A personal note from Jeff Williams
Nearly my entire working life has been spent in the burgeoning field of forensic engineering. It began when I was just twenty five years old, when accident reconstruction and fire origin & cause were relatively unknown fields in the private sector. I left a job as a test engineer in the defense industry to become an apprentice to pioneers in accident reconstruction in 1980. I worked my first case - a tire failure - in 1981.
My mentors in Los Angeles comprised an incredible crew of experienced minds, including an engineer who worked closely on the early atomic bombs, a physics professor at Cal State Northridge, and another engineer who survived the Japanese attack as a naval officer at Pearl Harbor, and who later piloted planes directly into hurricanes to gather important data for the weather service. They were brilliant generalists, with a broad working knowledge of many subjects. The head of the firm called them "a special breed of cat".
There was no simple description available for those times when I needed to explain to people just what it was I did for a living, and there was nothing ordinary about the work. Every new case was different and a new learning experience added to the lifetime knowledge pool. In those days, forensic engineering was in its infancy. There were no classes, degrees, or programs in which one enrolled to become a forensic engineer or anything remotely similar.
We learned that good engineers do not necessarily become good forensic investigators, because this work often transcends equations, specifications, and numbers.Technical knowledge must be accompanied by other complementing abilities in order to successfully solve these real life puzzles. The investigator must 1) have a curious mind, and 2) be aware that things may not be as they appear, 3) avoid reaching conclusions without having first mulled over unanswered questions and tying up lingering loose strings, 4) avoid dismissing conflicting information just because it doesn't correspond with the present theory, 5) be flexible enough to change an opinion when the evidence requires it, and 6) be able to understand people and effectively communicate what's been learned.
Thirty five years later I'm quite content with that early career choice. It blended perfectly with my personality, knowledge set, and thinking skills. It's always been more than a "job", with the unintended consequence of a never ending challenge to accurately account for all my billable hours.
As a generalist in a world of increasing specialization, it's been my observation that a specialist can be much like a man with a hammer - to whom everything looks like a nail. In real life, it's commonplace for a major fire or accident to be a complex event set in motion by a number of factors which have all combined or aligned in a certain way for an unfortunate result. The ability to see the overall picture enables one to recognize those contributing factors and gain a better understanding of what happened.
And let's never forget that a human tragedy is often at the core of the investigation. At times like this, people need true answers without whitewash or spin. When you hire me, you are co-opting this philosophy. When you want the plain truth, get FACTS.