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Yellow firetrucks: a sight for more eyes?

It's a question as old as the trucks themselves: Why are fire engines red?

Better yet, says a New York optometrist, why aren't they lime yellow?

A new study suggests red firetrucks are more likely to be involved in accidents than trucks painted greenish yellow. But not everyone _ especially firefighters attached to the tradition of red fire engines _ is convinced.

"There have been two basic reactions," said Dr. Stephen S. Solomon, who conducted the study. "One is, "Thank God somebody's getting the word out.' The other is, "If it's not red, it's not a firetruck.' "

Solomon, an optometrist in Owego, N.Y., and a volunteer firefighter, studied accidents involving firetrucks from the Dallas Fire Department, which has both red and yellow vehicles.

From October 1984 through September 1988, red firetrucks in Dallas made 153,348 runs and were involved in 20 accidents. The department's yellow trucks, on the other hand, made 135,035 runs and had only four accidents.

"We know that under normal circumstances the human eye is red-blind at night and red-weak during the day," Solomon said. "If the human eye has so much difficulty seeing red, why are we using it for firetrucks?"

But yellow _ mixed with a touch of green _ is "highly visible," he said.

Solomon is not the first researcher to question the use of red firetrucks, said Mike Burton, assistant chief of the St. Petersburg Fire Department. Ten or 15 years ago St. Petersburg had a fleet of greenish-yellow trucks, but the department was not convinced that the color made fire runs safer.

Today, all but one of the city's trucks are red.

Many departments that experimented with different-colored trucks over the past 15 years are now returning to red _ mostly for tradition's sake, said Tim Elliott, spokesman for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

"The fire service, particularly in America, is very tradition-oriented, and some departments are more progressive than others," he said.

Jim Schwaller, vice president of sales and marketing at Emergency One, an Ocala-based emergency vehicle manufacturer, said red firetrucks are sometimes safer just because it's traditional.

" When we look in our rearview mirror and see a big red truck, we know it's a firetruck," he said.

Emergency One paints fire engines "any color of the rainbow," including metallic blue, Schwaller said. But the most common order is still red, followed by white and greenish yellow.

Among Tampa Bay area fire departments, the jury is still out on what color trucks should be _ red, white, red and white, or lime yellow.

Clearwater even has neon orange.

Pinellas Park's lime yellowfiretruck fleet gets a thumbs-up from Solomon, but the white trucks in Dunedin and Seminole look "washed out" in rain or fog, he said.

St. Petersburg, New Port Richey and Tampa now use red or red and white trucks. But Tampa is considering a switch to greenish yellow, Chief Pete Botto said.

"We'll take lime yellow with a hot pink stripe _ whatever it takes for safety," he said.

But Botto conceded one point. "That lime yellow is ugly," he said.