Vehicle designations

So far this has covered the most common types of fire apparatus found in the United States, this next part will deal with how vehicles are identified and marked.

Common designations

Engine used for all types of pumper including brush trucks, mini pumpers, tele-squirts and pumper-tankers.

Pumper commonly used by departments running 2 part pumper / hose wagon companies.

Wagon generally only used by departments running 2 part pumper / hose wagon companies. May be used for a Hose Tender.

Water-tender identifies water-tenders.

Tender identifies water-tenders.

Tanker identifies water-tenders but is also sometimes used for Pumper-Tankers. Tanker is also used to identify fixed wing water or retardant dropping aircraft.

Brush used to identify wildland engines.

Crew used to identify a wildland hand crews transport, unless the entire crew is carried in one vehicle these are usually further identified with a letter (Crew 1A, Crew 1B etc). Some crews have a separate utility vehicle for the supervisor which may be a pick up truck or small brush engine, these are often identified as a Superintendent's vehicle or Captain's vehicle (Sup-1, Superintendent-1, Captain-1 etc)

Patrol used to identify light wildland engines.

Field Unit used in some areas to identify wildland engines.

Brush Fire Unit used in some areas to identify wildland engines.

Crash used to identify a crash rescue vehicle.

Squirt used to identify a Tele-squirt

Truck identifies a truck, it does not indicate the type or even presence of an aerial. May also be used for Quads and Quints.

Tower identifies a truck equipped with a tower-ladder.

Snorkel identifies a Truck with an articulating boom.

Ladder generally refers to a Truck with an extension ladder style aerial but may also include tower-ladders.

Quad identifies a pumper with a large complement of ground ladders.

Quint identifies a truck equipped with a pump, water tank and hose.

Rescue identifies a rescue vehicle, it is occasionally used for ambulances.

Squad can be used for a wide variety of vehicles including paramedic rescues, mini pumpers, brush trucks, rescue pumpers, air / light units, rescue trucks and tele-squirts.

Hazmat used for a hazardous materials response vehicle

Utility used for vehicles that don't fall into another category.

Chief is used for the fire chief, deputy chief or assistant chief, often seen as Chief 1, Chief 2 etc

Division is used for a division chief (a division chief covers a geographic area)

Battalion is used for a battalion chief (a battalion chief usually covers a smaller geographic area)

Command may be used for a chief officers vehicle or a specialized mobile command post.

Prevention used by fire inspectors or fire prevention officers.

Air-Tanker used for fixed wing aircraft capable of dropping water or fire retardant. Tanker is the more common designation.

Lead used for lead planes, the small fixed wing aircraft that spot for air-tankers.

Copter used for rotary wing aircraft (Helicopters).

There are many other possible designations these are just the most common ones I know of, there are also cases where these terms or others are mixed together. Many fire departments identified their ambulances as First Aid Squads or Emergency Cars until the 1970's, and there are places that run Brush Squads or Brush Patrols. Some departments called their rescues Flying Squads because they responded to all working fires in the city. I only provide these examples for ideas, there are many variations so if it sounds good somebody probably uses it. 

Often these designations are spelled out but some departments only use the first letter, 2 or 3 if needed (water-tender is generally WT, battalion chief BC, division chief DIV etc) or both depending on how much space there is to mark the vehicle (for example Engine 1 on the side and E-1 on the front and rear bumpers). 



For most of the 20th century apparatus numbering was fairly simple, it simply numbered the apparatus. Engine 2 was the departments second engine, it might be in station 1 with Engine 1 or alone in station 2. Sometimes the descriptive identifier was abbreviated E-1 or ENG-1 instead of Engine 1. This style of identification is still popular but there are now many more methods.

Some departments wanted to give the location as well so they gave the apparatus a number along with the station number, so Engine 12 would be the first engine at station 2 or the second engine at station 1. Departments with large geographic areas also sometimes used this style of numbering but divided it into districts instead of stations. Along the same lines some departments gave the district and the station, so Engine 522 could be district 5, station 2, engine 2. There are many variations but most follow this basic idea.

In the late 1970's many fire departments were having budget problems, as a result it became more cost effective to start sharing resources. Instead of having a neighboring cities firefighters sitting idle while your city burned it became common to write up agreements allowing fire departments to assist each other, this is called mutual aid. This worked so well that people began to wonder why they had to wait for a fire engine from across town when there was one just down the street that belonged to another city, mutual aid was modified to allow the closest unit to respond regardless of jurisdictional boundaries, this is known as automatic aid and it allowed departments to rethink the placement of fire stations for better cost effectiveness. With all of this mixing of fire department vehicles it got confusing, was that Oakland's Engine 1 or Berkeley's Engine 1? As a result many areas changed to a regional numbering system. Most of these systems are three or four digits, usually the first two give the department, the next gives the unit much as the old single digit numbers did. Three digit identifiers are usually used with a descriptive identifier giving the type of apparatus, for example Engine 231 is the 1st engine from the 23rd department in the county. Four digit identifiers usually stand alone, in this the first 2 numbers still stand for the department but the 3rd number identifies the type of apparatus and the 4th gives the station, most provide multiple numbers for engines to allow for more than 9 stations. For example 6811 would be the first engine out of station 1 for the 68th department in the county, 6812 would be the first engine in the departments station 2 and 6821 would be the second engine out of station 1 or the first engine out of station 11. Although the four digit identifiers give the unit type old habits die hard and it is common to see the unit type spelled out as Engine 6811. There are far to many combinations to give them all but hopefully this provides a starting point, besides there is no reason you can not come up with your own method as long as it looks good to you.    



Red is the color most people associate with the fire department, but there are many variations in shade and even other colors used. Blue, green white, yellow, black and even purple have been used by fire departments. Various shades of green are particularly popular with fire apparatus operated by forestry departments. 

While other colors had been used for years there was a big push to high visibility colors beginning in the 1970's. This was done in an attempt to reduce vehicle accidents involving fire apparatus. The most common of these was the infamous fluorescent yellow / green (popularly known by firefighters as slime-green), but school bus yellow, orange, white and bright yellow were also used. By the 1990's studies had shown that this move to bright colors had not made a measurable reduction in accidents and some claimed it had actually confused the public who didn't know that the yellow truck was was a fire engine. Many departments started returning to the more traditional red paint schemes.  

Many departments use multiple colors on their vehicles, white or black over the base color probably are the most common and reflective striping down the sides of the vehicle has been widely used since the late 1980's. 




Fire departments names  

Many people like to create their own fire department when building their models, if you have already done this or are basing your vehicles on an existing department then you don't need to worry about this. For others I hope this helps.

The most common naming method used is regional names, City, County and State are the most commonly seen, San Francisco Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, or Oregon Department of Forestry being examples of this. Landmarks or historical features of an area are also used on occasion, such as Peninsula Fire District, or North Coast Fire & Emergency Services. Some departments are simply a name and number representing the area they cover Happy Valley Fire Company #40, this last method is particularly common with departments in large rural areas. Additionally there are many private and industrial fire agencies. Generally the name is followed by department but there are exceptions Fire Department of New York probably being the best known.

While Fire Department is probably the most common name given there are many other variations of this, Fire & Emergency Services, Fire Protection District, Bureau of Fire, Fire & Rescue, Fire District, Fire Bureau, Division of Fire, Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Fire and aviation management etc.

Some departments further define themselves with words like Consolidated to indicate the merger of several districts, Rural or Suburban to differentiate a department protecting unincorporated areas of the county from a nearby city with a similar name, City to differentiate from a similarly named County department or Volunteer to show the department is made up of volunteer firefighters.

In some areas the fire department is combined with the local law enforcement agency, these combined agencies often have a name like Department of Public Safety or Office of Emergency Services. They also may be run as a separate section within the agency, these may have the law enforcement agency seal and an additional descriptive name like Fire Warden, Emergency Services Unit, Division of Fire & Rescue etc. 

When it comes to markings some departments stick with a simple line or two of text identifying the department, some abbreviate this to just a few letters, and others have elaborate department seals and gold leaf lettering.

Like the numbering systems there are many possibilities and these examples are just given as guidance. The only thing that really matters is that you like the sound of it and it fits on the decal.


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