Lasers under fire by rescue officials, local leaders

bdickerson@thesunnews.comAugust 4, 2012 

— Rony Shaul is trying to sell his remaining stock of green laser pointers as quickly as possible.

After they’re gone, the manager of Pacific Beachwear, located off North Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach, is out of the green laser business for good.

“I want to sell what I have, and that’s it,” Shaul said.

Shaul has started seeing a danger associated with these devices, which experts say can damage a person’s vision. He’s certainly not alone.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Charleston, released a letter earlier this week threatening to limit service to the Myrtle Beach area following two recent cases in which pilots were forced to land their aircraft during search and rescue operations after being hit with the lasers.

Municipal and county governments are also putting their heads together to try and come up with a solution to the ongoing problem associated with laser pointers, an issue that the Federal Aviation Administration has classified as an epidemic.

“People do stupid things with them. It’s not worth the risk,” Shaul said.

Hindering rescue

The U.S. Coast Guard will now evaluate that risk before undertaking rescue operations in Myrtle Beach.

Capt. Michael White, commander of the Coast Guard Sector Charleston, said the agency’s decision came after two incidents of crews being hit with lasers while on rescue operations.

Over the last six months, helicopter crews have been grounded in the middle of rescue missions six times.

The most recent incident occurred July 26, when a helicopter was forced to land while searching for two men stranded in the middle of the ocean after their 19-foot catamaran overturned in unfavorable seas. Additionally, the crew of a rescue boat was hit.

Fortunately, the story had a happy ending. The two men, Guiseppe Chillico, 49, of Myrtle Beach, and friend Keith Crook, 50, visiting from Beckley, W.Va., tied themselves together and swam about four miles to land. They came ashore unharmed at Apache Pier, near the Briarcliffe Acres community.

During the ordeal, the men’s spirits were lifted when they began to see lights from a helicopter and boat searching for them. Eventually, the light and the helicopter were gone.

“That was very depressing when we saw [the helicopter] leave,” Chillico said.

Cmdr. Gregory Fuller, also with the Charleston sector, said the Coast Guard is treating the entire Grand Strand region as high risk, based on the number of incidents involving lasers.

Coast Guard officials said they would be talking with local law enforcement about current conditions and the probability of laser strikes before taking off for rescue missions near Myrtle Beach. If the risk is deemed too high, a rescue helicopter would not lift off.

Fuller compared flying into places with lasers to traveling into storms while on rescue operations. Other areas, he said, have laser activity but it’s much more random, like lightning produced by a thunderstorm.

If there’s a 100 percent risk of a flight crew getting struck by lightning – or lasers – they won’t fly.

“What has become evident is the preponderance of the lasers in Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area,” White said. “That endangers our flight crew and it takes them out of the search. That means that somebody’s out there waiting in the water for a helicopter that’s not coming anymore.

“That’s a tough pill to swallow.”

A 2010 study published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that inexpensive green laser pointers were found to emit 20 milliwatts of infrared radiation during normal use. “This is a serious hazard, since humans and animals may incur significant eye damage by exposure to invisible light before they become aware of it,” according to the study.

“There’s really no productive use for them except for educational or experimental (fields),” said Horry County Councilman Al Allen. “They’re a cheap form of entertainment, and they’re selling up big time.”

Regulating a problem

Allen, himself a pilot, personally thinks that green lasers should be banned outright throughout Horry County. He’s asked the county attorney to research possible ways to bring them under control.

Currently, Horry County has no restrictions on green laser pointers.

County attorney Arrigo Carotti said staff is actively researching and exploring various options for the County Council to consider. Those options will be presented at the next Horry County Public Safety Committee meeting, which hasn’t been scheduled.

Carotti didn’t want to say anything more about what the options are until County Council has had a chance to review them.

While Horry County doesn’t yet have rules in place to regulate green lasers, the city of Myrtle Beach does.

Minors cannot posses a laser of any type except in their home, according to a city ordinance.

Additionally, no person is permitted to point a laser at any person, airplane or helicopter. Those found in violation of this misdemeanor would face a possible $500 and/or 30 days in jail.

“That’s pretty much what we can do,” said city spokesman Mark Kruea.

He pointed out that some of the green lasers have a tremendous range, which makes enforcement a challenge.

Myrtle Beach Police Lt. Doug Furlong said city officers have responded to 197 laser-related complaints from May 1 through Aug. 1. Of those, they were able to locate 14 violators and issue tickets. Two of them were 16 or younger.

Furlong didn’t have figures for the same time period in 2011.

“There’s a lot of them out there. Our guys respond to them,” he said.

Pat Dowling, North Myrtle Beach spokesman, has said a law restricting green lasers in the municipality took effect on Nov. 21.

Since then, local police have written between nine and 10 warnings for people caught using them.

Those cited had been shining lasers on each other and onto Ocean Boulevard, Dowling added.

“It was a huge problem last summer, and the year before that, it started to show itself,” he said.

FAA stepping in

The huge problem is also under the watch of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA will bring federal charges against those accused of shining lasers at aircraft while in flight. If convicted, offenders could face up to five years in jail and a $11,000 fine.

For the Grand Strand, the first seven months of 2012 saw a significant increase in the number of laser incidents – 51 – compared with 50 in all of 2011.

Nationwide, the number of reported laser incidents rose from 2,836 in 2010, to 3,592 in 2011, according to the FAA.

Allen said he’s been hit by one personally while in the air, as he was trying to land at the Loris airport in 2011.

He said the problem is that when a laser hits the window of an aircraft cockpit, it ends up reflecting off the many glass instruments inside.

“It puts [out] a lot of light,” Allen said.

Doug Floyd, a Myrtle Beach area accountant and pilot, also was struck by a laser while at 1,000 feet about 18 months ago. In his experience, the windshield started glowing green.

“I don’t know if it’s scary, [but] it’s just a distraction,” Floyd said.

Whether a distraction or a health hazard, government officials are taking green lasers seriously and trying to remedy the problem.

Like the FAA, White said the Coast Guard will bring federal charges against anyone they find using green lasers in a threatening manner.

White also is working with local law enforcement to help clear large gatherings of people along the coast if rescue vessels are needed for swimmers or boaters in distress.

It’s all in an effort to continue helping those in need, while keeping rescue crews safe.

“I don’t want to wait until a 10-year-old kid with a laser gets lucky,” Fuller said.

Contact BRAD DICKERSON at 626-0301.

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