Flashlights / 7-26-06

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Where the Flashlight is King

Comparing features helps officers choose the right flashlight for the job

Updated: June 16th, 2006 01:40 AM EDT

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From the May 2006 Issue

By Jeannine Heinecke
Law Enforcement Technology
An Irish proverb states, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Frank Borelli, CEO of Borelli Consulting and law enforcement instructor with more than 23 years in the industry, has a new spin on this phrase. “In the land of darkness, the man with the flashlight is king.”

Being the only person in a dimly lit building with a flashlight is a power position. “I used to hate going into dark buildings, but now the first thing I do when I have to search a building is turn off the power if I can,” he says. “I put myself at the advantage because I have the light.”

Most people, law enforcement included, see the flashlight as a simple, everyday tool readily found in any home. “The majority of police officers still think that the training program with a flashlight is turn it on, shine it around, turn it off,” says Borelli. But to a trained law enforcement officer, the flashlight can be a non-lethal weapon as well as an illumination device.

According to Borelli, 80 percent of the information we use to make a decision is obtained visually. “Our minds perceive and process visual imagery faster than spoken or written language,” he explains. “Therefore, if you take a really bright light and shine it into somebody’s eyes, you’ve taken away 80 percent of the information he needs to make a decision to act. If it is a bad guy, you’ve greatly inhibited his ability to take any action against you.”

With the technological advancements in flashlights, not only can the blinding beam be used as a force weapon, but strobe capabilities can make for a disorienting effect. “Not only do we override their visual input, but we’re slamming them with a new visual picture at just the proper pace so their brains can never quite process what they saw,” describes Borelli. “We’ve made people dizzy, nauseous and even recoil away from the flashing light, as if they felt like they were going to get hit.”

In Borelli’s opinion, “The biggest mistake agencies make today is they fail to realize the potential of the flashlight as a behavior control tool and a less-lethal weapon.” Each type of duty can demand different functions from a flashlight. Therefore, choosing a flashlight can be a very personal decision, but some basic features of every flashlight should be considered: lamp, power source, light output, materials and specific features. Throughout this article is a roundup of handheld flashlights from numerous manufacturers comparing these features and organized by light output.

Every light needs a lamp
The heart of every flashlight is its lamp. There are three primary categories of lamps: HID (high-intensity discharge), incandescent and LED (light-emitting diode).

HID lamps produce the greatest light output. They utilize a clear quartz capsule (arc tube) having electrodes at either end and containing high-pressure gases. They are very power efficient and have an extremely high lumen output (up to 3,500 lumens), but tend to be larger and require more power to operate. HIDs are currently the least common type of lamp used in the law enforcement market.

In comparison, the original and most common type of lamp in use today is the incandescent. Incandescent lamps produce light by using electricity to heat a filament enclosed within a glass bulb filled with special gases such as Xenon, Luxeon, Krypton, etc. Incandescents have a significantly lower maximum lumen output than HIDs (500 lumens) but a greater output than LEDs.

“LEDs are the biggest evolution in lighting technology in the last two decades,” according to Borelli. LEDs are semiconductor chips that convert electricity directly into light. They have no gas or liquid components and are therefore highly impact and vibration resistant, making them the most rugged lamp. They can emit a variable lumen output, but are currently limited to a much lower maximum lumen output (125 lumens) compared to incandescents and HIDs.

Because of their differences in construction, each type of lamp has its own pros and cons, or may be more suitable for one application over another.

Borelli Consulting’s primary service is performing equipment evaluations. While assisting in the development of one handheld LED flashlight, Borelli says the testing team threw the light as high as they could in the air and let it land in a gravel parking lot 15 times, and it did not break. The manufacturer put the light under the tire of a Porsche, gunned the engine and shot the light into a berm – it didn’t break the LED. “Finally, they beat the flashlight until the tailcap broke, but the LED kept on working,” says Borelli. Because of their durability, LEDs can last thousands of hours, while high-output incandescent lamps typically last less than 50 hours.

There is one nemesis to the LED and that is overheating. “Heat management is very important because the LED can overheat and shut down,” says Borelli. Because of this problem, LED manufacturers utilize digital circuitry to control the heat. Some lights have an overheat feature where if it gets too hot, the circuitry will reduce the power flow to keep the bulb from burning out. “You also can control the flashlight so that it is not powered 100 percent of the time,” says Borelli. “You can have it powered 50 percent of the time. As long as it is flashing faster than humans can perceive, we see hard light when it is really blinking. This is another way to maintain heat control.”

Besides controlling the heat, the digital circuitry is responsible for other unique LED features. “You can make an LED light dim or brighten, or have it strobe. You can make it different colors,” praises Borelli. “With an incandescent bulb, you can’t do all that.”

The digital circuitry used with LEDs also allows for better power management. “An LED will typically last longer on the same set of batteries, on the same charge, because the power management is much more efficient,” he explains.

Digital circuitry does add to the weight of the device, though. “A 3-volt LED flashlight is the same size as a 6-volt halogen light because you need space for all the circuitry,” says Borelli. “You give up a battery and a little bit of power for the versatility.”

Packing power
Because flashlights are often personal purchases, the power output and the price of that power is very important for officers to consider when choosing a light. Battery options can be divided into a few categories: alkaline, lithium and various rechargeable chemistries.

Alkaline batteries are the most commercially common type of battery ranging in size from AAA to D. Although they are the most inexpensive type of battery, they are not necessarily the most cost efficient.

For a given size, lithium batteries produce much more power than alkaline batteries – about 2.5 alkaline batteries match the power output of one lithium. They have double the voltage – lithium being 3 volts and alkaline 1.5 volts – weigh half as much and typically have a 10-year shelf life. Lithiums also have a broad temperature function and storage range – -76 degrees to +1,767 degrees Fahrenheit. Alkaline batteries function poorly below freezing and at higher temperatures.

Possibly the most important advantage to lithium batteries is they maintain constant voltage for up to 95 percent of their life. “The power curve is more of a straight line with lithiums, whereas with alkalines, they have a good power delivery for a given period of time, but when they drop off, it’s like falling off a cliff,” says Borelli.

Rechargeable batteries have the most upfront costs – batteries and chargers – but can be the most cost effective in the long run. “A lot of cops have to pay for their own equipment out of pocket, and they don’t like having to pay for batteries all the time,” says Borelli.

The most common rechargeable batteries are Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) and Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH). NiMH have a higher power density (more power by size and weight) and can be recharged many more times than NiCads. NiCads also can have a memory effect problem – the battery “remembers” how long it was used previously and will only recharge enough to run this same amount of time. “Then you have a maintenance issue where you need to recharge the battery and then put the flashlight down, turn it on and let it die – completely drain it so that you can teach the battery not to get the memory,” explains Borelli.

With either NiCad or NiMH rechargeable batteries, the self-discharge rate is quite high, so they should not be used in lights that may sit unused for weeks or months at a time.

Measuring light
Depending on the duty, different amounts of light output, as well as the color of the light, are required. The two most common ways to measure light output are lumens and candlepower. Lumens is the measure of the entire light output of the flashlight regardless of beam focus. This is almost entirely a measurement of the lamp output. Peak candlepower is a measure of the brightest spot in a focused beam. It measures the output of the lamp as manipulated by the reflector or lens.

There are two ways to focus light – reflectors and lenses. Reflectors are the silver cones inside the bezel of a flashlight. The depth and size of these reflectors prefocus the light for maximum efficiency at a given distance. In a reflector focused light, the lens remains flat.

With optically focused lights, the lens is curved to bend the light into focus. “Optically focused lights tend to be lighter and smaller because all of the curving takes place in the lens, which may be only 1/8-inch thick,” explains Borelli. “A reflector may have to be 2 inches deep to get everything right.”

Because of this design difference, many weapons-mounted and small pocket lights are optically focused while bigger, brighter, longer distance lights are reflector-focused.

The type of lamp also plays a large part in light output – not only the measured, but the perceived output. “Incandescent bulbs put out a yellow light while LEDs put out a more pure white light, almost blue,” explains Borelli. “Therefore, when you start measuring light output, what your eye perceives may not be accurate. Sixty-five lumens out of an LED looks brighter than 65 lumens out of an incandescent because it is a much cleaner, whiter light.”

So what does a law enforcement officer really need when it comes to light output? Borelli recommends a flashlight have a minimum output of 60 to 65 lumens for close quarter battle use. “Less than that and you’re not really impacting the suspect’s visual acuity the way you want,” he says. “Ninety lumens is optimal because you can work up-close and get a little bit of distance out of it. One hundred-twenty lumens is even better.”

Combination lights
Aside from basic flashlights, more and more manufacturers are offering combination lights – flashlight with pepper spray, flashlight with metal detector, flashlight with breathalyzer, flashlight with video recording, etc. With officers already needing to carry more than can fit on a duty belt, the combination of two devices can be advantageous. Many of these combinations also allow for covert operations – taking a breath alcohol level without the suspect’s knowledge or videotaping a traffic stop up close.

But there are two sides to every discussion, and in Borelli’s opinion, “When you combine tools, you compromise both. Each individual has to decide whether that compromise is worth the gain of having two tools in one.” Maintenance issues, increased weight and the combination of devices on the use-of-force continuum should be considered when purchasing a combination light.

Especially when using combination lights, Borelli stresses an officer should carry two lights and backup batteries. “I always recommend cops carry two flashlights because about 80 percent of our lethal force engagements occur during the hours of low light or darkness,” he says.

Having served as an army MP, Borelli believes in the adage, “Two is one; one is none.” An officer should always carry two flashlights in case one breaks, gets lost or another officer needs to use one. “Officers are betting their life on everything they have on their person,” says Borelli. “The ideal light for law enforcement should be something that can be carried on the belt 24/7 and not be an inconvenience. When you get out of your car and you don’t have your tools of the trade, you’ve dropped the ball.”

In the land of darkness, the law enforcement officer should carry two flashlights that have a minimum output of 65 lumens, are comfortable and convenient to carry on a duty belt, and made of a durable material – either metal or polymer. After that, type of lamp, batteries used and special features are all matters of personal preference.

“The lights out there today, and the industry standards, are growing by leaps and bounds,” says Borelli. “They are just getting better and better.”

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