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Avoiding friendly-fire accidents proves challenging, even for pros

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SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Border Patrol agents are highly-trained and employ advanced tactics, but the risk of friendly-fire accidents may continue to rise as agents' ranks are bolstered along the border, a former national deputy chief of the agency said.

Ron Colburn, who was also the chief patrol agent for the Yuma sector from 2005 to 2007, said it's a testament to the high level of training of Border Patrol agents that there have not been more friendly-fire incidents like the one that left Utah native Nicholas Ivie dead.

"In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was less likely that you would have an encounter of a law enforcement entity of any type," Colburn said.

He said when he worked at the station where Ivie operated, there were 11 agents. Today, there are roughly 475.

"We have four to five times more agents in the field today than we did back then," Colburn said.

When Ron Colburn worked at the station where Ivie operated, there were 11 agents. Today, there are roughly 475.

The additional manpower is needed, Colburn said, to address the growing problems along the border. Colburn said drug runners used to carry knives and even rebar. Now, they frequently carry AK-47s.

Colburn said Border Patrol agents are highly-trained with expertise in rural police tactics. They're some of the best shots in the business, and they know so-called "sign cutting" or man-tracking skills that trace back to Native Americans and hunters in the Old West.

"The size and number and sex of the people can be determined by their sign," Colburn said. "The country of nationality can even be detected depending on what they leave behind."

Avoiding friendly fire casualties is a significant challenge for everyone from police to special forces.

"There's some things that can be done," OPSGEAR CEO David Burnell said. "Force multipliers, night vision help. But the fog of war is the fog of war."

Burnell, who has trained police and military in tactical response, said even in training, friendly-fire mistakes happen.

"We still see teams that have the same color light and teams that have opposing lights, even though they're on a joint mission, shoot each other," Burnell said.

Prudence is the better part of valor, yet prudence might get you killed.

–David Burnell

Burnell says clear identifiers -- like teams calling out numbers that add up to a pre-determined total - help to determine who is a friendly and who is a foe.

Still, Burnell said outside factors and influences - such as sleep deprivation and human relationships - can impact even the best-trained agents and soldiers.

"It is really difficult and probably inappropriate to second-guess anybody who's in the field that's put in that duress," Burnell said. "Prudence is the better part of valor, yet prudence might get you killed."

Colburn said what happened to Agent Ivie will likely get a close review.

"Certainly they will study it and they will train to any tactics that help avoid a situation like this," Colburn said.

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Andrew Adams


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