Ambulance Color Codings: for Function or for Fashion?

Do you know why your ambulance is painted as you see every day? Why in other countries there are different colours? And what about battenburg?

Every professional has probably served in different ambulances during their lives, and sometimes they could have asked: “why this ambulance is painted red and why is this one painted green”? Why is this patterned with Battenburg style and this one is striped with plaster in reflective surface?

Starting from the basis, an ambulance is a vehicle that is equipped to transport an injured or sick individual (Merriam Webster, 2018). Ambulances are utilised by the emergency medical services (EMS) to respond to medical emergencies to quickly transfer victims from the scene of an incident to a hospital, and even to provide pre-hospital care.

This is the only point that gathers emergency vehicles. In most countries, sirens’ lights come in a different colour from province to province. From blue to red, from amber to white. Emergency vehicle lights and colours usually depend on national laws, country, or state, and each colour is specific to communicate a particular intention. For instance, red lights may indicate an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance, while the blue lights are most common to police vehicles but are also used by other countries in their EMT and fire vehicles.
Clearly, the flashing lights and distressing sounds produced by the ambulance sirens are to attract the attention of other road users to indicate that the ambulance is approaching. But how about the flashy paints and retro designs?

In Australia, their creamy beige ambulances are now painted white, with yellow RAL (sulfur yellow) and green RAL in England and other European Economic Community (EEC 1789:2014 norm), and red in the United States (Heathrow Air Ambulance, 2013).

So are the colour schemes for fashion or for a purpose?

Definitely the latter. Ambulances are usually painted with a checkerboard pattern in alternate colours and high contrast outlines, also referred to as Battenburg, to promote visual impact. In some countries, they make use of reflective and bright or fluorescent paints in order to stand out in the sea of vehicles. This is in addition to the passive marking of the word ambulance printed backwards and emblems or decorations such as the Red Cross and the Star of Life.

Furthermore, colour codes are brought into play to reflect the level of awareness. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Department of Health Services (2015) had imposed a guideline for privates ambulances vehicle colour codings and insignia. This is to imply that the use of distinctive colour or combination of colours related with the ambulance operator should be approved prior to implementation, and should follow the guidelines of the state. This is to promote uniformity and consistency of the function of the colour schemes intended for ambulances. Moreover, in 2015, The Welsh Ambulance Service in Wales (BBC News, 2015) had also started their new colour-coded 999 ambulance system recently.

On the other hand, military ambulances point on vehicles’ body painting. Civilian-based ambulances designs may be painted in appropriate colours, depending on the operational requirements (i.e. camouflage for field use, white for United Nations peacekeeping, etc.). For example, the British Royal Army Medical Corps has a fleet of white ambulances, based on production trucks.

In the future, it is hoped that emergency vehicles, government- or private-owned ambulances, will be following a universal colour scheme to reflect a particular type of condition.


The Author:

Michael Gerard Sayson

Registered Nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree from Saint Louis University and a Master of Science in Nursing Degree, Major in Nursing Administration and Management. Authored 2 thesis papers and co-authored 3. Practicing nurse profession for more than 5 years now with direct and indirect nursing care.

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