COLORADO, USA — A bill moving through the Colorado House would create a state felony charge for anyone caught shining a laser at helicopters or planes.
Currently, anyone caught shining a beam at an aircraft could face a federal felony charge. The new bill would allow local police to investigate arrests and seek charges against offenders.
“My understanding is most of them are reported back to the FBI and they just don’t have the bandwidth to come and investigate the hundreds we have here in Colorado and the thousands we have nationwide,” said Neil Keohane, a pilot for a Flight For Life crew in the Denver metro area.
Keohane said in his years flying in the area, he’s experienced three or four laser strikes. Any impact has only been temporary.
“The worst case scenario is that it could actually do eye damage, and if it got really bad you could actually incapacitate a pilot, which for us is a problem because we fly single-pilot,” Keohane said. “There’s only one of us, so if we can’t do our job it could become a safety issue for the entire crew.”
Flight nurse Brian Bloom, who works with Keohane, just experienced his first laser strike six months ago while landing at his crew’s home base at St. Anthony’s Hospital.
“It’s something we always train to look out for, but in the moment it catches you off guard,” Bloom said. “For me, I had a little bit of pressure in my right eye and with the pressure comes a little bit of a headache.”
According to a fiscal note tied to the legislation, crews reported about 300 laser strikes in 2022. Any time a crew spots a laser, they report it to air traffic control and try to offer a location. They then evacuate the area.
Currently, if local police respond to a report of a laser strike, they only have the power to confiscate a laser from someone and then report the case to federal authorities, according to Kathy Mayer, the program director for Flight for Life.
The new law would create a Class 6 felony, the lowest level felony charge in the state, for anyone who is caught flashing a laser. Police could only arrest and seek charges against someone if a flight crew reports a laser strike.
Shelby Smith, the paramedic on Keohane’s crew, hasn’t experienced a laser strike yet with only about a year on the job. But she said she’s ready for it, after training specific to laser strikes. That training has taught her that night vision goggles worn by crews trying to fly safely through the mountains might make strikes more intense.
“If we see directly a laser strike then it will amplify that light that can cause irreversible damage in your retina. And that’s career-ending,” she said.
“We’re trying to save people’s lives and we’re trying to get from A to B as safely as possible without any added risk. We all want to get home at the end of the day.”
The state Senate passed the bill unanimously last month. The state House could vote on it this week.
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