It seems like practically everyone has a favorite crime drama, whether it’s “CSI,” “Law and Order,” or “Criminal Minds.” They all follow a familiar script: Someone commits a murder, the team goes in to search for clues, and through a mixture of talent, questionable science, insight, luck and charisma, they find the necessary signs to nail down a suspect.
In real life, crime scenes aren’t quite as dramatic. But there is another forensics field that doesn’t usually get the Hollywood treatment, even though it’s often a crucial aspect in determining culpability. It’s forensic engineering, the method through which scientists can determine the cause of failure in bridge collapse, building destruction or on a small scale the failure of materials or components.
Here, we’ll tackle a few of the common questions about forensic engineering, as well as share some of the lesser-known, surprising facts about the practice.
Forensic engineers are there to determine how and why a structure or component failed.
Q: What is forensic engineering?
A: The National Academy of Forensic Engineers defines its trade as the “application of the art and science of engineering in matters which are in, or may possibly relate to, the jurisprudence system, inclusive of alternative dispute resolution.” Basically, that means using reverse engineering to figure out why a structure, material or component failed to perform as intended. Then, those findings can be used as evidence in court if that failure caused injury, property damage, or was related to some other criminal case.
Q: What do I need to do to become a forensic engineer?
A: It’s a long and difficult process, but ultimately a rewarding one. You must obtain an engineering degree, earn licensing as an engineer in your given state (which requires passing the Principles and Practices of Engineering exam), gain experience and finally get certified as a Professional Engineer. Such a detailed and lengthy process is necessary because forensic engineers have little room for error.
Q: What challenges arise in forensic engineering?
A: Other than the challenge of becoming a forensic engineer, there are still plenty of obstacles that come with the territory. No case is quite the same – each time a material or component fails, something different may have been the cause. Forensic engineers must not only inspect the site, analyze debris and assess cause, but also interview those involved in planning and construction to see which procedures they may or may not have followed. Beyond that, there’s also testimony. Forensic engineers should have experience in litigated matters. That means understanding how to treat potential evidence, how to present in court and how to document the entire investigative process in great detail.
“No forensic engineering case is quite the same.”
Q: What are some of the best practices for initiating a forensic engineering investigation?
A: A forensic investigation tends to start with a broad scope and becomes narrower as more information is discovered. Depending on the type of failure, forensic engineers may have more or less evidence to examine. In the case of a bridge collapse, the engineer may have to analyze anything from support beams to load capacity to foundation strength and everything in between. More specific issues, like a burst pipe, require a more focused approach. Independent testing labs may offer their own analyses of materials involved, such as pipe fittings, rubber, coatings, weld joints, glass and so on. Above all, it’s important to maintain a systematic process that allows for the examination of all possible explanations and evidence.
Q: Who do forensic engineers work for?
A: While crime lab analysts generally work for the state, in district or federal law enforcement agencies, forensic engineers are independent entities. They may testify in court as an expert witness, or attorneys might consult them to determine which questions to ask and gain insight. Law enforcement agencies might hire forensic engineers for investigation and consultation on a case-by-case basis.
Q: What can Polymer Solutions do to help in forensic engineering investigations?
A: As experts in material analysis, Polymer Solutions can act as the independent analytical laboratory often needed to supplement an investigation or provide consultation on certain materials. Its on-site facilities include evidence housing, testing equipment, high-resolution cameras, an overhead crane for cumbersome items, and plenty of private meeting rooms for litigated matters. On that last point, Polymer Solutions also has an advantage in the form of decades of litigation experience. Experts can travel to participate in investigations and assess evidence. They also understand the sensitive nature of the industry. Best of all, Polymer Solutions is an unbiased partner that can offer consultative services and support through scientifically sound techniques.
Forensic engineers play an integral role in litigated matters involving failed structures and resulting damage. It doesn’t have to be catastrophic failure – a building collapse is worthy of forensic investigation, but so is an improperly secured construction area. In both cases, it’s essential to have access to the expertise, consultation and equipment to thoroughly analyze every piece of evidence and relevant information. It might not have a hit cable TV show yet, but forensic engineering is every bit as important and compelling as their crime lab analyst counterparts.