When it comes to installing emergency vehicle lights, we must first ensure that we’re following regulations. Dependent on the state, each color of light corresponds with a different protocol. These are detailed within each governing state’s vehicle code.
Unbeknownst to many, colors and their specific meaning can vary. In one state, the color red can be the primary telltale for a policing vehicle while in others it can be directly associated with EMTs. These colors are subject to regulation. Furthermore, civilian vehicles have a host of regulations they must adhere to as well.
It’s safe to assume you understand that simply because an emergency light can be purchased, it is illegal to rig your vehicle to emulate that of a responder. This can critically hamstring the police, fire rescue, or EMT if they’re on a call. It can also disorient the public and cause traffic accidents. Our point: before purchasing any emergency lighting systems or equipment, learn the regulations of your state in so that you do not find yourself in trouble with the law. Dependent on the severity of the offense, it is possible an arrest can be made.
For sake of explanation, we’ll give an overview of how emergency vehicle lighting work in California. First, a vehicle that can use emergency lighting fixtures in the state must fall under the category of an ‘authorized emergency vehicle.’ This puts police vehicles, ambulances, fire rescue vehicles, and a host of other private and public vehicles which have been granted the ‘authorized emergency’ title by the Commissioner of the CHP into one bracket.
Obviously, if you do not have a permit and use emergency lights on public roads or in a public area, you’re committing a crime. In an oversimplified explanation: if the vehicle is a utility beyond simply transporting passengers (the only exception here is school buses), and it has a permit, then it can stand as a vehicle that utilizes emergency lighting.
However, each class of vehicle will dictate the type and color of light that can be used. We’ll explain.
The three types of vehicles above require a red lamp that is visible from 1000 feet away. This is the base requirement and all the other lights you’re familiar with are add-ons. In which case they can also have revolving lights systems that beam across headlamps, even changing their color to blue or amber. These lights are to be used solely when the responder is engaging a call-to-action, or in other words a threat.
Both a tow truck and a construction truck can display amber lights when they are engaged in their line of work. In California, these lights represent warning lights for those passing by, cautioning them to slow down due to a disruption nearby or up ahead. There’s a reason why in California (and in most states) you’ll never come across a tow or construction truck with red lights. This again boils down to the class of the vehicle and the colors it’s permitted to use.
Any publicly-owned utility vehicle may also use amber lights when they’re carrying out an inspection, repair, or even general maintenance on publicly owned property. Many times this work needs to be done at night to ensure the least amount of disruption and—when it comes to visibility—these amber lights serve as a beacon.
Another vehicle that can use an amber light is one that serves security purposes. However, the rules for these vehicles are stricter, as their lights can never be used on a public roadway and only on private property. Additionally, if they’re going to have amber lights, then they must also have clear writing on the vehicle stating it’s a security vessel.
No matter where you live, you’ve been exposed to these lights. The tow truck helping a broke down car on the side of the road beams its amber lights. The police car flashes red and blue as it passes by. The ambulance wails its sirens and sports a bright red light. However, we’re willing to believe you’ve never seen a civilian vehicle, cruising down the road and showcasing emergency lights.
If you’re considering buying and installing an emergency light, then ensure you’re doing it legally. The law is not forgiving when it comes to interrupting peace and safety operations.
Before we jump in and explain how to install an emergency light, there are certain things in need of addressing. It should be no surprise that powering on an emergency light requires electricity, which—depending on the scope of the installation—may very well require an electrician. If you’re wiring the unit yourself, be careful not to expose yourself to harm. Electrocutions can happen quickly.
Regardless if it’s an emergency unit for your home or one for your vehicle, make sure the power source that you’re going to wire it to is live. You’ll need ample voltage for a decent light, and there’s nothing worse than installing your unit, only to start on the hardwiring and realize your transformer is out, or that your car battery can’t sustain the lights on its own (this can happen).
Dependent on your placement, be wary of how hot your lights are going to get in the offseason. An emergency light built into a home or building isn’t ever going to go on until an emergency occurs (generally), in which case you wouldn’t want any heat damage to render the light broken—only to discover the problem in a time of need.
As with most electrical installations, you’re always going to want to make sure that you’re grounded and that the power source is tripped before you start wiring your unit. If the current is running, then you’re at risk of electrocution.
While installing an emergency light can certainly be a do-it-yourself project, it certainly doesn’t have to be. In fact, sometimes it’s safer if it isn’t (dependent on the electrical work) and you should simply hire an electrician to assist you. All of the above tips and precautions will be integrated by a professional and they should ensure that nothing goes wrong in the process.
To speak with candor here, if you’re installing an emergency light that may potentially aid you in a threatening situation, you want to do it correctly. If you don’t know what you’re doing and mess it up, the light you’re counting on will be useless.
Again, to reiterate, before beginning, ensure that the lighting circuit you’re wiring into is completely off. Once you ensure your safety, you can proceed.
Each emergency light unit is typically going to come with a manual. In the rare case that there isn’t one, you may need to inquire further and reach out to the manufacturer. This manual should guide you step-by-step throughout the process, as each installation is going to be slightly different depending on the model. However, the below details a general emergency light installation.
You’re going to have to make a connection from the circuit to the light fixture. The voltage typically used is 120v and 277v, which will each have their own color-coded wires. You’ll also have a ‘C’ which is the common wire. The last wire that might come with your product is a ‘grounding’ wire, although this may not be included.
In which case the wires go as follows:
In terms of what you’re looking at, the common wire is almost always white, the 120v black, and the 277v red or orange. The ground is usually green, as both the color and name begin with the same letter.
The first step is always to connect your fixture leads into a power supply. This is going to be the AC current that powers your emergency light perpetually but also charges the battery it’s connected to. In which case the current looks like this:
Power supply → Emergency Light Unit → Battery
You always want to connect your light and ensure that the current works and your power supply is sound. Note: never install your brackets or mount your unit before first ensuring that the circuit provides voltage. Once you’ve proven the functionality and ensured your battery is indeed charging, then you can proceed to placement.
Typically, a backplate is going to come in addition to your unit. This will have to be mounted before the lights are attached, which will either snap or screw in. Again, mount this somewhere the light will not experience excessive heat or weather damage. Remember, wherever you’re going to mount your light is also where you’re going to have run your voltage to.
When it comes to installing the best emergency lights, you’ll constantly hear the advice ‘use a flexible conduit.’ This is due in part because of where the LED lights usually hang and—most importantly—the aspiration to protect the wires as much as possible. You don’t want any strain to occur over time, thus using a flexible conduit is recommended over a static one (even 90 degree).
On all emergency light units, there’s a test button. Once you’ve finished your installation, complete with whatever battery has come with the product, now it’s time to test the functionality again. The rule of thumb that is that the standard product on the market will offer around 90~ minutes of light in the case of an outage. However, some units can offer well beyond that.
In the same vein as the previous explanation, there are a host of different emergency vehicle lights that will all have product-specific installations. Typically, these are detailed in the manual that comes with the product. If you’re looking for an overview on how a general installation works, then read on. Installing an emergency vehicle light is usually simpler than a structural emergency light.
In which case, the first part of the process is to connect your wiring to the car battery. This can be a complex process and once again, you may require a professional, but today the market is heavy with do-it-yourself models which create a simple switch, one with tape-sealed wires that go to positive and negative. Once you’ve connected your emergency vehicle light, test it to make sure it works.
Following the instructions (sometimes they come with specific brackets), mount the emergency light on the top, side(s), or rear of the car. While there’s no one generalization here, your specific unit is going to have instructions on how to secure it—dependent on both the product and vehicle it’s being mounted to.
You’re going to want the switch somewhere near your person when you’re in the driver’s seat. This means somewhere accessible. Then, the wiring is going to have to run from the switch to both the battery and the led emergency lights. Ensure that it’s in an optimal place for such wiring, as while it needs to be accessible, it also needs to be practical.
Once you’ve installed your switch, you’re going to have to do some drilling. The most common installation is to drill a ¾ hole into the front wall, install a grommet, and then silicone seal it. You’ll run your wires through that hole and into the control box. However, there are plenty of different ways this can be done, from going through the top light, to running conduits through the actual frame of the car (the police often use this method), and to bypassing the battery and installing an amp. It all depends on the specific vehicle and product.
Regarding emergency lighting installation (vehicle or not), the process is always going to be product and structure-specific. However, there are a few general guidelines that can be followed despite uniqueness. We hope the information above helped you understand the basis of these installations.
Emergency LED light bars are an incredible utility, one that has helped save countless lives. Every day they provide safety for our peace officers and road workers. If you’re thinking of buying and installing one, stay informed on regulations, and research your specific model in length to make sure it’s the right fit for you. But most importantly, when it comes to installation, remember this is almost all electrical work. Which means it can be dangerous. Most importantly, be sure to take safety precautions.
Contact the pros at LED Equipped to get more information on the installation process of emergency lighting.