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Choosing the Right Lightbar

Today's vehicle lighting technology offers a wealth of options and functionality.

May 04, 2015  |  by Ryan Mason

Selecting the right LED lighting solution for your agency's vehicles can be a daunting task for the uninitiated. There are multiple factors to consider, including lumen output levels, the lightbar's shape, its interoperability with existing LED equipment in the squad cars, and even which sirens and other accessories may or may not function with new control boxes to drive the new lightbar.

Light Output

Anyone who has been in law enforcement for more than 15 years remembers the old halogen lightbars. They were great for their time, but lacked anything resembling the functionality of products available in today's market. The only thing most miss is the highly audible whirring of the old rotators overhead that would warn you if your lights were still activated during the day. There is no such warning with LED lightbars, other than you realizing the "seas are parting" in front of you as all traffic pulls to the side to let you pass. (This happened to me many times as we switched from halogens to LED lightbars). The lower profile of LED lightbars also makes them much more difficult for drivers to spot in their rearview mirrors.

But the more immediately noticeable difference with the onset of LED lighting was the extreme brightness this technology offers compared to the older bars. The illumination rating or "lumens" of halogen bars compared to LED bars is dramatic, with LED lighting offering the officer more than twice the visibility on the street.

Taking Shape

Unlike older lightbars, new modular LED models also come in different shapes. While both provide plenty of light and color choices, nonlinear shaped bars can assist in visibility because their pointed shape can allow the lights to be seen further forward when approaching an intersection. Still, the straight or "linear" bar is by far the most widely seen and used lightbar across the country.

Vendors including Federal Signal and Code 3 offer many variants of this type of technology. For example, Federal Signal offers the nonlinear Valor lightbar, which has a distinctive V-like shape and is designed to be clearly visible from all angles, but its more traditional-looking linear Integrity lightbar is the company's top seller for law enforcement. The Solex and Defender lightbars are some of Code 3's most popular models.

Modular Functionality

Looking into the functionality of lightbar technology, both Code 3 and Federal Signal are very much on par when it comes to what is available in the lightbar. Each bar provides high-intensity light, with the modular ability to change any and all lighting to one of several colors, usually red, blue, white, and yellow for directional use at the rear.

Thanks to this modular technology, with the flick of a switch an officer can turn any lights from the standard red-blue or blue-white configuration, to all white in the front. This transforms the front of the lightbar into a giant takedown light. Or for scene lighting you can turn the whole lightbar into the single white configuration.

Additionally, the lightbar can function as a directional bar, taking the place of the cumbersome full-deck directional bars so often seen on the back parcel shelf of patrol vehicles. Or it can be used to create a dual-deck bar when coupled with a control head unit that runs the lightbar and other peripheral devices.

Gaining Control

While the considerations for selecting the right lightbar for an agency do center around the lightbar itself, when you're dealing with cars already in service you need to keep in mind compatibility with the currently installed siren/lightbar control head. It's important that the control head already in a patrol vehicle be able to handle the advanced programming of the newer multi-function modular lightbars.

If replacement control head units are recommended, consider the current functionality of the existing head. You don't want install a new control head unit and find out pieces of equipment that had been functional no longer work. According to Code 3 and Federal Signal, all of their lights are considered universal and should still function as normal. But whichever lightbar you consider, you should also research how easy it will be to install the lightbar system and any new control head unit you might need.

Code 3's control box technology, named the V3, controls the lightbar with a mix of a three-way slider, arrow stick directional controller, and 11 additional control inputs that can be used to activate up to 11 additional compatible lights that can also be activated through the V3's control box. This can be mounted in a trunk tray from which it feeds all information through to the control head mounted in the console of the patrol vehicle.

Federal Signal's control box technology similarly offers multiple additional inputs in its Smart Siren Platinum control box, topping out at 17 additional inputs, all available for single activation through corresponding tactile buttons on the interface of the remote control head. In addition, the Federal Signal offering provides the ability to custom program its lightbars, including the Valor and Integrity, with downloadable software that can be accessed from the company's Website.

This technology is not available to every street level officer for their own programming, but is provided to fleet managers so they can input specific light patterns to be used on the agency's vehicles. The fleet manager need only connect an Ethernet cable from the Smart Siren Platinum box directly into a laptop computer, making the system then fully programmable by the end user.

Previous lightbars have required the installer to wire up to nine different wires separately into the back of individual inputs in the siren controller unit. With the latest technology like Federal Signal's Valor unit, this has been simplified to contain all of the lightbar wiring in a three-wire system, dramatically speeding up the installation process for both new vehicles installations and retrofitting of existing patrol units.

Both companies allow the ability to connect nonproprietary lighting to their control box units as well as many different siren systems such as Code 3's Banshee and Federal Signal's Rumbler low-frequency sirens and all standard box sirens used in today's market. This provides additional functionality, regardless of the lighting option you choose.

Ryan Mason is a former police officer who spent his time in law enforcement serving in the Midwest. He now lives in Atlanta and works as a freelance journalist and photographer.

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Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

132&Bush @ 5/7/2015 2:47 PM

And the reason they don't add a sound to let you know they are on is?

Lt Dan @ 5/8/2015 6:58 AM

Whelen and Star produce some pretty good products too. EVERYONE should buy US made products. Look into that for yourself. You will be surprised.

The article totally skips over the era of strobe tubes. Traffic preemption is a concern too.

Current applications, in my opinion, create TOO MUCH LIGHT so passing motorists are confused and blinded. This makes multiple vehicle pursuits a challenge.

The most critical factor, from my years of experience, is UNIVERSAL CONTROL where each and every vehicle in the fleet has the same control box in the same location and it does the same thing on every vehicle.

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