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The Use of Less Lethal Weapons in Corrections, Part 4 – Distraction Devices

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Recently, I was contacted by a couple of agencies who do not have Noise Flash Distraction Devices (NFDDs) and are convinced that they are the one tool they need to add to their arsenals to solve various problems in their facilities. As those of you who have them know, this is a wildly optimistic expectation of the capabilities of these devices.


The truth is that NFDDs have their role to play, but they need to be incorporated into a larger tactical plan and there are even times when their use may be counterproductive. NFDDs can be an effective tool in dealing with jail disturbances and cell extractions, but they are not without their detractors and their use comes with some risk.

Also, all NFDDs are not created equal. Their performance can vary significantly from one manufacturer to another and from one device to another.

Distraction devices come in two types: those that produce sound and light only and those that also eject either chemicals or projectiles. For ease of discussion I will refer to these as Flash Bangs and Projectile/Chemical Grenades.

NFDDs have both a physiological and psychological effect on those against whom they are used. No other less lethal device has the potential to impact all of the body’s five senses like NFDDs. The combination of effects: sound, usually 165 dB or more; light, usually 1.8 candela or more; the smell and taste of smoke; along with the pressure wave of energy striking the skin; is enough to cause a sensory overload for anyone in the immediate proximity of the blast.

This sensory overload varies greatly from person to person and from device to device. Some people can be frozen in place for several seconds. Others are merely disoriented. Still others may show little or no effect. The psychological effect also varies greatly. On one extreme you may have panic, not likely, on the other only mild annoyance.

Regardless of the reaction these devices have on inmates do not expect their use alone to turn all violent inmates into compliant ones. In keeping with the philosophy for the use of all less lethal weapons, they are still only a transitioning tool not a finishing technique.

To maximize the effect of NFDDs it is imperative to make a tactical entry immediately after their introduction. The two most common mistakes when using them in a cell extraction is waiting to see what the inmate’s reaction will be before taking action or not taking advantage of the inmate’s disorientation to use another less lethal tool.

For example, if an inmate is holding a mattress in front of him, the introduction of an NFDD may cause him to experience enough disorientation to lower it. This is your opportunity to hit him with a TASER or an impact munition before making entry. You might not want to use a NFDD in a cell at all. It depends entirely on the design of your facility.

If you have extremely small single man cells with open bars, your team might be more affected by the device than the inmate who barricaded himself inside. You need to know your physical plant.

A common mistake made in disturbances is attempting to bomb the inmates into submission. This is not only a poor tactic, but it is dangerous because most of the inmates immediately go to the ground when grenades are employed. Since the odds on achieving an aerial burst indoors are slim, most grenades explode on the ground. The chance to cause serious injury to a compliant inmate is magnified when throwing volley after volley of NFDDs into a disturbance without introducing a tactical team. A team must enter and those still fighting can then be shot with whatever impact munition you have at your disposal.

The arguments most often voiced for the bombing into submission tactic is that the inmates erected barricades to prevent the use of directed impact munitions, or supervisors do not want to put their personnel in harm’s way. These arguments do not fly. If inmates erect barricades, then select the proper rounds to shoot around them or through them. And we get paid to swim in dangerous waters. Failure to take action out of fear speaks to a failure to adequately train. We have a duty to protect inmates who are being assaulted by their fellow inmates. Failure to do so opens us up to litigation.

All tactical situations are unique. I am not advocating a rash entry that does not consider proper tactics and avenues of escape should the situation dictate a tactical withdrawal. But to stand outside and expect your problem to be solved by hurling in NFDD after NFDD is not a wise course of action.

ALS Technologies includes the following warning when describing the use of their sting ball grenade: “Higher power factors may produce lethal trauma when vital areas are struck and energy imparted exceeds 90 foot pounds by causing massive skull fractures, rupture of vital organs, heart compression and/or serious skin lacerations. Normal use may result in contusions, abrasions, broken ribs, concussions and damage to eyes.”

As my agency has unfortunately witnessed on more than one occasion, NFDDs are also an effective way to remove tattoos. Second and third degree burns are possible.


Unless NFDDs are the only less lethal weapons you have with you and the situation you are facing calls for deadly force, I would strongly recommend against the bombing-into-submission tactic. The potential for injury inherent in routine use is often enough to give jail and prison administrators pause in deploying them to begin with. Employ proper tactics when you have them.

It is also important to determine which NFDD works best for your facility. What is fine for use in an outdoor yard may be too powerful for use in a cell. NFDDs have between 8 to 15 grams of flash powder and generate sound usually between 165 dB to 174 dB. That is extremely loud.

A 727 jet generating 15,000 pounds of thrust produces 165 dB. And consider this, with every three decibels sound doubles. Do you really want to throw a NFDD into a confined space that even when tested outdoors at three feet from the blast generates 174 dB? The reverberations off of the walls will magnify that sound.

If you are not currently using NFDDs, you should procure an Anderson Blasgage from Defense Technologies and test the various products out there and see what works for you. Also, at 180 dB hearing tissue dies. Just how loud do you want to get?

Flash Bangs or Projectile/Chemical Grenades - When choosing your NFDDs consider your end state. What do you want the problem to look like when it is finished? The introduction of all NFDDs against groups will accomplish a few things for you.

First, they will separate the hardcore players from the peripheral ones. Keeping the idea of the escalation of force in mind, the introduction of chemicals should almost always be your first less lethal move. This may cause a few fringe players to drop out, but NFDDs will really separate the wheat from the chaff. Most inmates will hit the deck in anticipation of your entry after their introduction.

The NFDDs will also generate a cloud of smoke. There are pros and cons to this. Smoke will help keep your chemical agents airborne longer, especially OC. It will also cause irritation to the inmates. But it will hinder your visibility and whatever irritates an inmate bothers staff more. A fire danger exists with all NFDDs. Their flash temperature is approximately 5,000 degrees.


But which type of NFDD is best? The answer is that depends on your needs. If you select a chemical grenade, hopefully this is not the only chemical you will be introducing into your problem.

If the chemical contents of the grenade are intended to augment what you already introduced, then go for it. But to use chemical grenades as the only means of disbursing chemicals is probably a mistake.

LASD statistics show that the majority of the nearly 800 disturbances we have experienced over the last decade were resolved with verbal commands and chemical agents alone. Only after these fail do we introduce NFDDs. The area treatment of chemicals is a less significant use of force. Start there then go to the NFDDs with or without chemicals added!

The truth about sting ball grenades is that they really don’t sting. The balls go every which way and have a very limited impact. Don’t expect them to knock anybody down. Outside of a cell they are more annoying than anything else. Even inside a cell, inmates who don protective gear are rarely impacted by them, but the potential does exist that they might put someone’s eye out.

If I were putting together a tactical team from scratch, I would select a flash bang type NFDD with a decibel level compatible with all areas of my facility. If I had a fully dedicated tactical team that trained frequently, then I might consider more than one type of device.

Know your facility and select what works best for you.

The Use of Less Lethal Weapons in Corrections, Part 1 – Concepts & Terms

The use of less lethal weapons in corrections, Part 2 – Chemical Agents

The Use of Less Lethal Weapons in Corrections, Part 3 – Electronic Control Devices

Lieutenant John J. Stanley, M.A., is a twenty-seven year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He has worked a variety of assignments including, custody, patrol, training and administrative support. He is considered an expert on less lethal weapons and tactics. He provided corrections scenarios for the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State University and contributed to its on-line Less Lethal Weapons class. John spent over a decade at LASD’s Custody Training Unit teaching classes such as Tactical Communications, Jail Intelligence Gathering, Tactical Weapons, Squad Tactics and Cell Extractions. John also was the lead instructor for LASD’s Custody Incident Command School (CICS) a class designed for sergeants and lieutenants and the Executive Incident Command School (EICS) for captains and above. He is a member of the California Tactical Officers Association and has published almost forty articles on law enforcement tactics and legal history.