bars that use multiple rotating beacons that form a “V” pattern. Or, a department that wants to focus on making more stealthy approaches and maintain a lower profile could prefer to have a lightbar designed that hugs the vehicle’s roof.
Many of today’s police vehicles have a siren speaker located near or on the front bumper. This means that a lot of modern light bars don’t have a siren house and use that space to store more lighting options instead.
Permanent Body-Mounted Police Lights
The lightbars and single beacon lights we have discussed are usually mounted on the body of the vehicle. While magnetic options do exist for single beacon lights, most body-mounted lighting systems are permanent and can be added to emergency vehicles as well as authorized unmarked vehicles. Unmarked vehicles may want to use lights that have clear lenses. This might make the vehicle less remarkable and make it more likely that motorists and passersby will not notice the lights unless they are turned on.
The roof is the most common place to mount a rotating beacon or lightbar. However, it’s not the only possibility. Some departments prefer to mount lighting on the vehicle’s grille or the front of rearview mirrors to maximize their visibility.
Stealth Interior Mounted Dash Lights
Although interior lights are not limited to dash light applications, the dashboard is the most common place for them to be located. Other areas include the rear deck or visor area. Vehicles that wish to remain discreet (such as undercover detectives) or who only need temporary lighting (such as volunteer responders) may benefit from interior lighting. These are less obtrusive and obvious, making it less likely that an undercover officer will be noticed.
As with externally mounted lights, interior lights come in all forms, including LED panels. Pattern styles can be rotating, strobe, or fixed. Interior lighting fixtures can either be permanently mounted by wiring into a vehicle’s electrical system or temporarily mounted by plugging into the vehicle’s 12-volt outlets. Some interior lights are fitted with shields that allow the light to be transmitted through the window without reflecting directly back into the cab, making it difficult for the operator or drive to see.
Interior mounded lights are affordable LED police lights that give officers a lot of flexibility about where and when they will use them. They can be used to supplement exterior lights or for officers that do not have a permanent need for exterior police lights. One disadvantage to relying solely on interior lighting is that it is challenging to get 360-degree visibility since the lights are only in either the rear or the front. This can make the lights less than useful in several instances, especially when officers need to protect a scene.
Police Car LED Lighting Configuration
Today, to adequately address law enforcement operational needs and maintain regulatory compliance, there are smart LED lighting solutions that are being widely used. These include:
- LED Full Size Light Bar
- LED Mini Light Bar
- LED Beacon
- LED Grille Lights
- LED Dash Light and Deck Light
- LED Flood and Scene Lighting
- LED Perimeter & Hideaway Lighting
- LED Hideaway & Surface Mount
- LED Warning & Directional Traffic Lighting
Most Popular Questions Asked
We’ve compiled a list of the most popular questions about police lights to help you understand how they work and compare them with other types of lights used by emergency vehicle drivers.
What Lights Do Police Vehicles Use?
The most popular colors for police vehicles in the United States to use are red and blue. Other emergency vehicles, including fire trucks and ambulances, also use these colors. In general, any time you see red and blue flashing lights, you should assume they belong to some sort of law enforcement vehicle. Some jurisdictions also use these colors on their vehicles, but regulations can vary by state.
Police officers use red and blue lights on their assigned police vehicles that are used explicitly for professional purposes. It is illegal for a law enforcement officer to add red and blue lights to their personal vehicles in many states without the proper authorization. Officers can appeal to their organization if they feel that they have a compelling reason to install police lights on the vehicles they drive for personal use.
Where Did The Idea To Use Blue Lights Come From?
It is difficult to imagine a police cruiser without blue lights. However, blue lights have been used on police vehicles only since about the 1930s. They were first introduced in Germany during the blackouts of World War II. Unlike other light colors, blue was visible from the ground but was not easily seen from the air because of its properties. Therefore, police officers could use blue lights without worrying about being from above spotted by their enemies.
When Did The U.S. Start Using Blue Lights?
American police departments did not start using blue lights until the 1960s. That was the same decade that mounted lightbars started replacing rotating lights on top of police cruisers. While Americans in the 1960s didn’t have the same concerns about being seen from the air as the German population did in the 1930s, blue lights were still thought to have several benefits. First, they were easier for color blind people to see. Next, they differentiated police vehicles from other types of vehicles that were using red lights at the time. Finally, the contrast between red and blue made it easier for motorists to identify when an emergency vehicle was approaching.
There is some discussion about dropping red lights and having police departments use only blue lights. Police departments in Utah, Ohio, and Virginia have already switched to using only blue lights as a way to draw more attention to cops and keep them safer at all times of the day and night.
Is Having Emergency Lights Illegal For Civilians?
Emergency lights are available for the general public to purchase; however, civilians need to have authorization before they can legally install them onto their personal vehicle. So, buying these lights is completely legal – installing and using them, however, may be illegal, depending on the state’s requirements.
For example, in some states, volunteer firefighters, park rangers, or security officers who work for a private organization may be allowed to install emergency lights on their personal vehicle. However, the specific regulations will vary depending on your state. If you work for a private organization, check with them to see if you are allowed to install and use emergency vehicle lights before purchasing them. Individuals who do not work for an organization that might benefit from using emergency lights should not buy, install, or use emergency vehicle lights on their personal vehicles.
What Does It Mean When Cops Have White Lights On?
While red and blue are the lights people tend to associate with police cars, many cops also use white lights in different situations. Police officers may use a white light as a way to warn drivers of a hazard. They also might use a white light to search for something or illuminate a specific person or vehicle. Unlike blue and red lights, white lights are not usually flashed when a cop pulls someone over to deliver a citation.
Are White Flashing Lights Legal For Civilians?
As with red and blue police officer lights, white flashing lights are illegal for a civilian motorist to use on private vehicles. Other colors, such as flashing amber lights, are legal in certain situations. In many states, emergency vehicles like plow trucks can use flashing amber lights to alert drivers.
What Does It Mean When A Cop Has Lights On But No Siren?
Civilians often associate police lights with sirens, but they don’t necessarily need to both be used simultaneously. In some instances, cops will use their lights but keep their sirens off. This happens in cases when officers do not want to draw unnecessary attention to a situation. For example, if a cop is approaching a scene where a crime is taking place, they might not want to draw attention that alerts the offender of their approach. Cops might also turn their sirens off if they are not faced with traffic and so don’t need to alert other drivers audibly that they are approaching. Other situations may include a traffic stop or to indicate construction is ongoing and the posted speed limit is to be strictly observed.
What Do Green Emergency Lights Mean?
Green lights have a few different purposes. Traditionally, they have been used as courtesy lights. Vehicles that have a green light are requesting the right of way but not demanding it in the same way that emergency vehicles flashing red and blue lights demand the right of way. Green lights have also more recently become associated with Homeland Security in some parts of the U.S.
What Do Yellow Cop Lights Mean?
Cop cars can be equipped with a spectrum of lights. Yellow cop lights are used to indicate a need for drivers of nearby vehicles to slow down. A police officer might turn them on at the scene of an accident, for example, to warn other drivers that there is debris in the road, and they should approach with caution. Not all law enforcement agency vehicles have yellow or amber lighting.
What Do Purple Cop Lights Mean?
Most cop cars do not use purple lights. They might appear to, though, when the red and blue lights on their vehicles flash together. However, purple lights are reserved for escorting funeral processions. Medical examiners may also use purple lights in some states.
When Can Civilians Use Emergency Vehicle Lights?
Most state and traffic law surrounding the use of emergency lights have stipulations for how lights can and cannot be used on state-owned property. However, civilians who want to equip private vehicles that will be used on private land with emergency lights may be able to do so legally. A key thing to remember is that at no point in time should a civilian’s vehicle look like a police officer‘s. If a vehicle looks as if it is impersonating a cop car, it is most likely illegal.
An example of this could be an individual who uses an ATV on private land and wants to equip it with emergency lights so other people on the grounds can see them. Other examples may include security agencies that use personal vehicles to patrol private property and farmers who want to equip tractors and other farm-related vehicles with emergency lights for safety purposes. It’s always a good idea to check your local laws before buying warning light products to make sure you will be able to install and use them without getting into legal trouble.
Will Autonomous Vehicles Have Emergency Lights?
This is an interesting question, and it’s one that we don’t have an answer to yet. There have been questions raised about whether autonomous vehicles will have a new color of emergency light that can indicate erratic driving patterns when the vehicle detects them. There are also questions about how autonomous cars will know that they need to pull over or stop when they encounter an emergency, utility, or hazard vehicle on the road.
As self-driving vehicles become more prominent, we may see a shift in how emergency lights are used. Keep an eye on this development, as it may impact police car lights in some crucial ways.
Can Police Lights Cause Seizures Or Epileptic Episodes?
Anyone who has epilepsy or is prone to seizures is already wary of strobe lights. However, it’s important to remember that not all people who suffer from seizures will react in the same way to the same triggers. People who have photosensitivity are sensitive to flashing lights, such as strobe lights. They may have a seizure if they are exposed to flashing police lights and might need to look away from emergency lights.
Where Do You Buy Police Lights?
It is essential to work with a company that genuinely understands your fleet’s needs. Make sure to order from a reputable company like Brooking Industries. We specialize in police lights and partner with exceptional distributors across the country who can help you find exactly what you need to outfit your fleet and keep them effective and safe.
Where can I buy discounted police lights?
Several places claim to sell discounted police lights online – be careful since you are purchasing mission-critical equipment. Make sure you work with a reputable dealer who understands the needs, challenges, and risks of upfitting police fleets before buying. We would be happy to answer your questions and find the best police light solution for your budget.
Why Do Some Vehicles Use Emergency Lights?
Traditional vehicles have headlights and taillights to let other drivers know where they are and to indicate things like when they need to slow down, stop, or turn left or right. For many types of operations though, this isn’t enough to alert drivers of their presence.
Emergency vehicles need to do more than just signal their traffic patterns. They need to warn drivers that they are coming through intersections without stopping at traffic lights or that the road needs to be cleared. When stopped, law enforcement vehicles need to have adequate light to see what they are doing when they are on a scene or when approaching a person or vehicle. Police officers also use emergency lights to let drivers know that they need to pull over for one reason or another.
Other types of vehicles need emergency lights to warn drivers of upcoming hazards or signal a shift in traffic patterns. While there are no laws against buying emergency lights, many laws in place around the country limit or prohibit drivers from installing and using them on private vehicles. These laws vary from one state to another.
What Types of Vehicles Can Install LED Emergency Lights?
While our focus is on police car applications, it’s essential to understand that many types of vehicles can legally install and use lights for different purposes. Here are some of the primary types of vehicles that use different colors of lights for various purposes.
Police cars, ambulance, fire truck and volunteer firefighter vehicles are all equipped with emergency lights. These flash brightly, alerting drivers and pedestrians that an authorized emergency vehicle is approaching. When drivers see these lights flashing, they know that they need to pull over as far to the right side of the road as possible and stop until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed. The most common colors associated with emergency vehicles in the United States are blue and red emergency lights. Other colors, including white, yellow, green, and purple, may also be used in some states for specific emergency situations.
Many people work for private agencies that provide services to people in hazardous conditions. Some examples include snowplows and construction vehicles. These vehicles can use flashing lights to announce their presence to motorists and alert them that the vehicles are either moving slow or stopped altogether. These vehicles usually use amber lights. They should not use red or blue lights, which are associated with emergency vehicles.
Perhaps one of the most prominent types of vehicles that we see every day is a school bus. These vehicles are equipped with red flashing lights that alert drivers on the road when they are stopping. Drivers should pay attention to these lights and stop when they are flashing to ensure that all the students entering or leaving the bus can do so safely.
While not required, many farmers prefer to add lights to their farm equipment to keep motor vehicle drivers and others safe. The lights attached to farm equipment should not be red or blue. As with hazard vehicles, amber-colored lights are the most common ones used. A key thing to note is that farm equipment vehicles that are equipped with colored lights can do so legally as long as they remain on private property. Farmers should check with their local jurisdictions before transporting their vehicles or using them on public roads to make sure they can still legally use their installed emergency lights.
Private Security Companies
Many large corporations, universities, and other organizations employ private security guards who operate using company-owned fleets. These vehicles can also be equipped with emergency lights as long as they remain on private property. In many states, drivers of these vehicles cannot use their lights when they drive on public roads.
Pilot and Utility Vehicles
Non-emergency utility vehicles also use amber lights. These include trucks that are owned by utility companies as well as towing services, oversize load vehicles, and slow vehicles. They tend to use a mounted lighting system, such as a lightbar, to increase visibility and keep their drivers and everyone on the road safe.
In some places, volunteers may be authorized to add amber lights to their private vehicles for specific situations. For instance, in Detroit, Michigan, volunteers are temporarily permitted to add an amber-colored light to their cars and use them to patrol neighborhoods and city streets during Devil’s Night, which takes place the evening before Halloween. For this type of situation, a single beacon light will suffice. In other cases, tow truck or wrecker vehicles may use lightbars.
Other cities take different approaches. In Memphis, Tennessee, city maintenance and utility vehicles use flashing yellow lights. Other types of vehicles that serve the traffic department use flashing red lights, including cherry pickers that the city uses to repair damaged or broken traffic signals.
Many drivers of off-road vehicles, such as ATVs, snowmobiles, and golf carts, add yellow, green, or white lights to increase visibility. Some states have strict restrictions on which colors are allowed on which types of off-road vehicles. Drivers should always check with their state’s laws before investing in and using emergency lighting.
Public Information Signs
Emergency lighting is also often used on signs, such as a school bus “Stop” sign, which flashes with red lights when the bus is stopped and allowing passengers to enter or exit. City buses use light sources like LEDs to display messages to other motorists. Some emergency vehicles also use emergency lights to send messages or display an active service’s name.
Police Lighting Takeaway
There is a lot to know about police lights and emergency vehicle lights. In the U.S., blue and red are the colors most commonly associated with police vehicles. Some police departments also incorporate white and amber for different purposes, including illuminating vehicles, people, and areas and warning motorists of upcoming hazards.
If you manage a fleet of police or emergency vehicles, you should be aware of the latest state requirements. The type of lighting that your state mandates and recommends for emergency vehicles may change, so check with your local legislation to ensure that you are equipping your fleet with the right configurations of emergency lights.
Fleet managers should understand the different ways that police lights can be configured for compliance and effectiveness, taking into account the color, types of lighting technology, light pattern needs, and location of lights. Take all of these factors into consideration when you are exploring the options for emergency vehicle lighting. Keep in mind that it is possible to make alterations after the lights have been mounted. However, it is easier to just consider everything you need from lights from the outset, avoiding wasted funds and unnecessary downtime.
Contact us here if you need advice on obtaining the right lighting for your fleet’s budget.