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January 21, 2004
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N.J. trooper cars' new warning lights are red, blue, and unmistakable

By Justo Bautista
North Jersey Media Group

They have been trooper-tested for two years. Day and night. In rain, fog, and snow.

And after rave reviews, they will be appearing soon on a highway near you.

They're the New Jersey State Police's low-profile light bars, featuring red and blue light bursts. They'll replace 20-year-old, all-red rotating lights on troopers' cars.

"We all marvel about those lights," said state police Sgt. Gerald Lewis, who saw the new light bar in action one day while driving to work.

"Man, what in the world is that!" he exclaimed.

What he saw was the future in emergency warning light technology.

"They are a major difference," said state police Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Rehmann. "The way these things light up is amazing. And blue is new for us."

Industry tests indicate that blue is more visible than red in various weather conditions.

So far, 115 new patrol cars -2003 Ford Crown Victorias - have been fitted with the new light bars, officially called Linear-LED light bars.

As older cars in the trooper fleet of 900 are replaced, new cars will be equipped with the light bars, which cost about $1,800 each.

Some veteran troopers who remember the chain-driven rotating lights couldn't be happier.

They sometimes had to get out of their cars and bang on the old light bars with flashlights to get the cranky lights to rotate after the mechanisms froze or the plastic gears wore out.

The new light bar has no moving parts and is the result of a lengthy research and testing process that involved dozens of troopers and technicians.

A Weapons and Tactics Committee reviewed emergency light trade publications. Committee members and state police civilian technicians visited trade shows. Road troopers were consulted. Instructors at the State Police Academy were asked for their opinions.

"We wanted something to give people more time to react, and these lights do," said Lt. Russ Fleming, head of the Radio, Electronics, and Maintenance Unit. "You see these lights way off. They're brighter than all get-out."

Fleming called it improving the "mousetrap."

"We always try to avoid problems before they happen," he said. "We're always concerned with the safety of our troopers and the public."

The mousetrap in this case is a $24,000 patrol car crammed with a protective cage, radio console, camera, computers, and, soon, scanners for the new digital driver's licenses.

The prototype for the light bar was built in a garage at state police headquarters in West Trenton.

State police civilian technicians Scott Grilli and Scott Ramage, experimented with a narrow light bar manufactured by Whelen Engineering of Chester, Conn.

They started with a "bare" trooper car.

"We talk to the guys [troopers] to get opinions," said Grilli, whose technicians also work on the lights on the governor's car, on state police boats and helicopters, and at command posts.

"We worked at night, tried different lights, saw how the bulbs went off, tinkered with the console, controls, all the way down to how the whole light bar operated," Grilli said.

They built a hands-free console, a sliding switch for the light bar so troopers "don't have to look down" and can keep their eyes on the road when in pursuit.

"The first time I saw them [the light bar], I was really impressed," Grilli said. "They were so bright it was almost blinding, to be honest with you. I was worried they were too bright. That's why we even have a certain switch to knock down the front lights."

The clear encasement gives the light bar a stealthy look. Its attention-grabbing brightness comes from 50 tiny LEDs - light emitting diodes - packed into eight panels in the light bar. The panels themselves are clear until power is applied to produce split-second blue and red bursts.

The technicians wrote up the specifications for Whelen, which then supplied the light bars for further testing.

"They were tested in every possible, conceivable condition," Fleming said.

Cars equipped with the new light bars were driven around West Trenton, and on interstate highways.

In fair and inclement weather, technicians would start at a distance, then drive toward the cars to watch the lights in action, studying their computer-programmed patterns.

"With snow, those lights worked perfectly," Fleming said.

One strong advantage that the LEDs have over the rotating strobe and halogen bulbs is they are less draining on a car's 12-volt battery.

"The biggest problem [with traditional rotating lights] is the high amperage draw," said Robert Squicciarini, a Whelen regional sales manager. "They're hard on batteries.

"The lights they were using were in the 50-ampere area," Squicciarini said. "Now, we are dropping down to less than five amps. In police cars, that's the most important issue now, with computers and cameras. All that takes up more electricity."

Another important advantage to the new light bar is its "side to side" visibility.

"They are bright all around," Squicciarini said. "New Jersey wanted to be able to offset cars in traffic stops to protect the officer," he added, referring to the troopers parking behind stopped cars at an angle.

"It is critical to make sure a car with a light bar is just as bright when parked at an angle as when it is parked parallel to the highway," Squicciarini said.

The new light bar is such a hit that municipal police departments have begun inquiring about them, Fleming said.

Meanwhile, Grilli said he is already busy looking for the next generation of warning lights.

"We're always looking at new stuff," he said. "In the summer, we'll get Jet Skis [for the state police marine unit]. We'll have to come up with a package for those."

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