Forensic engineer. If the job title conjures up images of a dead body flash-frozen with the rigor of electrocution, or high-res digital cameras snapping photos at the scene of a suspicious fire, or a toaster’s charred wiring strung out on a slab like body parts during an autopsy, that’s absolutely right. So says 26''year-old Andrew J. Paris, who often explains what he does to friends and family by referencing a pop culture touchstone. ”I just ask, ’Have you seen the show ”CSI”?’ ” Paris says.
To be sure, forensic engineering isn’t quite as glamorous as the television show makes crime scene investigation out to be. But for someone who loves solving technically challenging puzzles, it’s just as compelling. Picking apart burnt lighting ballasts from a house fire, photographing a scene, questioning witnesses, writing reports, and preparing cases for trial, a forensic engineer wears many hats. Says Paris, ”There’s something new coming at you every day.”
Paris works for Anderson Engineering of New Prague Inc., located about 50 kilometers south of Minneapolis. The firm’s offices are not in a sterile office park but on a buffalo farm, which is the property of brother and sister Erik and Beth Anderson, who own the company along with their father, Ordean Anderson.
On a recent morning, Paris explained his craft. Nearby hung a whiteboard covered with equations and circuit diagrams, while electrical parts were strewn across the table in front of him—the guts of a box fan of the same make and model suspected of causing a barn fire that, sadly, incinerated several high-priced stud horses. Paris had purchased the old fan on eBay so that he could take it apart and see where and how the motor and wiring might have failed and violently discharged enough energy to spark the fire. He is coy about his conclusions because the case is ongoing.
Though hard science can certainly help solve a case, forensic engineering is also an art learned through experience. For his first two years on the job, Paris, who graduated in 2002 from North Dakota State University, in Fargo, with a B.S. in electrical engineering, was essentially an apprentice. From Erik, Beth, and Ordean, a former electrical engineering professor at Paris’s alma mater, he learned things that most engineering classes never cover, such as how to read burn patterns on walls, floors, and ceilings to determine the origin and progression of a fire.
”You’re basically a neophyte for two years until you can start doing things on your own,” says Paris. ”It takes that long to go to enough scenes to understand the process and the legal issues.” Originally attracted to engineering because the rigor of the discipline lends itself to solving complex problems, Paris fell into forensic engineering after graduating from college. He answered an ad on the Monster.com Web site and soon found himself interviewing with the Andersons. ”I had no idea that this field even existed,” recalls Paris. ”I don’t think many people do.”
While part of Paris’s job includes reading through dog-eared copies of old electrical code and tinkering with parts to see how they might catastrophically fail, he also spends a lot of time at accident scenes and in laboratories. At a recent inspection of debris from a house fire, Paris met with another forensic engineer at the offices of EFI Global, in Eden Prairie, Minn. Even though the cause of the fire had yet to be determined, rags soaked in wood stain and left in a plastic garbage can—a tried-and-true trigger for spontaneous combustion—seemed the likely culprits. Paris was there to rule out the new electrical outlets that his client, an electrician, had installed.
Paris and Gary Hong, his counterpart representing the homeowner’s insurance company, began by ripping open bags containing a melted drill, a burned-out tile saw, and other electric tools found in the garage where the fire started. As the room filled with the acrid aroma of moldy, burnt plastic, Paris and Hong poked and prodded pieces of evidence, taking photos and detailed notes. They deferred a full-blown inspection until a third investigator could join them.
But even this limited examination provided valuable clues. Later, over coffee, Paris says that the one outlet he looked at was unlikely to have started the blaze. His proof? First and most obvious: no plug in the socket—if there had been, the outlet would have been recovered with the plug still connected. But what if someone had removed the plug after the fire? No way, Paris explains. The metal plates that hold the prongs of a plug in the outlet were still pressed together. If a fire had started with a plug in place, the plates would have remained spread apart. And the clincher: the plug prongs on the saw and drill were charred. Had they been left in a socket, they would have been protected from the fire and would appear fairly clean.
While this inquest looks like it will wrap up quickly, Paris has been called in on a few investigations that he’ll probably never forget. Take the strange case of the dastardly dough machine. A maintenance worker in a frozen pizza factory was told by his boss to clean the machine’s rollers—while it was running. The worker’s glove got caught in a roller, and his arm was dragged in up to the bicep, crushing it to a uniform thickness of 5 centimeters.
Though the unfortunate worker lost his mangled arm, he won a tidy settlement from his employer and the machine’s manufacturer, thanks to some sleuthing by Paris and the Andersons. They interviewed engineers from the machine’s manufacturer and pizza factory personnel and pored over depositions and documents relating to the design and operation of the errant apparatus. Eventually, the team discovered that the manufacturer had acceded to demands from the factory owner to disable magnetic locks that were supposed to shut down the machine to allow for safe cleaning; what’s more, control software that would have automatically cut power in the event of an accident had been deactivated.
”It’s satisfying to know that you’ve helped people who have been wronged and that you’re part of ensuring that products are safe,” says Paris with pride. ”If nobody did anything about it, what incentive would there be to make a safer product?”