Playing with Fire

Lime Apparatus
with John Antonelli

By Michael J. Legeros


This month, the subject is "lime." Our guest is collector and non-red apparatus buff John Antonelli.

Mike: What is the history of lime as a color for fire apparatus?

John: "Lime" was developed by Ward LaFrance in 1971. That year, a new president had been appointed. The guy was a marketing whiz, but didn't know anything about fire apparatus. One of his questions was "why Ward LaFrance?" Why would someone buy one of their rigs, when all fire trucks were about the same? So the company compiled a list of over 30,000 fire departments. Then they sent out a survey, asking about engine, frame, pump, cab, etc. When the results were returned, nobody asked about color. Why? Because fire trucks were always red.

M: A-ha.

J: Exactly. Around this time, a report on visibility and colors was released by a research company in D.C. Seems red is one of the least visible colors in the spectrum. However the report needed credibility, so Ward LaFrance found Dr. Stephen Solomon to vouch for the thing. He was an optometrist and volunteer fireman from Owego, NY. And they were learning other things as well, like the fact that more firefighters were injured or killed traveling to fires versus fighting them.

M: Marketing angle and safety issue.

J: The next step was finding a fire chief to try the color. Chief Bernie Koeppen from Wheeling, IL, agreed to have his department's new Ambassador pumper painted lime. The truck, Spec Number 80-625, was unveiled at the IAFC convention at St. Louis in September 1971. It became a hit and Ward LaFrance began heavily promoting lime as a safer color for fire apparatus. The rest is history.

M: I've seen everything from bright yellow to what looks like fluorescent green. How many different shades of lime are there?

J: Hundreds, maybe thousands. For myself, I don't count the yellow-yellow of FDNY. Lighter yellows (Boston, MA) and lighter greens (Metro Dade, FL) are pushing it just a tad, but I accept them as well as fluorescent versions, such as Fox Lake, IL.

M: Who still runs lime-lime?

J: Every department that is smart. Metro Dade still runs lime, as do most airports. Many smaller departments know lime is prime, too.

M: How about other notable non-red schemes?

J: In Florida, Seminole's old Omaha red and Clearwater's German red are special. Fox Lake, again, too. And don't forget the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad in Virginia and their German red over white.

M: Is there a shade of lime that even you think is ugly?

J: All lime is glorious. Some is less glorious than others, like Verplanck, NY.

M: Who is Richard Gergel?

J: Richard is the man. He helped with the background information for this interview. He sold the first lime fire truck for Ward LaFrance and was later president of the company. He's also authored or co-authored three books for Iconografix on Ward LaFrance, Imperial, and, coming in November, American fire apparatus. He's working on a fourth, on the subject of Pemfab.

M: So did lime turn out to be more visible as everyone thought?

J: Just ride on the highway and watch the oncoming lane. What do you see first, a yellow truck or a red truck? Try it in different lighting and driving conditions. Yellow is good, lime is prime.

M: If it was safer, why did so many departments revert back to red?

J: Alas, traditionalist elements in various fire departments gained the upper hand after an FDNY apparatus study in 1984. After painting 11 engines yellow-- not lime-- in 1981, the department discovered a 58 percent increase in accidents over the red ones. I say the study was flawed, because the trucks were placed in statistically inappropriate parts of the city by traditionalist chiefs who wanted to see the study fail. So they repainted the trucks red. As did many other departments who went back down the slippery slope to red.

M: Was there a psychological factor as well? People registering a big, loud, flashing vehicle as a fire truck when it's red?

J: They hear the siren and see the lights with any colored truck, but with lime, the whole rig acts as a warning. Notice that people don't seem to have a problem with different colored police cars.

M: Do other countries use lime?

J: British police and I believe Switzerland. Also New South Wales and New Zealand experimented with lime.

M: Has lime found other uses, in addition to emergency vehicles?

J: Lime is making a tremendous comeback. Look at the new bright lime street signs. Look at the bright lime vests and clothing for EMS workers. I ask you, what sense does it make to be wearing all this safe, bright lime stuff and get off an almost invisible-- at least at night-- red fire truck???? It is insanity!!

M: What are your favorite lime trucks of all time?

J: Squadzilla at Chicago O'Hare, of course. Other favorites: Somerville, MA Wagon 6 (Diamond Reo), Medford, MA Engine 6 (Ford / E-One), Arlington, MA lighting plant (only lime piece in the department), Malden Emergency Center Rescue 2 (Mack B), and anything from Boston, Fox Lake, Fort Drum, or Metro Dade.

M: What are your favorite lime models from Code 3?

J: Los Angeles Engine 51 and Windsor Engine 10. The Dearborn Heights Quantum is a sleeper.

M: How about from other die-cast companies?

J: Corgi San Francisco 'scope, Corgi O'Hare hummer, Corgi Long Lake E-One, Vitesse B Mack (two of them), Hobbytown Newark squad, Hobbytown Maxim S, Matchbox Super King Hackensack chief's wagon, every lime First Gear ever made, and one or two others.

M: And if Orlando is reading, what's your most desired lime truck to make into a model?

J: Squadzilla and LAFD RA 51. Both are prime.

John Antonelli can be contacted at Mike Legeros can be contacted here. Both welcome your comments, questions, or corrections.

A version of this column originally appeared at Code 3 Collectibles.


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Copyright 2017 by Michael J. Legeros