Dr. John Palmer, Forensic Engineer

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  • Name: John Palmer, PhD

  • Education: Ph.D. Electric Power Engineering 1996; M.Eng. Electric Power Engineering 1992; B.S. Electrical Engineering 1991, Power Emphasis, Math Minor, Brigham Young University
  • Target Audience: Middle School

Forensic engineers like Dr. John Palmer are charged with investigating fires, explosions and electrical system failures. Did we spark your interest? Read on to learn more about why the field of forensic engineering is on fire!

What is your job?

imageI have 2 jobs - I am the owner of a company and I'm also a forensic engineer, which is a type of engineer that investigates product or system failures that may result in harm to a person or property damage. My focus, in particular, is cause and origin analysis of electrical accidents, electrical equipment failures, electrical fires, structural fires, vehicle fires, and explosions. I also perform product testing and design review, as well as consult on cases involving industrial processes, elevators, consumer electronics, electric shock and electrocution. I am considered an expert on forensic engineering and sometimes I'm asked to testify in court if there is a legal matter involving cause and origin analysis of electrical accidents and product failures.

Why did you choose this career? Was there a particular moment you knew you wanted to become an engineer?

My interest in electricity and electrical systems sparked before I was in high school when my parents decided to build an addition on our house. My grandfather did all of the electrical work and I got to be his electricians' helper. I was very intrigued by the electrical systems in our house. After that experience I thought I wanted to become an electrician, but as I was going through high school and taking a lot of math and science courses, I realized that I didn't want to be an electrician - I wanted to focus on electrical engineering. So, I studied electrical engineering all through college and continued my focus in that area during graduate school.

Explain what an average day at work is like for you.

imageOne of the things that I really like about my job is that the average day is far from average. There is always something different or new going on. In my line of work, a typical project may be initiated by a call from an attorney representing an electrical contracting company being sued for a fire that happened. The company may be getting sued for electrical work they did in the building that resulted in the fire and subsequent property damage or even personal harm to someone. The attorney knows our laws, but may not be familiar with electrical systems and fires and wants to understand what really happened, so they call me. I will then go to the scene of the accident and investigate what happened, including burn patterns and different features of the electrical system, using various methods of analysis and tools. Once I've collected all of the information I need, I write a report detailing my findings, which is used in the legal case. Sometimes I am asked to answer questions about my written report and my expertise during a deposition. Sometimes, the case goes to trial and I am called into court to testify as an expert witness. My testimonyhelps the jury determine what role, if any, my client had in the fire starting and burning.

What do you like best about your job?

I love the variety. I was asked to describe a typical day or project, but there isn't one in my field. I've had cases ranging from a house fire started by a toaster that caused $20,000 in damage to a large power plant explosion resulting in 600 million dollars in damages. Applying my knowledge and training to a vast array of different cases is probably what I enjoy most about my job.

imageWhen you were a kid, did you like science, engineering and/or math? If so, what subject did you enjoy most and why? If not, what changed your mind?

I always enjoyed science and math, but when I was in high school there weren't any engineering courses offered. I remember particularly enjoying math - when I was in 8th grade I had a math teacher that took an interest in me and really encouraged me to continue taking advanced math courses. He called me the "human computer" - it's not like I was someone with extraordinary smarts, but he sure made me feel that way. That particular teacher really helped my self-esteem and strongly impacted my love for math.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a forensic engineer?

There have been several challenges. The biggest obstacle for me was finishing my doctorate. The difficulties associated with my research that had to be developed into my thesis were the toughest mountain to climb over the course of my career. However, in my first job as a forensic engineer, before I started my company, there were some hard lessons learned as well. I had some tough conversations with my boss who explained to me that I didn't write particularly well and helped me to understand what I needed to do to improve my writing skills. I did need to develop my writing skills, but it's hard to not feel discouraged when you're told you're not good at something. More recently in my career, I faced challenges related to starting my own business. When you start a new company, you have to get your name out there and build a good reputation in order to get enough clients, which can be quite challenging as well.

Was there a person who inspired or convinced you to get involved in your field? Who was he/she and how did he/she do it?

While I was in graduate school, a speaker came to one of my classes and presented the results of an investigation of a catastrophic electrical accident and I was blown away. I was fascinated not only by the electrical systems, but the analysis conducted by the forensic engineers investigating the accident. Up until that point, I didn't even know forensic engineering existed, let alone pursuing it as my career. Listening to that presentation introduced me to electrical forensic engineering and strongly motivated me to pursue that field.

Do you have any suggestions for how kids in middle school can get practical experience in your field? Are there any high school courses that you think would be important to take?

A real introduction to electrical forensic engineering probably won't happen in middle school, but there are a lot of opportunities to gain exposure to STEM subjects more broadly. I really enjoyed mystery novels when I was a kid and learning and understanding math is an important foundation if you're considering any STEM field. Also, the scouting programs have opportunities to earn engineering merit badges. In terms of courses to take, definitely take the most advanced math classes available to you. Take AP calculus, statistics and physics. Based on my experience, learning to write well is a useful skill for all engineers. A large portion of my job is effective communication.

imageWhere do you see your industry going in the future? Are there any exciting changes or innovations that kids pursuing your field can look forward too?

The field of forensic engineering is not an evolving field in and of itself - the fundamental principles we use are permanent. However, the technical side of this field will change dramatically overtime. Control systems will become more sophisticated overtime and forensic engineers will need to keep up with the advancements in technology so they can employ a full arsenal of tools to use during investigations.

Do you have closing remarks to encourage students to pursue your field or similar STEM subjects?

The beautiful thing about engineering is that it makes the world go around. Everything we use in our lives has been engineered at some level and every discipline of engineering is a vital part of our society.  

To read more about Dr. Palmer's work, check out some of his case studies!

Shining a Light on Electricity...

  • During a typical year, home electrical problems account for 26,100 fires and $1 billion in property losses. About half of all residential electrical fires involve electrical wiring
  • Electrical fires in our homes claim the lives of 280 Americans each year and injure 1,000 more
  • Many avoidable electrical fires can be traced to misuse of electric cords, such as overloading circuits, poor maintenance, and running the cords under rugs or in high traffic areas
  • Light fixtures and lamps/light bulbs are also leading causes of electrical fires.

(adapted from usfa.fema.gov)

Vocation Vocab:

Deposition - a statement under oath, taken down in writing, to be used in court

Electrocution - to be killed by electricity

Testimony - the statement or declaration of a witness under oath

(adapted from dictionary.com)