The Roto-Ray: Beauty or Beast?

The Roto-RayAhhhh, the Roto-Ray.  For those of us who grew up in or around East Coast fire companies as children, they are something we cherish dearly, a unique spinning tornado of light on the front of a shiny engine or truck.  The department I work for, in a reach toward tradition and including a touch of modern technology, specified LED Roto-Rays on the fronts of our new fleet of engines and our future tractor-drawn aerial (minor refurb of Truck 7’s  trailer with a new prime mover).

When I posted some pictures of our new quints on Facebook the other day, I was surprised to hear that some people aren’t fans of this fancy warning light.  In response, I searched for similar feelings and found that there are, in fact, quite a few who don’t like them, and quite a few who do.  So I guess, Roto-Rays are the Philadelphia Flyers of warning devices: You either love them or you hate them.

A write-up I found on them came from the Fenton Fire Apparatus website, from which I have paraphrased:

Roto-Ray Warning Lights have been used on fire and rescue apparatus for over 65 years.  Roto-Rays are three sealed beam lights rotating @ 200 RPM in a horizontal plane that still commands attention in today’s traffic. The Roto-Ray Model 200 has three red sealed beam lights; the Roto-Ray Model 200W, available where permitted by state law, has one white and two red sealed beam lights.

Both models draw @ 10 amperes at 12.8 volts D.C. current [Since I’m not a technical guy, I don’t know if this is for the new LED version or not]. Both models are available in four different mounting applications. Roto-Rays have an all spur gear drive train with all-driven components using ball bearings. The lamp spider is made of aluminum or polished chrome. All housings are made of 16 gauge steel.  All Roto-Rays except the hidden mount are available in an all-chrome version. Roto-Ray Warning lights have been tested by an independent testing laboratory for compliance with applicable California and Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standards.

I also found the patent information on the Roto-Ray, which was issued in 1930 to Edward Rumsey.  So that’s a little about them.  Anecdotally, I think they work great.  A few weeks ago I was driving down the road in daylight hours and I caught in my rear-view mirror this visible circle of red and white behind me.  It was our Engine 6, pulling out onto the main drag about 3/4 of a mile behind me.  Between the reflective chevron striping of the front bumper and the Roto-Ray, it was pretty visible.  Scientifically, I have no proof (sounds like an Executive Fire Officer research paper to me).

I have found a few threads where these devices have been debated like at NassauFDRant and of course, at the ol’ Firehouse Forums.  There are also dozens of pictures and videos of them online, like this beautiful Hyattsville rig.

So what say you?  What’s the controversy, other than cost (which seems like some of the issue)?  Or tell us your special Roto-Ray story.  In the meanwhile, I’ll do some deep Internet searching to see if I can find more history (like where the first one was used) and I’ll post it if I find it.  Stay safe and thanks for reading.

[Editor’s Note: I have also added a picture of the front of one of our rigs so you can see it; I’ll find the night shot at some point]

Two HHIFR engines with Roto-Rays and chevrons.


  • Doug says:

    Roto-Rays are great lights, but seem to be limited mostly to the mid-Atlantic area, as you noted. They’re often coupled with Powercall style sirens (these sirens were orignally made by General Electric, but GE no longer makes them).

    I’m not a big fan of the small LED Roto-Rays, which use small TIR style PAR 36 LEDs; I prefer the older, amp-sucking halogens. But either way, everything’s better with a Roto-Ray.

  • Mike Ward says:

    Another lively thread from metro Washington DC:

  • GA_Firelady says:

    I have seen them sparingly around Georgia. My personal preference is that I don’t like them. Even though I’m still fairly new to the service, I’d be perfectly content with a “real” Federal Q, and the LED wig-wags. I don’t care for the highway chevrons that are on the backs of all newer units, but if it’s for my safety, well, I’ll tolerate it.

    Of course, we all know that it doesn’t matter how many lights you have, or how loud your siren and horns are, there will ALWAYS be that one imbicile…

  • Marques Bush says:

    Just going to simply say the Roto Ray is the only way. When the St. Andrews Dept Charleston, SC replaced our fleet a Roto Ray was adding to all the new pieces and has since proven itself in the way it effectively gets the attention of traffic. see and look at our apparatus.

  • JerseyMutt says:

    The few times I’ve seen them in SC, they will definitely get your attention. I know that many departments across my home state of Virginia as well as Maryland love Roto Rays. Just visit the Apple Blossom Festival fire apparatus parade in Winchester, VA to see a steady stream of Roto-Rays in a wide variety of colors.

  • Jim Still says:

    We don’t care how you did it up north!!!! Wait….I’m from up yonder, too. I love ’em!!!!! Wish I could talk the boss here into them!!!!

  • Patrick Smatlak says:

    It's awsome having Roto Rays on our Squad,Engine,Engine-tanker-Tower i love it and kids always come to he station to see and watch the Roto Rays and also liston to the Q2B Powercall and Horns as we roll out for a call

  • Patrick Smatlak says:

    It's awsome having Roto Rays on our Squad,Engine,Engine-tanker-Tower i love it and kids always come to the station to see and watch the Roto Rays,lights and also liston to the Q2B Powercall and Horns as we roll out for a call

  • Mike Jones says:


  • says:

    ….. Most of the Roto Rays that I have seen would spin so fast that they merely looked like a circle of light.  Having a stationary donut ring of bright LEDs would present the same image. …..  One Roto Ray, however, was geared down so the motorist could actually see the single white beam as it wiped across all lanes of traffic. …..  It is time for some real research to be done on what lights and light patterns actually inform the motorist and pedestrian as to what is coming their way. …..

  • Stephen says:

    Surely it spins in a vertical plane – it would be like a helicopter blade if it span in a horizontal plane.

  • Colin Fanning says:

    One of the most important facts we reviewed when deciding on the roto ray purchase was this; With the speeds of traffic on SC 278, by the time people heard the sirens on our fire trucks our light bars (on top of the roof) were out of sight. The roto ray, with its mounted location front and center of the apparatus, brought some needed visual attention lower so traffic moving in the same direction could see the visual warning device and then yield the right of way. We have seen a significant increase in citizens yielding to our new fleet.

  • Mihaela Lathrom says:

    We are in Southern California. Loma Linda, actually. Saw a firetruck pass by and my 9 year old commented on that light. We didn’t know anything about it. This article helped us learn something today. Thanks.

  • David says:

    I don’t care for these roto-ray, twisty, turny things. One more thing that will fail when you need it the most. Give me strobe LEDs and a Federal Q. You need nothing more. These fire trucks with the digital sirens are a joke. Somebody shoot me now. A fire truck that sounds like an ambulance or a police car…please.

  • I just found you!!! The rotating lights are an indelible part of my memory. I was born in Detroit in the ’30s and our Detroit Fire Dept had the rotating lights above the front bumper, or high up, on the end of a vertical staff. YOU COULD SEE THEM COMING BLOCKS AWAY!! What memories. I miss them. But, you could only see them if they were coming toward you. After I grew up, they were phased out and the new design horizontal beacons, which shot out in all directions, took their place. And now we have the digitized flashing mounts that can be seen in all directions. Our vehicles in my funeral home have the latest digitized versions that command attention in all directions. They are more efficient for that reason, and we will keep them. But , oh, how I miss the old rotating beacons.

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