Are light conditions less than perfect?
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Count Dracula always began his greetings with a half smirk, a slight cock of his head and a blood curdling, " Good evening." Like most of you, I've worked my share of graveyards. In fact, I did a quick assessment the other day and figured out that of my 20-plus years on the job, more than 12 were spent working nights. It seems every time I got enough seniority to move to the day shift, I got my butt promoted and wound up back on nights.
But when you think about it, no matter what shift you're assigned to, some portion of it will involve working in dim light conditions, either early mornings or early evenings. Even if you've managed to pull a straight day shift, you may find yourself searching a windowless warehouse or some other facility where the power is out and/or the light condition is less than perfect.
Chances are if your parents had perfect eyesight, you probably won t be wearing bifocals at 25. Both genetics and diet (especially heavy nicotine, alcohol and/or drug use) have a lot to do with whether you re going to have good night vision. But the fact is, if you started your police career in your mid- to late-20s, your eyes probably aren t going to be getting better as you get older, and by the time you reach 20-years seniority, you re probably going to be wearing some type of corrective lenses, either for farsightedness or for reading.
Most agencies require police candidates to have very good eyesight, at least 20-30 (or 20-40) correctable to 20-20 with no color blindness, glaucoma or cataracts. So with good vision as a base, the odds are high that your visual acuity in low-light conditions will also be good. But police work has a lot of built-in factors that can affect your night vision. Overhead strobes, takedown lights, alley lights and spotlights can really screw up your night vision for 10 15 minutes after you finish up with a call. Add a few retina-singeing highway flares to the mix, and you re probably out of commission from a night-vision standpoint for 20 minutes or so.
In his book, Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters, Chuck Remsberg wrote, When the lights go down, your risk goes up. And he s right. But the darkness doesn t always have to be your enemy; it can be your friend, too. You can use darkness and dim light to your advantage. So get ready, vampires. This month s column will focus (pardon the pun) on some tactics you might want to consider in helping you use darkness to your advantage, things you might want to consider for getting your night vision back a little quicker, and give you some advice on caring for your eyes. Let s explore tactics first, and then take a look at eye care.
First, try minimizing the use of your flashlight to strengthen, enhance or maintain your night vision. With very few exceptions, you can probably use existing ambient light to conduct most traffic stops. Street lights, reflective light from headlights (both yours and passing motorists) or exterior building lights, can usually give you enough light to conduct most stops without resorting to your flashlight. If you re assigned to a foot post, traffic accident or crime scene, try letting your eyes adjust to the moonlight, reflective light from clouds or the flashlights from the CSI techs or other officers rather than relying on your 30,000-candlepower flashlight.
Next, when in your squad, consider keeping the dome light on low (if you have a two-position switch), replacing the white bulb with a red one or, better yet, using a nightwriter pen to fill out your radio log, make your time book entries or write up your reports. In the event you have to go operational swiftly, you ll only need a few seconds or maybe a minute to regain your optimal night vision.
Third, you might want to try walking in low-light environments rather than brightly-lit areas. In Vietnam, I did a lot of night patrolling. In fact, our motto was We own the night. Most of us became so adept at working and functioning in low-light conditions, daylight conditions actually gave us headaches. After a while, with practice, you can get very comfortable with walking in the shadows and working in the dimmest of light conditions. Also, avoid looking directly at passing vehicle headlights focus to the side, above or off-center of vehicles approaching your direction. And when you want to see something directly in front of you but are in a dim-light environment, shift your eyes off to the side slightly and that object or person you re trying to see will come into view a little more quickly and clearer. Without getting too technical, it involves rods and cones, those cells that control day and night vision.
Numero quattro: Remember those standard light-control tactics when you re responding to any call at night. For example, be aware of silhouetting yourself when moving from a lighter background into a dark room. Also, if you do choose to (or have to) use your flashlight, make sure you don t light yourself up or expose your partner, and remember to use the flash-and-move technique when moving from place to place. Finally, keep those tried and true suspect-distraction techniques in mind when performing your day-to-day nighttime street functions. For example, using your squad s spotlights on nighttime vehicle stops or inadvertently directing your flashlight into the eyes of subjects when conducting field interviews to keep their night vision turned off for a few minutes have been staples of officer survival tactics for years.
I realize this short-list is not all-inclusive. But you can use it as a starting point, and maybe think of other ways to minimize your need for bright-light situations.
Now, does all this mean you should never have your trusty Stinger or Maglite with you when you re working graves? Of course not. In fact, a small Stinger or Mini-Mag should be part of every officer s equipment, regardless of what shift you work. I just want you to maybe consider not always turning on your flashlight when you exit your squad just because you re working nights.
OK, here s where I start to get preachy, again. I guess maintaining a healthy lifestyle and keeping physically fit will always be a part of my regimen, and like the rest of your body, you can keep your eyes in good working condition, too. First, get regular eye exams. As you get older, so do your eyes. After the constant back and forth between high-intensity strobes or flares and the pitch-black nothingness of the night-time sky or dimly lit environment of your squad, your eyes are probably working some major overtime duty here. Make sure a part of your fitness and wellness regimen includes annual vision check-ups with an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Very important! Tell your doc that you re a cop and that you work nights.
Next, just like your flashlight is an integral part of your equipment, so should your sunglasses. Forget about those cop-in-the-mirrored-sunglasses jokes, but do consider investing in a good pair of UV-blocking shades. By the way, heavily tinted lenses don t necessarily mean the glasses are high-quality UV blockers. Get sound advice from your optometrist or local optician.
Also, avoid eyestrain from long hours in front of the TV or computer screen. You can give your eyes some down time by getting plenty of rest. Fatigue affects night vision.
Finally, use quality eye drops, or re-wetting solutions if you wear contact lenses for protracted periods of time, and especially if you work in dry climates or high-altitude environments.
Remember: Your five senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling) are the God-given components of your tactical toolbox. You want to take care of them just like you do your firearm, TASER, baton, OC spray and handcuffs.
Until next time, stay safe.