Culture Change

I passed by a fire engine on the way to therapy today. I could see where the medical supplies were stowed because of a Red Cross emblazoned on a square white field.

Except that it wasn’t a red cross, but the star of life which is a US standard icon for indicating life-saving response supplies and vehicles. The star of life sees international use to indicate emergency medical services. And the Red Cross actually is a bit antiquated.

This is a matter of mishandling trademarks, but not in the specific way I first believed. The Red Cross was founded originally to not only facilitate medical aid directly, but also to create a universal symbol of medical aid. They even got the red cross* specified in the Geneva Conventions as a don’t-drop-bombs-here symbol.

As such the Red Cross symbol was used in cultural representations of things that typically supplied it, such as toy rescue helicopters and first aid stations in video games. I had witnessed in the aughts the official press release by the Red Cross that it didn’t appreciate its emblems being used in violent video games, even games concerning war where Red Cross stations and designated medical vehicles were period-appropriate. It was a time when there was a moral panic regarding violence in video games, so it was in vogue to disassociate your company or product from video games that featured violence.

At the time, I figured the folks in the Red Cross organization didn’t understand that those playing the games were learning to associate the Red Cross symbol with medical relief services. Typically in games the Red Cross would be a target the player did not shoot, or a station at which to get first aid (e.g. restore lost health). This is much the way children playing with toy ambulances bearing the Red Cross learn to associate the Red Cross symbol with ambulances, and emergency medical services.

Red Cross didn’t much like toy ambulances either.

The Red Cross organization had already objected to general use long before video game violence scares, or even video games.

By the 1970s Red Cross had already pressured US ambulance services that were not in the their specific employ to drop the icon. Instead, ambulances donned a cross painted safety orange. Even then, though Red Cross decided that was not distinctive enough, that a different sigil entirely was required.

Enter the star of life.

The Star of Life was created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a certification mark (to indicate Department-of-Transportation-qualified medical vehicles and personnel) but as the safety orange emergency cross was being phased out, the star of life became used as a replacement. There was some concern the star of life would get genericized. But the Department of Transportation realized that this may not be a bad thing, as we needed an available, consistent get-first-aid-here symbol. And already people were putting the star of life on their ambulances, only in colors other than the standard navy-blue (typically safety orange again).

So the NHTSA lent the star of life to any service that was about emergency medical response and then let the trademark expired in 1997 by which the icon was already going international. Now, you can use the star of life for whatever you want, but the US DOT and emergency response community would really prefer you keep your uses to emergency-medical-related purposes. As toys and video games teach, they’re okay so long as the symbol is put in proper context (Ambulances and relief stations are probably fine. A TEAM EMERGENCY RESCUE attack gunship… probably less so — though that sounds kinda cool.)

We’ve yet to see Red Cross stations that also don the Star of Life sigil, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

* Also the Red Crescent and a few others. Christianity is enough of a controversy in some places that any croix is frowned upon, including a red plus-sign constructed from five squares, as per the official Red Cross sigil. The Red Cross organization created red crescents for territories that don’t like crosses, but Islam is enough of a controversy in some places that… yeah. Eventually red crystals were created for those territories where both plusses nor crescents are disliked.

As people can be fickle that way, many local symbols have been used, including a red Swastika (in China, pre-Germany) thanks to preassociations of the croix.

No-one that I’ve heard has any objections to the star of life.


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