Are there any tactical flashlight standards, and does that battery-powered unit you’re considering meet them? I interviewed Michael Hess, vice president of Armament Systems & Procedures (ASP) about its lighting systems, and the critical role an association—Portable Lights American Trade Association (PLATO)—plays in educating consumers on the products and their real performance.
GJS—Why does ASP belong to PLATO?
MH—We serve a particularly demanding customer base—law enforcement—where the stakes for mission-critical products are high. Probably no product on an officer’s belt gets more use than a flashlight, and it is not overly dramatic to say that it’s a tool with life-and-death implications. So it is crucial to us that we make promises we can keep, test our products to the highest and most consistent standards, and that our products are compared objectively to those of other best-in-class companies who share our commitment. That is why we joined several of those fine competitors to establish PLATO; it provides a central body to establish, maintain and regularly update these standards and practices; a shared resource for communicating them; and a “policing” arm to ensure they are used properly.
GJS—How rampant are false claims when it comes to tactical flashlight standards?
MH—There is plenty of trouble to be found, but it depends on where you look. Higher-end, reputable brands tend to have higher standards and not take chances with their reputations or risk liability. They may or may not all adopt and implement PLATO testing and standards, but for the most part we find that they do make an effort to be honest and accurate in their claims. Less established, less scrupulous manufacturers tend to be the source of the most egregious claims. This is not a golden rule—some well-known brands have made inaccurate performance claims, and some “cheap imports” have actually advertised honest specs—but more often than not, brand reputation correlates with standards and practices.
Here’s an interview on tactical flashlight standards with one of the pros from Streamlight.
GJS—Are the false claims encountered more often in products on store shelves, or bargain basement Internet sites?
MH—Much like brands and manufacturers, when it comes to retailers, “better is usually better.” Specialty stores (particularly those serving first responders, high-end sporting goods purchasers and similar customers) are more likely to sell products that maintain and advertise accurate standards. Whereas deep discount stores and “too good to be true” bargain websites and infomercials are more likely to offer lights that were built to hit a price, not a performance requirement. Quite literally, flash over substance. Again, it is not a rule without exceptions, but by and large, a combination of unknown brand and unknown (or very low-end) seller should lead consumers to be skeptical—or at least cautious.
GJS—Any tips readers to help readers avoid rip offs?
MH—Buy products from well-known and respected brands, from retailers who are not predominantly deep discount-driven. And of course, we feel that consumers should stick with flashlight manufacturers who have adopted PLATO standards—it is the closest thing to an absolute assurance that what is ON the package correctly represents what is IN the package. Anyone who is buying a light for safety purposes should be especially careful.
If you’re wondering how today’s tactical flashlight has evolved into its current form, here’s a quick look.
GJS—Lumen, lux, candlepower, which are the tactical flashlight standards a user should consider?
MH—All are valid performance metrics, but lumens is the most widely accepted universal standard, especially in professional markets like ours. It represents the total output of a flashlight, and we believe it is the most straightforward way for consumers to compare apples to apples. That said, one of the many reasons a group like PLATO is so important is that all lumens are not created equal. Improper measurement—whether with the intention to deceive or simply as a result of lack of knowledge or proper equipment—can yield wildly varying results. PLATO members test their products on the right equipment, using the right protocols, so that one participating manufacturer’s lumen is the same as another’s. It is all about transparency to the consumer.
GJS—Is there anything you’d like to add or say to people considering the purchase of a weaponlight or flashlight for their bug-out bag?
MH—One of the many things we like and appreciate about PLATO is that it has helped raise the level of awareness about—and demand for—high performance in flashlights. Unfortunately, too many people have been led to believe that anything with aggressive styling, a matte-black finish, bold claims and some slick packaging and marketing is “tactical.” And that couldn’t be further from the truth. Among other things, in order to be a genuine tactical asset, a tool must perform the way the manufacturer promises and the user expects it to, every time. Anyone who thinks otherwise should walk with a police officer into a dark house or alley on a moonless night.
Manufacturers are not required to be a PLATO member, or adhere to its testing protocols. Here’s a link to companies that have voluntarily enrolled, if you’re curious. The organization’s icons often appear in marketing materials or on a product’s web page, but it may not appear on the packaging—where space is at a premium. Here’s a link to the artwork to look for and what each means.
As for an ironclad set of tactical flashlight standards, there really are none exclusive for law enforcement or self-defense purposes. The PLATO standards simply provide yardsticks for accurate comparison between portable lighting sources. Impact and water-resistant ratings are a good place to start when shopping for a self-defense flashlight. Of course, that performance will work well if you’re looking for a long-lasting unit for camping.