Red, Blue and Inescapable

It is the last thing that the knowing speeder or driver who had one too many wants to see in his rearview mirror - the pulsating police lightbar. Through the evolution of rotating beacons to strobing LEDs, lightbars are a critical component of the police fleet.

LED lightbars are changing the industry, says Howard Berke, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Whelen Engineering Co. in Chester, Connecticut. "They offer so many advantages," he enthuses. "They're more reliable and long-lasting."

By comparison, an average incandescent bulb operates for 300 to 500 hours, while a 1-watt LED diode - typically used in lightbars - has a lifespan of more 100,000 hours over 11 years of continuous use.

LEDs also have a tight color range compared to halogen or strobe, producing a brighter and truer color. "You get redder reds, bluer blues and the color doesn't wash out in bright sunlight," says Berke. "The diodes today have a light output equal to or even higher than halogen or strobe bulbs."

LED lightbars can be programed to flash in various, and sometimes synchronized, patterns, "which means you can give a different outward performance for each kind of police action, such as a pursuit or controlling an intersection," Berke explains. "At Whelen, we call these 'scenes,' and the latest lightbar we've come out with can program as many as one or two dozen 'scenes.' "

LED lightbars also draw less power from the battery than halogen or strobe. Berke explains that in the past, most loaded lightbars drew between 30 and 50 amps, which could be - especially in the case of a halogen rotating lightbar - a significant battery-drain. Often, if the lightbar was running, it would be necessary to leave the vehicle turned on even while stopped, or to install a larger aftermarket alternator or secondary battery if the vehicle carried a lot of electronic equipment. In comparison, LED bars draw only 5 to 10 amps, eliminating this concern.

LED bars are tougher, too, according to Phil Von Tom, director of business development for SoundOff Signal, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

"LED lightbars are immune to vibration, whereas strobe and halogen bars take a real beating - the filaments take a real beating," he says. "In terms of maintenance and repair, the LED bar is much more bullet-resistant, and its control boards will run its own diagnostics and tell you where the trouble is."

All of these qualities, in particular the energy-saving aspects of LED bars, are why agencies are trending away from strobe and halogen lightbars, he says.

"There are agencies still running strobe and halogen, but only because it's hard for them to maintain a mix of product," Von Tom says. "But as bids come up, these agencies will transition over to LED lightbars."

LED installations
Such a transition is taking place at the Virginia State Police, according to Wayne Cosner, garage manager. With 2,600 vehicles in its fleet, changing from strobes to LED bars is not going to be an overnight thing; they are phasing them in as additional lights are purchased. Although Cosner says their strobes have served them well and that many are still performing like new, he describes LEDs as a "no-brainer" decision.

"There are both mechanical and tactical reasons to change over," he explains, listing low current draw, low maintenance, long service life, greatly increased light output, and a tremendous increase in visibility and safety as highlights.

"Without looking at statistics, I would guess we have as many severe patrol vehicle crashes when our vehicles are parked as when they are moving," says Cosner. "We owe it to our troopers to give them the best lighting possible for their protection.

"Strobes are from the 80s and 90s; LEDs are the future," he adds. "Comparing strobes to LEDs is like comparing a Piper Cub to a Learjet."

With 3,500 vehicles in its fleet, the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin began its conversion to LED lightbars in 2002 and expects to complete this effort by this year, says fleet manager Jerry Newbury.

The department decided to go this route for a number of reasons, according to Newbury. One of the most important is that these bars are much less demanding on the starting and charging system of the vehicle.

"Without question, the lighting systems were the biggest draw on our vehicles' electrical systems," he says. "Dealing with the increasing demand on the electrical system was, and is, a continuing problem that all agencies struggle with. The LED lightbars offer a huge advantage because they have very little amperage draw in comparison to rotating or strobe lighting."

It also was felt that LED bars produced brighter, crisper lighting - an important safety consideration - and were more durable.

The department replaced its rotating lightbars via the typical replacement cycle - purchasing an LED bar with every new vehicle ordered since 2002.

"It's been a significant investment," he says, "but one we feel was necessary."

He advises agencies looking into these bars to develop a good rapport with the manufacturer's rep.

"I talk to a lot of local agencies that just call a local vendor when they need a lightbar and oftentimes they get talked into equipment that does not meet their needs," Newbury explains. "You need to take advantage of the knowledge, expertise and service these manufacturer's reps can provide." (See "What to consider" on Page 72 for additional tips on product selection.)

Although these bars may be beyond the reach of some agencies budget-wise, (however, the energy savings, durability and longevity offset the costs, manufacturers point out) the good news is as more 1-watt diode manufacturers enter the arena, the costs will go down, says Berke.

"A few years ago there was only one company that made 1-watt diodes; today there are as many as a dozen," he says. "Over the next 10 to 20 years, LEDs will be used everywhere and will replace incandescent sodium vapor and most other kinds of lamps. It will happen as higher-powered diodes are developed."

Sources of LED lightbars
A variety of manufacturers offer lightbars featuring LED technology. Following are several options when looking to implement LED bars.

911EP Inc.'s Galaxy Series lightbars (the Galaxy and the Galaxy Elite) have a patented, modular design and provide vehicles with 360-degree warning lights.

Charles Ricci, general manager of the Jacksonville, Florida-based company, explains that each component works in a "plug-and-play manner," which allows for more than 2 billion possible flash combinations.

"We use the Lumileds - Luxeon 1-watt and 3-watt emitters," Ricci says. "In addition, the Galaxy Elites can quickly take advantage of new LED advancements. For example, takedowns have traditionally used halogen lamps. We now have white LEDs that perform better, both in color rendering and depth perception. In current draw, they are more than seven times more efficient."

Measuring 1 5/8 inches, the Galaxy Series design is low profile, reducing drag and wind noise (a benefit when it comes to protecting against hearing loss, says Ricci) and increasing the stealth factor of the vehicle. The bars also offer the ability to reprogram and change flash patterns as agency needs require.

"All of these features and benefits are for the safety and security of the law enforcement officer," Ricci says. "We want the lightbars to be clearly seen by oncoming motorists, targeted vehicles in pursuit or simply clearly marked at intersections."

Federal Signal Corp.'s ROC (Reliable Onboard Circuitry) and Solaris LED reflector technology figure prominently in the Arjent S2 and Legend LED lightbars, according to Rick Arlen, product manager for Arjent S2.

"ROC technology eliminates 85 percent of the connections found in a typical lightbar assembly," explains Arlen. "Wires, connections and assemblies have been replaced by multiple PCB assemblies - reducing repair time and, therefore, increasing the hours the vehicles stay on the road."

The Solaris S2 LED reflector assemblies optimize light output for greatest coverage - even at 90-degree, off-axis angles, warning signals are maximized.

"Most emergency vehicle accidents occur at intersections because some lightbars do not have 360 degrees of light output," says Leslie Daniels, product manager for Legend lightbars. "The Legend lightbar overcomes the deficiency of most linear lightbars by incorporating advanced Solaris optics."

Each Solaris reflector consists of a highly efficient reflective optic design that projects light at angles up to 120 degrees.

Federal Signal also produces the Arjent S2 non- linear shape lightbar. "Non-linear lightbars compliment the off-axis performance of the Solaris optic because the LED modules are offset from each other and do not block light toward the 45- and 90-degree interaction angles," explains Daniels. "This non- linear shape, combined with Solaris optics, further enhances the off-axis warning."

Both lightbars from this University Park, Illinois, company contain the Federal Signal SignalMaster, a directional lighting option that can be activated by a simple slide switch.

"While the lightbar is operating in any of the three priority modes, all SignalMaster modules will keep sequence with the lightbar flash pattern," explains Arlen. "However, once the directional warning is selected, the SignalMaster modules will override the current flash pattern and perform in the selected SignalMaster pattern. These include multiple left, right and center-out options in slow, medium and fast speeds."

The lightbars offer a library of flash patterns, adjustable alley and takedown lights, front/rear cutoff, dimming, and intersection warning. They meet all SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) and CCR (California Code of Regulations) standards.

SoundOff Signal, utilizing information gathered from public safety professionals, created the ETL-5000 lightbar containing advanced optics that collimate and then disperse light, eliminating wasted light energy, and increasing signal light and direction, says Von Tom.

"The 180 degrees of high-output light from each end cap (24 LEDs in each) gives the user 360 degrees of light coverage for increased protection," says Von Tom. He also notes that each inboard module contains six LEDs that are slightly staggered for optimal signal size and increased light appearance. Modules are available in clear or colored outer lenses - red, blue and amber - to suit agency needs. Rear arrow segments are available in five-, six-, seven- and eight-module configurations.

Many agencies are incorporating SUVs into their fleets, but the vehicle's design often requires that more than one set of conventional lightbars be mounted (one at the front and one at the rear). The mounting system that comes with the ETL-5000 eliminates the need for installing a second bar off the back. It also allows for low-height needs on sedan applications, says Von Tom, adding that fixed-mount optional kits are available.

The ETL-5000 incorporates advanced digital control that allows users to program and activate dual flash pattern modes
- for example, Mode 1 for pursuits and Mode 2 for intersection crossings
- for enhanced conspicuity and safety. There also is a Cruise Mode (programmed modules glow in the off state of flash pattern) and a Low Power Mode, which reduces light output by 50 percent when appropriate.

The lightbar's circuitry gives users more control options, protection from electrical damage and advanced diagnostic capabilities. The optics exceed SAE light standards with end caps alone. The ETL-5000 is compliant to SAE J845 and CCR Title 13.

Whelen Engineering Co. has designed the LFL Liberty SX Series LED lightbars for agencies that want to travel in stealth mode - and reduce wind drag in the bargain. Measuring 2 1/2 inches from base to top, the Liberty hangs very low to the roof, almost touching it, says Berke, who adds that in someone's rearview mirror, this lightbar almost resembles a ski rack.

Some of the features found on the Liberty lightbar include:

  • the ability to add pairs of linear LED modules (up to 12) to a basic four extended corner linear Super-LED model, for a total of 16 modules;
  • the capability of building a lightbar in any color combination, with takedowns and LED modules in any position desired;
  • the Scan-Lock feature that enables users to scan through multiple flash patterns and lock the desired patterns;
  • an optional five- or six-lamp Super-LED Traffic Advisor, with ultra-high intensity linear-LED modules;
  • optional LED Cruise Lights that allow users to dim all the LED lights and keep them in steady mode;
  • and linear Super-LED direction inboard warning lights.

The Liberty also has a slightly wider footprint, which gives it greater stability and weight distribution, an important consideration given the thinner roof construction of today's vehicles, says Berke.

For agencies that want a higher profile, the company has designed the Whelen Freedom FV and FW Series lightbars. This "double decker" bar measures 3 3/4 inches from base to top, but uses the same mounting system as the Liberty, so it too sits snug to the roof.

Some of this bar's features include:

  • complete independent on/off and flashing pattern control of each lighthead;
  • phase control of each lighthead to allow for alternating, simultaneous and combination flash patterns;
  • cruise light control with unlimited adjustable intensity levels;
  • a WeCan electronic control module that communicates all lightbar operating functions (Super-LED and halogen);
  • functions that are programmed via pick-and-click or drag screens on the setup computer;
  • and the ability to add up to 12 Super-LED modules for a total of 16.

Both the Liberty and the Freedom exceed California and SAE requirements.

Considering all these options and features, in the end, it is the lightbar that best serves the department's needs and goals that will shine above the rest.