Article 33 October/November 2011

The Short Lived Orange Cross Emblem

Everyone in EMS is familiar with the Red Cross and Star-of-Life emblems but few realize that for a brief period ambulances were identified with an Orange Cross emblem.

The Red Cross emblem was developed in Switzerland in 1863 to identify medical personnel and their vehicles on the battlefield. Soon after, the Red Cross emblem became an international symbol of first aid organizations. In many countries including Canada, the Red Cross emblem became the unofficial symbol for identifying an ambulance.

In 1971 the United States' National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) assigned the National Research Council and the National Bureau of Standards the task of determining the best colour and symbol for ambulances as distinguished from other emergency vehicles. Ready identification, recognition under various lighting conditions and distinctiveness were some of their objectives. The final report of the joint committee recommended that ambulances be painted white with a ten inch wide horizontal band of Omaha orange painted at mid body surrounding the entire vehicle (Omaha Orange was a distinctive colour first used for school buses in the Nebraska city). And the committee's recommendation for a new symbol for identifying ambulances was an orange cross on a white background.

The following year several ambulance manufacturers in the United States began promoting the new paint scheme and the Orange Cross emblem on their ambulances. But the American Red Cross objected to the NHTSA recommended use of the Orange Cross emblem, as it too closely imitated the emblem of the Red Cross. The NHTSA investigated, felt the Red Cross complaint was valid and set about developing a new symbol, the blue 'Star of Life', which then became the recommended standard emblem for ambulances in the United States, Canada and many other countries.

The ambulance in the photo is a 1972 Cadillac built by the Superior Coach Corporation of Lima, Ohio. Superior probably built this ambulance as a design concept to test the new Orange Cross emblem. Presumably the prototype design was rejected as all of Superior's high headroom ambulances left the factory with a small chrome cross and three 'spears' ornamentation on the rear panel - not the large, stylized Orange Cross. (Students of ambulance design will notice this prototype car was also missing the rear emergency flashers and the decorative chrome band over the roof - standard items on Superior's production models).

The era of the Orange Cross emblem on ambulances was very brief, lasting little more than one year - sandwiched between decades of the Red Cross symbol and the current 'Star-of-Life' symbol.

Copyright 2011 Peter Adsten

Photo from Dr. Roger White Column

1972 Superior Cadillac prototype.