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Lightbar Selection Tips

Getting a lightbar that will fully meet your needs, both improving the capabilities and the safety of your fleet, takes more than luck or a smooth sales pitch. The foremost consideration when choosing a lightbar is whether it will fit your vehicle or vehicles. Full-size lightbars for police vehicles come in roughly 44-, 48-, and 52-inch sizes and each lightbar manufacturer has its own take on these sizes. 

Sizing can be misleading, as smaller lightbars can be made to fit larger vehicles using specific mounting hardware. To keep it simple, consider the variety of vehicles in your fleet and how important it is that they use the same lightbar platform. You will want to check with the manufacturer to see that they can fit your entire fleet.

LEDs have allowed manufacturers to slim down their lightbars and also to experiment with their shapes and styles in efforts to be more efficient and effective. Consider the shape of the lightbar, as well as the height; on larger vehicles, super-slim bars may not look right or offer good rearward visibility at close distances. 

Likewise, thicker bars may be less desirable on smaller vehicles or vehicles that are used for traffic enforcement, where aerodynamics and stealth are important. Finally, look for lightbars that will provide good off-axis visibility, commonly referred to as ‘intersection’ warning.

You will need to consider the construction of the lightbar and evaluate its ruggedness for your application and environment. Durability might be an unknown for new offerings, so consider the manufacturer’s track record and ask other user agencies about their experiences. 

Will the lenses or domes survive a moderate hailstorm? How is the lightbar sealed against the elements? How well protected are the lenses against UV damage and the abrasive effects of airborne particles? It the internal electrical design sensible and well protected against moisture and corrosion?

This last point is very important. Corrosion of circuit boards over time is a very real threat to LED lights. Roof-mounted lightbars suffer tremendous temperature shifts over a single day. As assemblies heat and cool, they are at risk for moisture entering and damaging components. To protect against this near inevitability, ensure the lightbar utilizes potted electronics, solid-state design, and protective coatings on exposed circuitry. Wired connections should be rugged and lock together, preferably with sealed plugs or connectors.

Over the five-year average service life of a police car, you will probably have to perform some routine maintenance on the lightbar. From cleaning lenses to replacing light modules, there is no such thing as a ‘maintenance-free’ lightbar. Consider the time, tools, and technical knowledge that will be needed to service the lightbar. 

Can individual light modules be replaced or will an entire assemble need swapped out? How easy is it to remove the lightbar should the vehicle need to have bodywork performed? What is the warranty period—frankly, anything less than five years is insufficient—and what is covered?

All of the above matter and are often overlooked when new lightbars are selected. I have included these considerations because my experience has repeatedly shown they are important over the lifecycle of the lightbar. Simply picking a lightbar based on perceived brightness or other cosmetic features is similar to marrying only for looks; it can result in a short relationship or worse, a miserable long one. Evaluate the whole lightbar first, before focusing on to the warning features.

Regardless of the product, features tend to drive our purchasing decisions. Today’s lightbars are no different, offering a great variety of choice in colors, flash patterns, and lighting modes. The newest trend in lightbar technology is found in multi-color light heads, which allow for one light head to output light in two or even three different colors. Older must-haves, such as flashing scene lights, traffic arrows, and cruise lights are also available from every major lightbar manufacturer.

Let’s start with lightbar color, both on and off. LEDs output light in very narrow color spectrums. Without delving too deep into science, the simple version is that colored lenses can pose a challenge for lightbar manufacturers, particularly with multi-color offerings, which we will discuss below. 

Lightbars are predominately offered with clear lenses or domes because it allows the manufacturer to use any color LED behind the lens. If you traditionally run colored lenses on your lightbars, you may lose that option moving forward. Talk to your vendor to see what your options are.

Flash pattern choices differ from manufacturer to manufacturer; however, all current bars offer at least a dozen patterns to select from. If you have state regulations governing flash patterns or rates, such as California Title 13, it is important to ensure the lightbar is complaint. Likewise, the lightbar should meet SAE standards for automotive warning devices. 

In addition to pattern selection, some lightbars offer in-depth programmability using software.  This can be used to configure very specific ‘states’ for your lightbar, each offering specific advantages for traffic stops, pursuits, or on-scene illumination.

These lighting states, or modes, are key to getting the most out of your choice. For instance, Mode 1 could be a simple, slow flash pattern useful for on-scene warning. It would identify the vehicle from long distances and not distract or disorient passing motorists. Mode 2 might offer faster patterns suitable for signaling a vehicle to pull over, and Mode 3 might add flashing scene lights to alert traffic you are approaching rapidly and requesting right-of-way. Be sure to choose a lightbar that has at least two states or modes.

Which leads us to the newest advance in warning technology—multi-color. The basic idea is that a single light module will contain two or more unique LED arrays. Each module can then serve as a warning light in blue, or change to white for scene lighting. Another example would be a lightbar that uses all red in the rear, but then can serve as an amber arrow when needed. 

Previously an agency would have to split light heads, halving the number of LEDs in a given color, to get this type of ‘dual use’ from a lightbar. Optics matter here, so be sure to compare not just color output, but how the light is spread or focused to the task.

Multi-color technology really does offer the best of both worlds, and no longer will you have to pick between versatility and effectiveness. Of course it costs more, as it uses more LEDs, but it can add tremendous capability to a single vehicle. Perhaps the best way to utilize multi-color is to add 360-degree white light illumination capability to your fleet. In this way, any car can serve as a powerful, rapidly deployable scene light at crashes, major crimes, and community events. 

Multi-color lighting can be used to add better rearward illumination for backing down dark driveways, provide powerful flood-like takedown lights, and add intersection-angle warning punch. It could also help with dual-use vehicles, such as animal control, allowing them to have amber utility lighting and transition to authority color lighting for emergencies.

More and more, police agencies have to intelligently consider how they use warning lights.  Studies have identified that more lights are not always better, and that red lights are better in the daytime, while blue lights are better at night. Multi-color lighting allows a roof-mounted lightbar to handle all warning light needs, and even allows operators to favor red or blue colors depending on ambient lighting conditions. By considering all the ‘mobile tactical problems’ your police vehicles confront, you can best evaluate the benefits of multi-color lightbars for your fleet.

Of course, a good lightbar choice will offer the industry standard takedown lights, cruise lights, low-power mode, and traffic arrow pattern capability. Cruise lights are an especially powerful, yet often underutilized tool. This low-profile lighting can really increase a department’s visibility and also balance the need for identification with a less confusing signal. The low-power setting will dim the bar for nighttime use, something motorists will appreciate. Several lightbar manufacturers offer auto-dimming as an option, and it should be considered.

In order to leverage all the capability today’s newest lightbars offer, it is necessary to pair them with an intelligent control interface. Systems like Whelen’s CenCom Carbide, Federal Signal’s Smart Siren Platinum, SoundOff Signal’s bluePRINT, and Code3’s CELS, offer the greatest level of control and ability to configure multiple states or modes. All integrate the siren system and give vehicle operators easy, eyes-free switching options. All are software-programmable and offer total control over flash patterns and multi-color activation.

Finally, make sure you select a lightbar that is made in the United States. When you need support, from questions to parts, it is important your lightbar manufacturer is reputable and accessible. Most major manufacturers will let you tour their facility and this can really impart confidence in your choice. Whatever your lightbar choice ends up being, if you follow the above guidance you can be certain it will serve you well. Be seen and be safe!


Matthew Ayers is a Captain with the Sevierville, Tenn. Police Department and owner of Command & Control Installations. Captain Ayers serves as a Co-Chair for

Police Fleet Expo


. He may be reached at


Published in Police Fleet Manager, Mar/Apr 2016

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