CG small-boat crew ‘blinded’ by laser

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A Coast Guard boat crew was “blinded” by a laser in August while on patrol about 3,000 yards off Clearwater, Fla. The crew of the 25-foot response boat reported to watchstanders at 10:18 p.m. that they had experienced a 3- to 4-second green laser burst.

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The crew experienced loss of night vision, and some members received a direct hit from the laser. They had to return to their station for eye exams before they could be cleared to return to duty.

The Aug. 11 incident was the 10th lasing of a Coast Guard boat crew this year, according to Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, a public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s Seventh District. Only one Coast Guard boat crew reported being lased in 2012, the first year the agency began tracking the problem on the water.

“The number of incidents continues to rise. This is becoming more of a problem for our boat crews,” Somma says. Lasing incidents for Coast Guard air crews are also on the rise, from eight in 2009 to 38 in 2012. As of Aug. 19, the number of air crews that had been hit by laser pointers this year was 36.

“I don’t think every incident is malicious, but I think a lot of people don’t understand the hazards and dangers of what they’re doing, and they need to be educated,” Somma says. “They need to realize they could potentially impact the outcome of a rescue if that crew has to turn back.”

The Coast Guard used the latest lasing of a boat crew to organize a multiagency conference, which was expected to take place in September. A drive to educate the public about lasers will follow.

“It should be noted that lasers are not an internally recognized signaling device for mariners,” Somma says. However, there are laser devices that are designed for emergency signaling by boaters and others. For example, Greatland Laser makes the Rescue Laser Flare, which is less powerful than laser pointers and projects an expanding line of light, rather than a concentrated beam. Rescue Lasers are “legal to signal an aircraft for help in an emergency” under an exemption to the federal law that prohibits aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft, according to the company. (Visit www.greatlandlaser.com for more information.)

Unlike hoax mayday calls sent by phone or VHF radio, which can be electronically tracked, law-enforcement officials say it’s difficult to track down lasing offenders even when the pilots report an incident. “It’s a challenge to catch someone, but the moment one of our crews is hit with a laser they are communicating with local police on the ground to direct them to the source,” Somma says.

The number of incidents involving someone aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft has increased about 900 percent from 2006 through 2012, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Lasing reports have increased steadily since the FAA created a formal reporting system in 2005 to collect information from pilots. Reports rose from nearly 300 in 2005 to 1,527 in 2009 to 3,482 in 2012 — an average of 9.5 incidents a day nationwide.

Last year, President Obama signed a bill that makes it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft or at the flight path of an aircraft, with a penalty of up to five years in prison and/or fines. The maximum penalty for one laser strike is $11,000 and it is as much as $250,000 for multiple incidents.

Although the bulk of those incidents involve commercial airline pilots, Coast Guard air crews and boat crews have struggled with the problem. In another incident this past August, a green laser pointed at a Coast Guard helicopter temporarily blinded the pilot and crew and forced them to land while they were searching for the source of three orange flares spotted off Garden City Beach, S.C.

It was the third time in three weeks that a Coast Guard search was hindered by green lasers in that area. The nearby community of North Myrtle Beach, S.C., considered the issue such a problem that officials voted to make it illegal for anyone under the age of 17 to possess a laser pointer.

When a laser is directed at an aircraft, the crew is required to stop searching immediately and land. The crew is grounded until each person has an eye exam and is cleared by a flight surgeon. The process can take as long as 24 hours.

Additionally, there typically is a two- to three-hour delay to assemble another helicopter and crew to resume a search, the Coast Guard says. A laser pointer can distract a crew more than 2 miles away. Lasers especially are a problem when pilots and crew are wearing night-vision goggles.

“Shining a laser at an airplane is not a laughing matter. It’s dangerous for both pilots and passengers, and we will not tolerate it,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says in a statement about the government’s recent stepped-up enforcement against lasing. “We will pursue the toughest penalties against anyone caught putting the safety of the flying public at risk.”

There have been numerous convictions under federal and state laws resulting in jail time, fines, probation and community service. On July 22, a Nebraska man was sentenced to two years in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release, for aiming a red laser pointer at a Southwest Airlines aircraft, then “six or seven times” at an Omaha police helicopter that was trying to find the perpetrator. The FAA previously fined him $9,000 for lasing an aircraft.

In March, a California man was sentenced to 30 months in prison for lasing a private airplane and a police helicopter that responded to the lasing incident. A Florida man was sentenced to six months in prison in August 2012 for aiming a laser pointer at aircraft at least 23 times from January to March. The aircraft were leaving Orlando International Airport.

The FAA has created a website (www.faa.gov/go/laserinfo) to make it easier for pilots and the public to report laser incidents and obtain information on the subject. Information about laser pointers and the hazards that can result from their misuse is also available at www.laserpointersafety.com, an independent resource for users, regulators, pilots and others.

October 2013 issue