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When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

  • 1.  When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

    Posted 4 days ago

    I was having a conversation about interactions with the public as a civil engineer and I thought I'd bring that here to share.

    I was a junior in college taking my 1st transportation class.  The project involved visiting a bank and counting the number of people who went inside the business for 1 hour.  Before we started my partner and I introduced ourselves, showed identification, described our school project and asked a security guard at the bank if we could stand near by and work on this portion of the project right near the bank. The guard said no. We left and proceeded to work from a distance elsewhere.

    There were no problems until we were finished with the count that about 5-10 police officers swarmed, detained, and questioned what we were doing near the bank. The guard was watching us the entire time and called police to report that we were "staking out the bank". I guess people at this location identify themselves before robbing this particular bank?  Thankfully the instructor was still on campus and was able to corroborate the same story we told police & the security guard. I was very surprised how visibly upset the officers were that they were called about this situation knowing that we did everything we possibly could do to indicate that we were not a threat and just college students doing a project. We were released about 15 minutes later.

    But this was the day that I knew transportation engineering was NOT for me. Honestly not because of the work, but because after numerous other times I've had police called on me for occupying a space where someone thought I was being "suspicious" I knew I couldn't handle the thought of these incidents happening regularly throughout my career.  It's just 1 of many stories that have made me want to work in a private sector & minimize my exposure to the public. And this is not to say that it couldn't happen elsewhere, it's just part of my idea of protecting myself.

    Do you have a story about interactions with the public during a project? Public meeting? Good or bad interactions? What, if anything, have you learned from those interactions in regards to how you perform your duties, speak, or preparation routines? 

    Jay Garth P.E.
    Structural Engineer I
    Progressive AE

    EWB: An Engineering Culture Shift
    Grand Rapids, MI

  • 2.  RE: When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

    Posted 4 days ago
    In high school, I was in video production and producing a short film on cars.  My friend and I took the camera to the overpass, so that we could film cars on the highway.  The police rolled up and said they had reports of teenagers throwing rocks off the bridge.  We told the officer what we were doing and gave him our names and birthdays.

    Filming in public without a permit can be troublesome... especially with a large camera.  Even if the project is "for education," you may need a permit.  My friend now has a permit to perform and film poetry in the graveyard!  I bet a lot of private traffic consultants have this issue!

    Chad Morrison P.E., F.ASCE
    Professional Engineer
    Greenville RI

  • 3.  RE: When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

    Posted 2 hours ago


    That is an incredible story and I'm sorry that it sounds like you have had to deal with issues like that so frequently in such short timespan of your career and education. I have a few brief memories of things that meet the theme of your question which I will share below, but in my opinion none of them come close to what you have experienced.

    1. In grad school, I had to install temperature sensors in some local streams which meandered through my university's campus. This involved trekking through trees and underbrush to get to the water. I recall a group of students walking by and asking my partner and I if we had found a turtle and were putting it back.

    2. When I was in undergrad, I was involved in a research project that involved performing energy audits on a local armory to see if we could find ways to reduce their energy consumption through more efficient lights/hvac/etc. When we arrived at the armory, a soldier on-duty there was very reluctant to let us in without military IDs, since our point of contact at the armory was not present and had not informed anyone that we were coming. He eventually let us in, but treated us with a high level of suspicion when we used the term "audit". I have since suggested that they call these projects "energy analyses" to avoid a word with such negative connotations. Nobody else at the armory wanted to answer any questions either, since according to one soldier "you guys are here to shut us down". It was ironic since we were really there to try to keep their facility open.

    3. As a geotechnical engineer intern, I often performed nuclear density tests to determine soil compaction values at construction sites. If you have never seen the container that this very boring looking apparatus is transported in, it is a large yellow box about the size of a trunk, and is very clearly stamped with the symbol for radiation. Naturally, it is also pad-locked. I recall having to park a little bit away from a few construction sites I worked at, and each time I pulled this nuclear density gauge out of the trunk of my car, it was inevitable that someone passing by would either ask me "if everything was okay" or simply stare with a concerned look on their faces. I started calling it a "construction tool" and leaving it at that.

    4. As a new engineer doing field work to locate certain manholes in the city of Philadelphia for the purpose of finding rim elevations, we occasionally found that the sewer manholes were located on private property. Once, we found one near what I believe was a junkyard. After spending a few minutes outside of the site, trying to find a way in, I noticed someone in a car trying to watch us without being noticed. I figured it would be better get out in front of this, and go introduce myself and explain why we were there. The people in the car were apparently "friends" of the owner of the junkyard who assumed we were trying to break in. I explained to them that if I wanted to break in, I probably wouldn't do it in broad daylight, in a bunch of bright PPE, and driving a blinking truck. The couple in the car heard me use the words "water department" and then I had to explain that no, I was not there to shut off the water, and that I only wanted to get a look at the sewer manhole in the yard. This was treated with suspicion and confusion. Eventually one of the guys suggested that he go with me to see the manhole "because if the property owner sees me with you, he might think twice before shooting you."

    5. Another time in a more suburban part of the city, I was lowering a coworker into a manhole in the street to get a similar elevation value in the chamber below. A very concerned citizen of the town drove up to us and asked if everything was okay. By this point, I had learned to not try to explain the details of our task and simply said that we were "performing a routine inspection". Other times, people would come out of their houses and complain to me about things related to the water department. I would try to sympathize, and always had to explain afterwards that I did not work for the water department.

    By and large, I began to ignore most bystanders and just do my job unless someone was taking particular interest in me and possibly going to get in the way. As someone who usually tries to explain things clearly and in detail, I also began giving whatever the simplest answer was, even if it wasn't entirely accurate.

    I hope to see a few more anecdotes shared.

    Christopher Seigel P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer