MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Myrtle beach police say they struggle to keep green laser pointers out of kids' hands and not shining in the eyes of rescue crews working to help people in distress.
It's part of the reason why U.S. Coast Guard Officials say they are cracking down on the novelty lasers. Commander Brian Lefebvre of U.S. Coast Guard in Charleston says the lasers, when pointed at search and rescue helicopters, can cause blindness and potentially force pilots to land.
"When a Coast Guard helicopter crew is hit by a laser, they are required to ground the aircraft so that the pilots can undergo a medical evaluation before they get airborne again," Lefebvre explains.
Coast Guard officials say two search and rescue choppers have been grounded in two weeks in the Myrtle Beach area, including an incident on July 26 that hampered efforts to find two missing boaters near the Apache Pier.
The incident compelled Coast Guard officials to send out a letter detailing their intentions to pursue new ways to enforce the South Carolina state law against shining a laser light at an aircraft. The possible penalties for breaking that law include $11,000 in fines, and five years in jail.
Myrtle Beach Police Lieutenant Doug Furlong says they're doing everything they can to keep the green laser problem in check, but the sheer number of calls the department is forced to respond to takes away valuable time officers could be making use of elsewhere.
"We've had 198 [green laser] calls since the first of May," Furlong says. "That means officers respond to 198 calls regarding this type of situation, which brings them away from doing their job."
The City of Myrtle Beach has an ordinance against green lasers, preventing minors from purchasing or owning them without parental supervision. The law also allows police to charge anyone caught shining the lasers at people or planes with a misdemeanor. Furlong says even with the law on their side, police have a tough time making sure vacationers know the rules.
"I think one of the issues is it's hard to get the info out," Furlong says. "[It's hard to] get the information to people visiting, possibly looking at purchasing these lasers."
US Coast Guard Officials were unable to elaborate on what their new enforcement actions could entail.
Read the Coast Guard letter in it's entirety below:
By Capt. Michael White and Cmdr. Gregory Fuller
The widespread use of green laser toys by party-goers along Myrtle Beach piers and beaches is disrupting Coast Guard rescue efforts and endangering helicopter crews. If the Coast Guard is going to continue rescue operations along Myrtle Beach shores, the reckless behavior of shining green lasers at our helicopters must stop.
Twice in the last two weeks, our Coast Guard helicopters were grounded in the middle of rescue missions when the flash of green lasers hit pilots searching for people in distress. The popular green laser toys, sold widely at beachfront shops, may seem fun or cool but create a serious hazard for our crews and force them to abandon their rescue missions.
When Coast Guard helicopters are airborne the crews are simultaneously flying the aircraft and visually searching out the windows. Once a laser hits an aircrew it can cause temporary blindness making it impossible to do both.
To ensure their safety, our aircrews affected by laser lights must land immediately and can only return to the mission after being cleared by a physician. Depending on the severity of the exposure they may be grounded, leaving a distressed or injured boater to wait for a rescue helicopter that is no longer coming to their aid.
After six such laser groundings over the last 18 months, not including the two most recent incidents, we can no longer passively absorb the risks. The possibility of not saving people in distress or losing a Coast Guard aircrew is now too great. So, we are aggressively pursuing landside enforcement action and risk management policies that would limit rescue efforts until the safety of our crews can be assured.
As of February 2012 people caught shining a laser light directly at or in the path of an aircraft face up to five years in prison and an $11,000 fine. Locally, Myrtle Beach prohibits the possession of laser pointers by minors.
Our rescue crews are devoted to saving people on the sea, often at great risk to themselves. But the reckless behavior with green lasers frequently occurring along Myrtle Beach compels us to act. We need community leaders, businessmen, law enforcement officers and parents to spread the word. Stop using green laser pointers improperly so we can focus on rescuing people who need our help. A party trick or prank could one day cost the lives of an aircrew or the mariner they seek to find and rescue.
White is the commander of Coast Guard Sector Charleston. Commander Gregory Fuller is the commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Savanna.