Lights On or Lights Off

Light on or light off when conducting building searches? After conducting a year of very specific testing, my answer remains the same: Turn the building or room lights on, if you can.

When conducting a search with a flashlight, you still face threats from areas that are not illuminated. (Photo: Edward M. Santos)When conducting a search with a flashlight, you still face threats from areas that are not illuminated. (Photo: Edward M. Santos)

Light on or light off when conducting building searches? This is the question most often asked by the students in my low-light classes for law enforcement. The answer for me after researching and studying the low-light tactical environment for more than 30 years has always been easy. And now after conducting a year of very specific testing, my answer remains the same: Turn the building or room lights on, if you can.

Before you stop reading, please allow me to try to explain why, if you have the ability, turning on the light switch in the room during a building search is your best tactic.

The focus of this article is the building and/or room lights and of course our on/off discipline with our flashlights. Regardless of the techniques you use, knowing when to switch your flashlight on and off is a topic of much discussion among instructors and students. How often have you heard "Get that light off!" "Turn that off!" "Why did you leave that light on so long?"

Light discipline is very important in building searches. However, you still have to see the threats. The majority of my students are so concerned about turning their lights off quickly that they are not able to identify or evaluate what they were looking at. You must have the visual patience to keep the light on long enough to accomplish your task.

It is important to note that regardless of having the room lights on or off, you should always practice proven low-light tactics and techniques such as visual patience, reading the light, off-center vision, controlling with light, and a few others that I will discuss later. Now let's look at why "lights on" is our best option.

The Suspect's Advantage

The simple fact is regardless of how skilled you are with a flashlight, how well you understand low-light operational tactics, and how skilled you are deploying those low-light skills, in a dark room the suspect always has the advantage. If the suspect has the capacity to be patient during your advance, the suspect's advantage increases.

The photo below shows an officer searching a dark room. He is using proper Harries flashlight technique. But regardless of how proficient he is in moving the light in his search for the suspect, there will always be dark areas in the room that he can't see into. This condition, however, does not affect the suspect. The suspect has had eyes on the officer since he entered the room. This is critical and in my opinion it is discounted by too many firearm instructors who do not understand human physiology and psychology and how they affect low-light performance.

Without exception in every experimental building search we conducted last year in my study, officers were clearly at a disadvantage. In these scenarios, if the officer didn't by chance illuminate the suspect's hiding position with the light first, the officer was shot. A total of nine experimental searches were conducted in the study. In two of the nine, the officer happened to start the flashlight search at the exact location the suspect was hiding. It was only by chance that the area in the room the officer investigated happened to be the area where the suspect was hiding. If we have the ability to eliminate the chance factor we should.

Turning on the lights does just that. We conducted nine exercises where the room lights were turned on, and they resulted in no officers shot from an unidentified threat. In one case after the officer challenged the suspect, the suspect faked his compliance and took a wild shot at the officer that hit the officer in the left thigh. A short exchange followed and the suspect was hit multiple times by the officer and his backup.

Once a suspect is identified by an officer during a building search, the advantage clearly switches to the officer. The reason the officer has the advantage is the officer is better trained and better equipped than the suspect.

Techniques and Tactics

Your training in low-light building searches should include such principles and techniques as how to use off-center vision, read the light; operate from the lowest level of light; avoid backlighting, see from the threat's viewpoint, light and move, and dominate with light.

Let's look a little closer at these principles and techniques to truly appreciate their value in low-light operations.

Off-Center Vision—To get the most acute vision at night, shift your vision 5 to 15 degrees to one side, so that the light falls primarily on the rods of your eyes. The rods are located on the periphery of the retina and provide our highest resolution vision in a low-light environment. Eccentric or off-center vision involves looking off to the side of the object of interest then scanning its periphery using short three-second movements. Three seconds allows the rods adequate stimulation time. In the dark, extra stimulation time is needed for the rods to gather sufficient information to form visual images.

Read the Light—You must be able to look over the area and make some clear assessments to inform your tactical decisions. Observe and assess the levels of light, the shadows, the darker areas, cover concealment, movement, and anything else that allows you to gain an advantage. The bad guy can only be in the areas that are not illuminated and that you can't see into.

At this point you are starting to create a plan. What are the overall lighting conditions that you are "reading?" Are you faced with a blinding light? How about the light behind you? If you move will you become the classic silhouette target? Can you direct enough light forward to overcome the backlit condition? What about the dark holes? Identify what areas you can't see into. How will the contents of the room affect your use of the light? What in the room could cause you to compromise yourself with your own light? Take the time to make an accurate assessment of your environment. After all, your plan of action will be based on the information processed by this observation.

Operate from the Lowest Levels of Light—This concept may seem obvious, but I witness officers taking up compromised positions based on the level of light available all the time. Often this is the result of not applying visual patience to make the correct assessment and ultimately the appropriate tactical decision. The whole idea here is to illuminate the bad guy while being as stealthy as possible. Avoid backlighting yourself or your partner.

Try to look at the overall scene from the suspect's perspective. Try to imagine what he is seeing when he looks in your direction. Where would you hide if you were him? How would you respond to someone approaching from your direction? You must take the time to evaluate and appreciate what you are looking at.

Light and Move—Getting off the line of attack is a fundamental skill taught in every quality firearms school. Why is it then that when we add a flashlight to the process, people stick their feet to the floor and forget to move off the line of attack?

"Light and move" and "move and light." This sounds so simple but under stress you would not believe how many students fail to do it. In every low-light class I teach, I witness students lighting the target then turning off the light and shooting. Or they shoot the target without regard to the light beam direction. They will turn on the light and move off the line of attack and then turn off the light

Dominate with Light—Control has never been easier due to the unprecedented improvements in flashlight output and light beam quality. Even the best quality lights can't substitute for tactical awareness and firearm/flashlight technique. To achieve the most tactical superiority it takes a combination of quality equipment, quality training, and experience/exposure to stressful situations.

I always preach, control your environment as much as possible. You can be very proactive in controlling the suspect and ultimately your environment by effectively using your light to dominate the suspect. Keep the hot spot of the beam in his eye. If available, use the strobe feature to confuse and disorient your suspect.

This control aspect of tactical light use is what excites me the most. Don't underestimate its value to your overall safety. The ability to control your environment and your suspect is dependent on equipment and technique. Practice light and firearm manipulation skills until the light feels like a natural extension to your shooting platform. At that point the controlling process becomes automatic and you will ultimately be safer for your efforts.

Ed Santos is author of the books "Low-Light Combatives" and "Rule the Night Win the Fight." He is a retired Army officer and former Level 1 Reserve Deputy. He teaches advanced firearm skills and low-light training around the world and can be reached at

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