By Timothy C. Hannigan, FASNY Attorney
As volunteer firefighters, each of us knows of a fellow firefighter – whether in our own firehouse or in a neighboring department – whose personal vehicle features a blue light package worth more than the vehicle itself. But is that light setup legal? Probably not.
The current status of the law governing the use of blue lights by volunteer firefighters and others in New York State is set forth below. The full text of the laws discussed below is available in the 2020 Edition of FASNY’s Fire Service Laws of the State of New York, on page 698 (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375) and page 810 (15 NYCRR part 44).
A. For volunteer firefighters, the first step is written permission from the Chief. The law requires written authorization signed by the chief of the fire department or company of which the volunteer is a member. Written authorization can take any form, but is generally given through use of a “Blue Light Card”, which contains a space for the firefighter’s name and a signature line for the Chief.
Use of a blue light is a privilege, not a right. The Chief may revoke a firefighter’s authorization to use a blue light at any time. It is important to remember that a blue light is a courtesy light, only. A blue light does not confer special powers upon a personally-owned vehicle, permit a firefighter to exceed posted speed limits, or otherwise violate the Vehicle and Traffic Law.
B. Personally-owned vehicles can have one blue light, only. Once you obtain written permission from the Chief, your personally-owned vehicle (“POV”) – to be distinguished from a vehicle owned by the department or AHJ – is authorized to display one blue light, only. The Vehicle and Traffic Law and the regulations enacted by the Department of Motor Vehicles are clear on this topic.
The style of the blue light is also regulated. The light must be visible from the front of the vehicle. The light itself must have a blue lens, “and not an uncolored lens with a blue bulb”. For roof-mounted dome units, the unit itself must have consist a blue dome, and not an uncolored cover with a blue bulb. While the blue light cannot be a part of the headlight system, it can be mounted in front of or behind the grille of the vehicle. The light itself can be a revolving, rotating, oscillating or constantly moving light. If mounted inside the vehicle, the driver must use a suitable cover – which, astoundingly, “may consist of paint” – to prevent reflected glare or distraction to the operator.
The regulations also govern how the light is permitted to operate. “Lights that give off blinding flashes, such as strobe lights, are prohibited”. A single light fixture that contains multiple lights that flash alternately is also prohibited. Although the regulation contains no definition of “blinding flashes,” we can infer that any flashes in excess of 32 candlepower would be impermissible. For those with LED blue lights, one candlepower is equivalent to 12.57 lumens.
C. In addition to volunteer firefighters, who else can use blue lights? One or more blue lights – or a combination of blue and red lights or a combination of blue, red and white lights – can be used on a police vehicle, fire vehicle, ambulance, emergency ambulance service vehicle, or county emergency medical services vehicle. As part of a package of bills tied to the New York State Budget in April 2020, tow trucks gained the authority to use a blue light.
Any blue lights on the vehicles referenced in this section must be rear-facing only. That is significant, and a clear distinction from blue lights used by volunteer firefighters, which must be visible from the front of the vehicle. The lone exception to the “rear-facing rule” is that a blue light may be mounted inside of a trunk or hatch if the trunk or hatch, when opened, obstructs a rear-facing blue light mounted on the vehicle itself. To the extent that the vehicles referenced above feature front or side-facing blue lights, such use violates Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375 and the regulations promulgated thereunder.
Notably absent from the list of permitted users of blue lights are drivers for Uber, Lyft, and the like. Despite this, front-facing blue lights spelling out the word “Uber” are prevalent in New York. While it is unclear what the level of enforcement is against such drivers by police, it stands to reason that a livery driver operating with such a light is in violation of the Vehicle and Traffic Law punishable by a fine.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained herein does not establish an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Matters addressed are for information purposes only and the reader should seek advice from competent local counsel in regard to taking action on any matters addressed herein.
1 Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375 (41) (4) (a) and 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (c). 2 FASNY designed model Blue Light Cards, available for .25 cents each at https://fasny.com/shop/product/blue-light-authorization-card/ or by calling the FASNY office at 518-434-0987. 3 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (k) (1). 4 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (k) (6). 5 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (k) (5). 6 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (m). 7 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (k) (9). 8 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (k) (8). 9 15 NYCRR § 44.4 (a) (1).