How to Use a Strobing Flashlight

Strobes have become extremely popular on police flashlights, but this tool has its pluses and minuses.

I teach low-light classes nationwide and last year I noticed a dramatic increase in students who arrived for my classes equipped with strobe-capable lights.

As to the exact reason for this phenomenon, I can’t tell you for sure. It could be the result of the manufacturers’ aggressive advertising, a more economical price point on lights that have this feature, or the fact that strobe-capable lights have risen to the top of the latest “have to have” gear on many officers’ lists.

The one thing I can tell you is that many of the students who arrive for my classes with their strobing lights ready to go are often not aware of the pros and cons of strobe light deployment. Many, in fact, believe that the disorientating effect of a strobe light exposure is a relatively new innovation.

It isn’t.

The Bucha Effect

Let’s look at the history of disorientation caused by strobe light exposure. The phenomenon that occurs when a person experiences dizziness and confusion when exposed to strobe lighting was first identified by a Dr. Bucha in the 1950s when he was asked to investigate a series of unexplained helicopter crashes.

After the crashes, surviving crew members said they experienced dizziness and disorientation from the strobing effect of rotating helicopter blades. The crews reported looking up at the sky with the rotors spinning above, creating the strobing effect that caused the disorientation. The rotor blades of the helicopter caused the sunlight to strobe in the eyes of the pilots, causing them to lose control of their machines. Dr. Bucha’s first name has been lost to history, but this phenomenon has been known as the Bucha effect ever since.

Benefits of Strobing Lights

Fast forward to the recent spike in popularity of the tactical strobe light we see today. The human response to strobe light exposure is not new but the creation of the strobing flashlight and the method and instrument of delivery continues to evolve.

Is the strobe light a gimmick or a viable tactical innovation? Do the positive benefits of strobe light deployment outweigh the negatives?

Here are some of the claims that are made in regard to the effects of a strobe light exposure.

  • Disorients the suspect
  • Diminishes an assailant’s night adaptation
  • Causes a disruption to the subject’s vision, which affects his or her ability to use force
  • Provides a visual and psychological hurdle to aggression
  • Decreases the suspect’s direct and peripheral vision
  • Induces fear

Let’s take a more in-depth look at some of these claims.

Flash/strobe disorientation is the result of an “after image” or temporary visual imprint caused by a brief exposure to high-intensity light levels. This image varies with light level and time duration or frequency of the exposure. The disorientation occurs as specific light frequencies affect the brain and the light cycles through those frequencies too fast for the brain to adjust.

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