Use of ‘flashbang’ ammo sparks controversy among boaters

The Coast Guard demonstrates an LA 51 flashbang grenade durring a recent FEMA National Level Exercise in Texas. Local Coast Guard units will begin using flashbang munitions on Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of the Coast Guard by way of www.threesheetsnw.com.

A post by Deborah Bach on Three Sheets NW. What do you think about this? the forum is open for discussion.

The Coast Guard defended plans to fire “flashbang” ammunition at Puget Sound boaters who enter marine security zones, following criticism from boaters who see the tactic as heavy-handed and unnecessary.

The 13th District Coast Guard issued an announcement this week that it will start using flashbang munitions, which explode with a bright flash and extremely loud boom, to warn boaters who get too close to cruise ships, ferries and Navy ships being escorted by Coast Guard boats.

The announcement triggered an immediate backlash from boaters, including Three Sheets Northwest readers. Responding to a story on Three Sheets, one reader posted that the Coast Guard “going out of its way to harass and intimidate boaters of no threat.” Another called the tactic “intensification of paranoia and an excuse to play with toys.”

But Coast Guard officials say the munitions are needed to warn boaters who inadvertently enter security zones or refuse orders not to, and are an effective means of getting boaters’ attention and determining their motives before employing more aggressive tactics.

Capt. Eric Chamberlain, chief of response for the Coast Guard’s 13th District, said the use of flashbang munitions is not intended to be heavy-handed, but the very opposite.

“We’re trying to NOT be heavy-handed,” he said. “We’re trying to use the full spectrum of tools available to us, so that instead of using potential lethal force, we have something less than that.

“It is my goal to not have to injure anybody, and if I can use a flashbang munition to get someone’s attention instead of having to shoot at them with real bullets, I would prefer to do that.”

Ted Lindstrom, ports, waterways and coastal securities program manager for District 13, said Coast Guard crews are required to follow a “use of force continuum” in an effort to halt boats from entering a security zone. Crews will first attempt to get a boater’s attention by using a loud hailer and VHF radio, he said, as well as activating the Coast Guard boat’s siren and flashing lights.

But such tactics don’t always work, Lindstrom said. Boaters sometimes don’t have their radios on or are not monitoring them. They may not hear the loud hailer, especially at a distance. They might be chatting with others onboard, talking on a cell phone or otherwise not paying attention, sometimes while traveling at high speeds.

“(It happens) all the time,” Chamberlain said. “There are a lot of boaters out here in Puget Sound and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca who don’t know what’s going on.

“I mean, people text while they’re driving cars. They talk on the phone when they’re driving. You think they’re always paying attention all the time when they’re driving a recreational boat?”

And security zones can be difficult for boaters to see, Chamberlain said, particularly if the Coast Guard is escorting a submarine or other less visible vessel. The idea is not to harass or intimidate, he said, but simply to get the encroaching boater’s attention and divert the boat from the security zone.

“It’s a means of signaling to the boater that hey, you need to pay attention,” Chamberlain said. “That’s really what it is. It’s a signal.”

The munitions are fired from a 12-gauge shotgun and are like “a really, really, really big, bright and loud firecracker,” Chamberlain said.

The U.S. Coast Guard started testing flashbang munitions in 2006 and began using them soon after in open ocean areas for missions involving drug trafficking and migrant smuggling, Lindstrom said. They were found to be so effective that the Coast Guard decided to expand their use to critical port areas nationwide such as Florida, the Boston area and Puget Sound, he said.

Crews in those regions were trained how to use the devices about a year ago, but Lindstrom said they have not been used in Puget Sound other than for training and drills.

Flashbang munitions would have been useful in May 1999, Lindstrom said, when protestors in powerboats and Zodiacs tried to stop a Makah whale hunt south in the waters of the Olympic Peninsula south of Cape Flattery. The Coast Guard was responsible for enforcing a security zone around the whalers.

During the protests, Lindstrom said, a Coast Guard boat “shouldered” one of the protest boats that refused to remain outside the security zone. As the two boats bumped together, he said, one of the protestors fell down and was injured. The incident “was a classic example” of a situation in which a flashbang munition could have proven effective, Lindstrom said.

Chamberlain understands the criticism from boaters about the use of the munitions, but said many boaters aren’t aware that there are security zones around ferries, cruise ships and other vessels.

“I think they don’t understand that it’s for their safety, and to de-escalate issues instead of escalating them,” he said.

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