Just five years ago, a 200-lumen flashlight was considered amazingly bright. Now, advances in technology have made it possible to increase the power of even small flashlights to emit beyond 500 lumens of light, which is more than enough to illuminate a room and cause temporary blindness in suspects. All that power in new high-lumen flashlights has its advantages and its disadvantages. That's why understanding what flashlight you have and how to use it is so important.
To start off, know if you are using a high-lumen light. Considering how times have changed, determining what qualifies as a "high-lumen light" can be a bit confusing.
"We refer to it as tactical level light," says Thomas Carlson, SureFire's public relations specialist. "It used to be 80 lumens or higher, considered enough lumens to temporarily blind a person. But all companies have raised that bar to 300, 500, or even higher in lumen output." The threshold still begins at 80 lumens, but the intensity of light available in that range has increased dramatically in recent years.
There can still be differences among flashlights advertised to produce the same lumen output, whether due to design differences or misreporting. That's why it's a good idea to test out a light whenever possible before purchase to make sure it will meet your needs. "Lumen count is so arbitrary. It's like saying low-fat ice cream," quips Ed Santos, owner and founder of Tactical Services Group and an expert in low-light tactics.
Yet regardless of the exact output, officers' tactics when using high-lumen lights must take into account their intense level of brightness.
High-lumen flashlights produce a brighter, broader beam of light. This makes them ideal for searches and identifying potential threats at a relatively close distance, giving the officer a distinct advantage in many low-light situations. "Without question, one of the biggest pluses of high-lumen lights is the ability to see deeper into the night if you're outdoors or to illuminate a room better," says Santos. This floodlight effect can make dark areas a lot less scary.
In the case of a traffic stop, an officer can use a 500-lumen light to illuminate an entire car at a distance, even through window tint, before ever having to approach. "Higher-lumen flashlights are great non-lethal force options that an officer can use before drawing a weapon or using any other method, to analyze the situation and overwhelm the suspect prior to an escalation of force," says SureFire's Carlson.
An officer could also shine a high-lumen light in a driver's or passenger's eyes to get a tactical advantage at the outset of a traffic stop. "It's difficult to discern even who's holding the light because you can't see behind it," says Ray Sharrah, CEO of Streamlight. "They're very effective that way."
While high-lumen lights are not intended to project beams for long distances, the fact that they disperse light over a wide area has an added benefit in environments such as crash scenes, says Santos. "The peripheral light that often comes with those high-lumen lights may help in finding small evidence or other items reflecting farther away from the emphasis of the search."
New weapon lights also make use of high-lumen output. These models, many of which are rolling out this coming year, more effectively penetrate the darkness to improve marksmanship and give the officer a tactical advantage.
"Use of high-lumen lights has increased officer safety because you can illuminate and take in information in a low-light scenario and know what options you have," says Carlson. "A high-lumen light helps them understand their situation better. "
For all of its benefits, a high-lumen light is not suitable for every situation. For instance, this type of dispersed illumination is not designed to penetrate fog and smoke. "It has a broad beam, very high output, so it will bounce right off the smoke and into your eyes, says Sharrah. "That's another reason to have a different tool for a different application."
As Sharrah notes, different flashlights perform better in certain situations. When it comes to high-lumen lights, their more intense light creates more intense shadows. "You can actually create shadow areas that become a problem if the light is not used properly, or if you're not positioning yourself properly," Santos says. "You could actually create a deeper and darker and more broad shadow effect. And shadows are where trouble is often found."
In such situations, officers can learn to position themselves and their lights in such a way to minimize shadows. In some cases, however, it might be better to choose a different type of light. For example, in attics and crawlspaces, high-lumen lights penetrate the darkness. But the limited space leaves officers little room to orient themselves in the best way to diminish shadows. Use for such small, dark spaces is best determined on a case-by-case basis.
Reflective surfaces cause a different problem altogether. Remember how these lights can blind assailants? When that same bright light bounces off of a white wall or polished metal, it bounces back into your eyes. Santos found this out the hard way when searching a warehouse stocked with shiny HVAC ducts on an alarm call. Normally, the solution would be to aim the light at a different type of surface and "downrange" from the officer to avoid the reflection. But the warehouse was completely full of the metallic ducts so there was no relief. In subsequent trips (the alarm went off often), Santos was careful to bring a lower-lumen light that didn't cause the same problems.
But the idea of an officer experiencing high lumens in his eyes goes further than reflection from one's own flashlight. "If the tactics work for us, they'll work for the bad guy," says Santos. A suspect could shine his or her own high-lumen flashlight in an officer's face in an attempt to cause blinding and disorientation. This is when officers' superior training and situational awareness come into play. Santos says, "If you're confronted with that type of situation, you need to do everything you can to not look directly into the light, to continue to move, and to use cover." Such scenarios are a good addition to low-light training for all agencies.
Even in more mundane situations, it makes good tactical sense to consider the best type of illumination for a task. Because of their intense light, high-lumen lights are not a good choice for very close work like filling out paperwork—at least not on the high setting. A smaller, lower lumen backup light might be a better choice. "You don't want to write a ticket with 600 lumens," warns Sharrah. "The glare alone would probably blind you for a while. You put it on medium or low, and get down to 10% of the original output, and you also greatly enhance runtime."
Indeed, one of the limitations of high-lumen lights is that even newer models with improved designs burn through a lot of power to dispense such intense light. But you can extend runtime by using lower settings that don't use as much power. Another solution is using a rechargeable high-lumen light. It's also of course advisable to keep at least one additional light on hand in case your high-lumen model does run out of juice.
The Choice Is Yours
As with most tools, flashlights are only as good as your inclination and ability to use them. If you want a high-lumen light, there's one out there for you. A growing number are available in a wide range of styles and lumen counts, including weapon lights for handguns and long guns and rechargeable models.
Newer lights also benefit from improved switch technology compared to initial offerings in this category. This includes tailcap switches that don't click for stealth, in the case of SureFire, and more modes such as higher and lower light levels and constant on and momentary on, instead of only one option.
"It's not as simple as saying everyone should have a flashlight that has at least 200 lumens, or everyone should have a flashlight that has at least 100," says Santos. "You need to have a flashlight that is appropriate to the skill sets and tactics that you know how to use."
If you do choose to carry a high-lumen light, train in its proper use and be sure to always have at least one backup light for different applications and in case you lose the use of your primary light. Sharrah suggests carrying a weapon light, a high-lumen duty light, and a smaller, lower lumen backup light. If the trend toward ever-increasing lumens in lights continues, you'll have even more options to choose from in the near future.