Lost in the Lumens

Taking stock of the ideal amount of light and brightness

Most of us can recall our elders offering the sage counsel of “moderation in all things.” It seems that dated phrase has become quite apropos once again especially as it applies to the discussion of the lumens needed in flashlights for law enforcement and security staff.

Law enforcement officers and security executives know of the strategic need for a reliable, solid and bright-beam flashlight. It is a tool policemen or security staff cannot be without. It is a tactical necessity whether being used to illuminate a search area, for securing a dark location or for lighting up a dark road when you’ve pulled over a DUI suspect. High-lumen flashlights can illuminate an accident scene on a late night and can penetrate window tinting should an officer need that kind of assessment before leaving a patrol car.

But when it comes to a flashlight’s light source brightness—the lumens— what is the ideal amount and is it the same in every situation?

The manufacturing of tactical flashlights has seen a quantum leap in lumens in the past several years. It seems as though there’s a perception within law enforcement and the security profession that more lumens are better, and manufacturers of flashlights seem to have fed into this perception as the number of lumens in tactical flashlights continues to climb upward.

Tactical flashlights with very high lumen counts can come with a host of practical issues and problems:

  • High lumens in many flashlights will eat through batteries at a high rate, potentially leaving an officer or security guard without a usable flashlight in just a few hours. No officer can afford to have a flashlight give out when pursuing a suspect at night on foot.
  • High lumens can cause shadows throughout the peripheral area you’re lighting up. You’ll be faced with a deep, high-contrast area (lighted vs. darkened areas) and a perfect place for a suspect to hide in the dark shadows.
  • “Blow back” or light pollution from a high lumen light is also a factor in foggy and smoky tactical environments, and you can suddenly find yourself with no effective light source.
  • Using an excessively high lumen flashlight also is a problem in highly reflective environments and can quickly disorient security guards and officers. Environments such as sheet metal in a warehouse, indoor wrought iron storage facilities and mirrored surfaces are guaranteed to be problematic and potentially unsafe.
  • “Over-illumination” can result in loss of night vision, pain and injury to innocent bystanders and eyestrain and fatigue for the tactical officer who uses a too-high lumen flashlight.
  • Excessive illumination can also “wash out” small details such as a small rock of cocaine under the seat or wedged into a crevice.

Tactical flashlights with settings for adjustable intensity (lumens) is certainly an option if officers and security staff receive training as to when and where to use the various settings. Ontario, California-based MAGLITE offers such products and they provide a good balance for broad-beam, high intensity lighting as needed. MAGLITE’s average flashlight rating is between 200 to 500 lumens and they also just announced the release of a 1,000-lumen rechargeable flashlight with a very long battery life. The ML150LR™ has adjustable settings allowing officers to provide the right amount of light for most situations.

There are some situations—for example, an outdoor search-and rescue operation over large areas and long distances, or on the open water at night—where it’s a real benefit to have a flashlight that provides the very long reach of a tightly-focused 1,000-plus lumen beam. But, in most situations, an officer’s needs do not reach that level and an adjustable amount of brightness and multiple settings in a flashlight is ideal.

I ascribe to the Goldilocks theory when it comes to the lumens in a flashlight. You don’t want your light to be too bright, you don’t want it too dim, you want it just right. A flashlight with adjustable settings from high to low with optional features like a dead man’s switch or different colored light settings would be ideal for law enforcement officers or security personnel. “Moderation in all things” really is the best policy. Dad, grandma or whichever elder may have used the phrase in your family was right.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Security Today.

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