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Things to know about night vision and thermal technology

Police officers need to know night vision capabilities and understand the myths vs. facts for night vision technology

Night vision and thermal imagers add a big advantage to our capacity to operate safely and efficiently in low light environments. They are being used extensively by military personnel overseas and are gaining in popularity here with law enforcement officers in the U.S.

As part of our educational series on things that officers should know, I turned to one of my expert technical advisors, Rob Lowe, previously the sales and marketing manager from NIVISYS, a company specializing in low light technologies. Lowe is a former law enforcement officer and was a SWAT team leader for his department before he retired. He understands both the tactical and technical side of night vision and thermal equipment and how to maximize their potential.

Much of what we do as law enforcement officers take place in low, altered or failing light. Knowing how to read both the light and the situation at hand lets us make choices on how to handle them. If you remember my tactical decision-making equation from the article, Risk vs. Need, I talk about resources available as part of your strategy. You should also be aware of how night vision can be used by you or against you by your opponent.

I am a strong proponent of learning how to operate in darkness and becoming comfortable in that environment. When I worked as an adjunct instructor with the Surefire Institute, I was able to see how the tactics of using lights correctly gave a huge advantage over someone who did not have a light. That brought my low light skills up to a much higher level of awareness and expertise.

When the lights go off, there is a strong tendency to want to light everything up around you so that you feel safe. Using white light at the wrong time, without an awareness of your environment or opponent’s capabilities, could expose you as a target.

It is my belief that you should have strong skills in the intelligent use of white light and be able to function both individually and in a team environment with white light. You should also know the capabilities and how to effectively use night vision and thermal devices so you understand their capabilities and limitations.

I feel strongly about this and I will be adding both thermal and night vision devices to our tactical low light courses, and use both white light and night vision and thermal devices so officers can learn to use different approaches to low light environments. I will have a variety of platforms to use the night vision and thermal devices so officers can learn how to use them efficiently and what to purchase when their budgets allow for it.

Hands-on training with night vision products

In 2010 Lowe came up to our training site at The NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M. to demonstrate night vision and other equipment as part of our video series with Police1. Doug Wylie, Farran Tabrizi, Kathie Ferguson-Avery, and I were able to see the different technologies in use and The Whittington Center is an ideal place to use both technologies.

We were able to see jackrabbits, deer, and antelope with the thermal imager out to 500 yards as well as see people hiding in the brush that couldn’t be seen with the night vision devices. We used infra-red lasers on mountain peaks up to four miles away and were able to check out a new hybrid thermal/night vision device that brings the best of both technologies together in one compact unit.

Lowe told us about grants to purchase night vision and thermal imaging equipment and it may be more affordable than you think. One thing to keep in mind in regards to night vision/thermal equipment: just because you don’t have night vision doesn’t mean your opponent doesn’t. There are a lot of gen 1 and gen 2 devices for sale on the open market here in the U.S. and even a poor quality unit will give an advantage over someone who doesn’t have anything.

Night operations technology for LE

The two predominant technologies that exist for law enforcement to use in night operations are night vision (or image intensified equipment) and thermal imagers.

There are other technologies in the arena such as CCD-based cameras, however, there are limitations such as lagging images when panning the viewer and CCD works requires a certain level of existing ambient light in order to be useful. In true low light conditions, absent the desire to use white light, night vision and thermal technologies tend to perform better for most law enforcement needs.

Historically, these technologies have been used in military applications, and as has been the case with other products, military hardware migrates into the law enforcement world.

Night vision myths and misconceptions

For even more information, I turned to Lowe for his take on night vision and thermal devices. In particular, he said that we need to remember that there are a lot of legends that are passed along in locker room conversations. Here, Lowe corrects some of those myths and misconceptions.

Myth #1. All night vision is the same.

Fact: There are two primary U.S. manufacturers of the heart and soul of image-intensified equipment: the image intensifier tubes. There are a number of offshore companies that all produce image intensifiers and there is usually a very distinct difference in the quality and performance over the life of the equipment.

Remember that there are a number of companies that have commercial access to these image tubes and use them in the production or assembly of night vision equipment. Be aware that there are also a large number of companies and retailers that are in the business of re-selling night vision equipment manufactured by other companies both domestically and off-shore.

It will serve you well to not get complacent in your hunt for equipment like this. The usual three bid requirement and a lack of research can have an impact on what type of gear you or your team wind up with.

Myth #2: Night vision outperforms thermal in all cases.

Fact: Both night vision and thermal imagers have performance characteristics that the user may prefer over the other in specific situations. Night vision equipment will provide a higher degree of resolution and thereby give the operator better target recognition and generally longer ranges of detection. However, if the target is stationary or camouflaged with barriers such as vegetation, it becomes much more difficult to locate. Thermal equipment will generally perform better in that situation as it becomes much more difficult for a target to conceal a heat signature.

Thermal products have a similar pedigree as image intensified gear. Thermal operates differently — it operates independently from ambient lighting. This means that it can be used both day and night. Thermal detectors are the heart and soul of all of the thermal equipment out there. These detectors are also manufactured by two primary U.S.-based manufacturers of detectors and several international manufacturers. Cost, performance, and availability will be the obvious product delineators.

The less obvious factor might be: how am I going to deploy this equipment? There are thermal imagers that are intended to be low-cost, handheld devices but there are also thermal imagers that are designed to be very versatile. Several models perform as dedicated weapons thermal sights or are designed to be multi-function — meaning they can be used as weapons-mounted, helmet-mounted, or as handheld units.

It is true that thermal can’t offer the degree of facial recognition that night vision does, but thermal outperforms traditional night vision when it comes down to finding a bad guy on the run that might be laying in ambush for his pursuers.

So the obvious questions is: why not both?

You can achieve this in two ways, like most larger teams, a combination of these two technologies exist when operators deploy with either weapon or helmet mounted night vision devices and other over-watch team members are equipped with a thermal imager. We know of several teams that are forced to rely on borrowed fire department handheld devices which perform well at short range but are really designed for the fire environment and don’t generally work well if you are hunting bad guys and need to be carrying a carbine.

There is another solution as well, a poor man’s fusion device such as the NIVISYS Industries TACS unit is a clip-on thermal imager that is specifically designed to clip-on to an existing night vision device such as a monocular or AN/PVS-7 goggle. The TACS unit projects or overlays a thermal imager into the objective lens of the night vision device and results in the operator having a “fused” thermal night vision image.

Other steps can be taken to reach an optimum environment for night operations. The addition of an infrared or i.r. illuminator/designator to a night vision platform can also enhance an operator’s effectiveness when bore sighted to the weapon. The designator/illuminator offers the advantage of precise shot placement without the need for white light.

How do police departments pay for night vision?

Funding is always the catch in this business. In a time when budget cuts and potential lay-offs dominate agencies everywhere, asking for this type of equipment seems futile. However, these questions remain to be answered.

  • Can you operate in the dark as well as daylight?
  • Can you rely on white light to solve all of your detection situations?
  • Do you have the maximum level of force protection in place if you are going to search the dark for bad guys?
  • Who has the advantage in these situations?

Check out state and DHS grant sources and talk with other agencies that have successfully acquired this type of equipment through grant programs.

This article, originally published 6/22/2010, has been updated

Ron Avery was the co-founder and director of training for The Tactical Performance Center (TPC) located in St. George, Utah. A former police officer, as well as a martial artist, Ron brought that experience into the training environment. He was internationally recognized as a researcher, firearms trainer and world-class shooter, and his training methodology has been used by hundreds of agencies and thousands of individuals across the US and internationally. He was a weapons and tactics trainer for handgun, carbine, precision rifle and shotgun, as well as advanced instructor schools, defensive tactics, low light tactics and officer survival.

Ron passed away on February 23, 2019, leaving a legacy of contributions to police firearms and defensive tactics training.