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May 15, 2021

Blue lights on fire department vehicles get red light from state officials

CHINA GROVE — Following a complaint made to the North Carolina Highway Patrol, the China Grove Fire Department is no longer using blue lights on the back of its vehicles.

The complaint was made anonymously about China Grove and Bostian Heights Fire Chief Mike Zimmerman, who had blue lights attached to the back of his SUV, which is owned by the town of China Grove.

Zimmerman said he was using the lights as a safety measure to protect firefighters from traffic while responding to emergency calls. He said other departments across the state have used blue lights on their vehicles without opposition.

China Grove Town Manager Ken Deal said Zimmerman and the town’s fire department used blue lights as a precautionary measure.

“The only reason they did it is not to circumvent the law, it’s not to pull anybody over, it’s simply so dangerous on the interstate that they have to go out there and if people see a blue light, just one, they will pull over,” Deal said.

North Carolina Highway Patrol 1st Sgt. J.S. Nash said under state statute 20-130.1, blue lights cannot be activated on any vehicle besides those being used by law enforcement. After a discussion with a Highway Patrol officer about two weeks ago, Zimmerman disabled the blue lights from his vehicle and from the other fire department vehicles.

The Highway Patrol took no formal action.

Zimmerman’s situation is representative of an ongoing statewide discussion about using blue lights on the back of firefighting vehicles. Blue lights are used by some fire departments across the country to protect firefighters who are responding to emergencies, especially those that may be on a busy road or highway. 

In August, a tractor-trailer slammed into three Miller’s Ferry Fire Department trucks on I-85, causing heavy damage but no firefighter injuries. Since then, several local fire departments have placed blue lights on the back of their trucks to grab the attention of motorists and encourage them to use caution while navigating around emergency vehicles.

Kannapolis Fire Chief Tracy Winecoff said his department decided to add blue lights as well as amber and green lights, after reading several reports about the high visibility of the bright colors.

“At the time, we were gun shy because of the Miller’s Ferry incident and, of course, Concord Fire Department lost a ladder truck on the interstate,” Winecoff said. “We had several near misses that we were anxious to try to implement some of the safe methods that studies had found.”

The Kannapolis Fire Department recently removed the blue lights from their trucks and SUVs after it was brought to Winecoff’s attention that they aren’t technically allowed under current state laws. However, those laws could be changing.

Introduced this week by Sen. Carl Ford (R-33), Senate Bill 374 would make it legal for blue lights to be activated on the rear left of fire apparatus only when the parking brake is engaged and the on-scene lights are activated. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Jarvis (R-29) and Sen. Jim Perry (R-7).

“There’s been several (accidents) and we want to keep our firemen safe and everybody else too,” Ford said. “If it takes a blue light flashing on the back, that’s fine.”

Ford said that the bill would not allow blue lights to be placed on any other firefighting vehicles besides what people commonly know as firetrucks, meaning they could not be placed on SUVs.

Tim Bradley, executive director of the North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association, said his organization would support such a bill.

“People pay attention more to blue lights on the interstate when trucks are on the interstate,” Bradley said. “When you approach a wreck scene and you see blue lights, people tend to pay a little more attention than they do when they only see red lights.”

Bradley said rear-facing blue lights used to be permitted on firefighting trucks, but that changed in 2013 after a string of incidents in which criminals were using blue lights as a guise to pull people over and rob them.

“They strengthened the blue light laws, and when they did it eliminated the use of blue lights on the rear of fire trucks,” Bradley said.

Ford’s proposed bill may not be heralded by all.

Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization is wary of legalizing blue lights on firefighting apparatuses.

“Blue lights on anything but a law enforcement vehicle serve to confuse the public,” Caldwell said.

He said the organization is mainly concerned that allowing blue lights on fire trucks would open the door for firefighters to use them on other vehicles as well, including SUVs or pickup trucks.

“The minute it’s made lawful, lots of firefighters will want to have their (pickup) trucks retrofitted and, pretty soon, the public will be totally confused,” Caldwell said.

Ford said he is aware of those concerns and that he and the bill’s co-sponsors have worked to compromise with the Sheriff’s Association.

“I know there will be some pushback, but I know most of the fire departments are definitely chomping at the bit because they see it as a safety bill and I agree,” Ford said.

Senate Bill 374 will go through committees before it reaches the Senate floor. If it is eventually passed, it will go into effect on Dec. 1.

Until the bill is passed, Deal said China Grove will refrain from using them.

“We need to wait to see what the General Assembly does,” Deal said. “If they make it legal, everything is fine.”

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