The Role of Graphics in Emergency Services
When you think about emergency services, the first thought probably isn’t about the graphics. But the reality is that we all associate specific services with specific icons and colors — red fire trucks, blue police cars — that must adhere to very stringent specifications in order to be instantly recognizable. And that is where graphics come in. We talked to two shops that specialize in nothing but graphics and signage for emergency and first responders to learn more about the unique challenges this vertical brings.
The first, Graphic Designs International, based in Stuart, Florida, was founded in 1994 and has built its entire business around this specialized vertical market. With 18 employees, the shop does the installation itself for departments across the state, and ships graphics around the country. It was originally founded as a police and sheriff fleet business, and has grown over
the years to include fire, EMS, and security companies.
American Response Vehicles & Northwestern Emergency Vehicles, in Columbia, Missouri, is an in-plant operation that lives inside of a dealership dedicated to emergency vehicles. Like any automotive dealership, they have a full compliment of services, but the graphics department stands out. Around 80% of the vehicles the dealership sells are wrapped with custom graphics before being sent to the buyer, and the shop also repairs any graphics that have taken damage — whether they originally installed them or not. The company has been doing business for 20 years, with around 35 employees across the entire operation, including the graphics department.
What are the most common types of graphics emergency services require?
Kim Amsalem, president, Graphic Designs International: About 95% of our projects utilize reflective vinyls. Most of our customers only use 3M 5100R or 3M 680CR. It is a mix of cut pigmented vinyls and printed shields, stars, and municipality logos.
Ryan Peoples, graphics designer, American Response Vehicles & Northwestern Emergency Vehicles: We do everything — we’ve done full reflective wraps, complete color changes on ambulances, and most of the time they want the graphics as reflective as possible. We use a lot of 3M 780 because it’s highly reflective. We also do a lot of window perfs. And a chrome, shiny vinyl is very popular with EMS and fire — even though those are fully reflective, so they are easy to be seen, but they are still not seen as well as they should be. We do so many wreck replacements. The entire truck could be wrapped and could still be T-boned.
What are some of the challenges working with emergency vehicles?
Brett Holdiman, VP of operations, American Response Vehicles & Northwestern Emergency Vehicles: One of the challenges is with color matching, especially on a large fleet, or if it was printed on a different printer — we switched to this printer two to three years ago, so even for customers where the proof hasn’t changed, the printer is different, so the color is a little different. We must go through a process to match as close as possible.
Another challenge is knowing the customer; we always strive for perfection, and we can nitpick and reprint a wrap — these trucks drive 12 hours a day, are filthy, and it is easy for a small particle to remain on the truck, and then you can see that bump in the wrap. At some point you reach the point of no return and must reprint again, which adds more time to the installation. It’s finding that fine line where we are happy with the result, as opposed to having to reprint and delay. Especially if there’s a backlog, the more time spent repairing means the next truck is delayed in getting started.
Peoples: If we have something premade, we will go into the old proofs, find it, pull colors from that previous proof, and send it to the client. And then from that point, these colors look good or need to be tweaked — sometimes darker or lighter — so we will spend a good amount of time to find colors they like. Sometimes it takes multiple sheets of proofs and color samples, and when we do have to color match, it can be a very time-consuming process. Just small increments of changing the CMYK, printing it out, and then doing another batch until we get close enough or on point, and then at that point we can get the proof approved and print everything.
Materials can also sometimes be messed up coming out of the factory. We can send a complete print to the press, or turn the printer on and go to lunch, and come back and material was contaminated. That’s been a big issue for us. And since COVID, materials have changed. We were trying to find what we could when we could, and the vendors making [the materials] were as well, so the quality changed. Now things are starting to get easier to work with again.
Amsalem: Our customers need the absolute best pricing to protect their pre-set budgets. They also have very tight deadlines. Many of our customers are under contracts and go out to bid every few years. When we get a customer, there is a lot of time spent matching their current fleet exactly, and then we might lose that customer after a few years due to a lower bid for the next contract period. Subsequently, we could be redoing that process with the same customers every few years. If our competitors are less careful than we are, the customers may be left with unmatching fleets and mismatched repair graphics, making their fleet look unprofessional.
Stephen Kempf, operations manager, American Response Vehicles & Northwestern Emergency Vehicles: We have two types of printers — latex and solvent — and we can’t match the colors of one exactly with the other. They are just different. For some customers, color doesn’t matter, they just want it close enough and good. For some, the color is the logo — that’s their brand, no different than any store with a specific color. Some are picky, and some are not. Another challenge is taking a design and making it look good from a nice flat side of an ambulance to whatever chassis lines
there are, then transition it right so it looks natural.
What are the biggest benefits to serving this market?
Amsalem: It is an honor to serve those who protect us! We get the chance to help them with big special projects, such as autism awareness wraps, mobile commands, and special signage to honor their fallen heroes.
Holdiman: For us, the biggest benefit of doing the wraps ourselves is that we control the quality. We have very high standards in all facets of operation — service, parts, and graphics — and when we compare against other sources, there’s a noticeable difference. And our customers recognize that.
What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on for emergency services?
Peoples: One of the biggest challenges was also one of the hardest jobs we’ve done in a while, but it was fun, and I think about it a lot. We had to take an ambulance that was white and wrap it red so you couldn’t see any white. And then we had to add a paint line with a highly reflective material that doesn’t conform around curves. So, it was white at the beginning, and looked like it had gone through a paint booth and had custom graphics when we were done. We did two of those in total, and we had two new employees at that time, so they were thrown into the fire out of the gate.
Amsalem: We have developed a partnership with a local manufacturer of large apparatus, mobile commands, specialty trailers, etc. We have done very large and very special projects for them, and we’ve been able to work with municipalities across the world through this partnership. It’s cool to think we might see our work in many different corners of the world!
5 What advice would you give to shops looking to break into this vertical segment?
Amsalem: Shops looking to get into this sector should be very careful about the bid process. Many departments require service within 48 hours, which could mean unexpected overtime expenses. Often, the contract prices are locked in for several years, so challenges like those that we faced in 2022 with the adhesives shortage and the unprecedented price increases can create situations where you actually lose money. If you drop a contract or do not meet every requirement, you can be disqualified from bidding on any other contracts for three to five years depending on the contract. Future bids will ask if you have been disqualified from anything prior. I always advise people to do extensive research before attempting to break into the world of government bidding.
Peoples: I would say be ready to make as many mistakes as possible — they are going to happen. You are never going to have a 100% perfect installation, you are going to have issues with things coming out incorrect, printing incorrect, a laminator messing up, etc. Learn to troubleshoot as you work. There will be tight deadlines, with customers expecting their vehicles on certain dates — they are waiting for their trucks to come in, and you must meet those deadlines.
Holdiman: Many local shops don’t understand the customer base. Many fire departments, for example, have high standards with their equipment and how it looks, and they spend a lot of time when not on a call looking at those vehicles. They notice every small detail, especially if it’s not done well. It’s easy to try and push a truck through quickly — there is always another job waiting to start. But if you don’t understand customer expectations, that could be a challenge and may not satisfy them.
Kempf: I would elaborate on that — the advice I would give is take your time. Make sure you have planned out every aspect of the installation. If you’re not familiar with reflective materials, they are very expensive, not easy to work with. You can have one piece of material you put on wrong, and that is the entire profit for your job. The material is very expensive, which is why a lot of people don’t like to mess with it. With non-reflective, you can reprint and still make money, but with reflective, that’s not always the case.