More Than Mere Illumination

By Domenic A. Sammarco, R.Ph., EMT

A flashlight serves a variety of purposes that go beyond mere illumination especially in a maritime medical emergency. For example, a flashlight may be used to assess part of the central nervous system (i.e. Cranial Nerve III/pupil response); momentarily stun an animal (by rapidly constricting its pupils); and even save your life (alerting colleagues to your position or allowing you to be seen on a dark ocean). Quite simply, this is one tool no mariner should be without.

However, a flashlight improperly used can be just as dangerous as it is useful. It is important not to turn a flashlight on at the wrong time, hold it in the wrong position, allow it to roll off a high ledge or use it as a weapon. To get the most from this valuable tool, seagoers should purchase a well-built flashlight and learn to use it properly.

Selecting a Flashlight

There are several factors to consider when choosing a flashlight. The first and most important consideration is that the flashlight be durable enough to withstand the rigors of maritime use. Because of this, many medical personnel prefer flashlights that are constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum or high-density plastic.

A flashlight’s size, weight and light output are also important considerations and should be carefully matched to the duties required. A flashlight should feel light and comfortable in one’s hand and should generally provide between 8,000-15,000 candlepower. To enhance light output, some manufacturers recommend replacing the flashlight’s regular bulb with either a halogen or krypton bulb. Additionally, the light beam should be adjustable from spotlight to flood.

Another factor to consider is the energy source. Whether you choose a battery-operated (nicad, lithium or alkaline) or rechargeable unit is a personal preference, and both have their own benefits and drawbacks. A rechargeable flashlight offers constantly rechargeable batteries and is generally less expensive to operate over time, whereas a flashlight that operates on non-rechargeable batteries is better suited for prolonged use when recharging may not be possible.

Cost is another factor. However, it is important not to skimp on price just to save a few dollars. A well-constructed flashlight will long outlast several "bargain-priced" models, making it more cost-effective in the long run.

Finally, when choosing a flashlight, select one that offers accessories that enable you to customize the light to your specific needs. This is especially important if your job duties may change. Some common flashlight accessories include non-slip grips, special holders and mounting devices, tailcap beacons, traffic wands and custom engraving.

Proper Use of Flashlights

How you use a flashlight is just as important as what type of flashlight you purchase. Below are a few common guidelines to follow when using using a flashlight:

Know when to use light. There’s no substitute for light when you want to see something in the dark. Unfortunately, light ruins night vision which, in turn, may reduce your response to potential hazards. Therefore, it may be wise to take a moment to look, listen and feel the area before "lighting up" the scene. Remember, once the light is on, the tactical advantage is gone.

Use the light pool carefully. Keep in mind that anything within the flashlight’s pool of light will draw attention. Thus, if you don’t wish to be "in the spotlight" direct the light’s beam approximately 3’-5’ in front of you. This will reduce your chances of being caught in the light’s "back-splash."

Don’t backlight/silhouette yourself or others. Be careful not to shine your light directly behind anyone as the light/dark contrast will silhouette the individual, making the person an easy target.1,2 In addition, don’t place a flashlight in your back pocket as the light switch may inadvertently be turned on, thereby silhouetting you as a potential target (a condition referred to as "tail-lighting").

Hold the light up and away from your body. Several law enforcement studies have found that hostile gunfire is frequently directed at the light source. For this reason, recruits are taught to never hold their flashlight directly in front of their body, but to hold it front of their body (at approximately shoulder/head level).

Use light to momentarily stun a person or animal. If faced with a hostile individual or aggressive animal, shine the light’s concentrated spotlight beam directly into the person’s/animal’s eye. This rapidly constricts the pupils and dramatically narrows the field of vision.

Use light to communicate. Many rescuers use light to communicate to one another when verbal communication is not possible or desired. The international sign of distress is three short flashes of light. If it is nighttime and the patient is hearing-impaired and can read lips, ensure that the speaker’s lips are illuminated and that no one is blinding the patient by shining a light in his or her face.

Never use your flashlight as a weapon. A flashlight can inflict serious, even lethal injuries if used as a weapon. In fact, inappropriate use of flashlights as led to criminal charges and has prompted several major law enforcement agencies to replace their long, heavy flashlights with small, rechargeable lights.

Anticipate flashlight-related problems before they occur. Although it would be impossible to list all the potential problems that could occur when using a flashlight, one stands out: The flashlight rolls away at the most inopportune moment. This can be an expensive and potentially dangerous problem. To create an inexpensive anti-roll device that will keep your flashlight from rolling away, simply place a rubber band with a large knot in it around the flashlight’s light ring (located on the head) or hot glue a small plastic bead to the light ring.


Properly used, a flashlight can make seagoer's work both easier and safer. To ensure a flashlight will perform effectively, its features must be carefully matched to the situation in which it will be used out of doing this, rescuers will get the most out of this indispensable tool.