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  • 1.  When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

    Posted 10-13-2021 10:56 AM

    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 10-13-2021 02:54 PM
    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 10-18-2021 07:54 AM


    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

  • 4.  RE: When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

    Posted 10-21-2021 05:02 PM
    I've never had the cops called on me, but I do have a few experiences with the public I can add to the discussion

    1. Our company was doing some due diligence for a proposed project, and my friend and I were sent to do a traffic count to be used in a traffic analysis. The project was at an 8th grade center. We were around 22 years old at the time. We were set up at two different spots along the parent pickup line of the school to count turning movements and total number of cars. The school was told ahead of time that we were going to be out there. I had multiple people ask if I was on the PTO or something. My coworker had multiple people ask if he was a student doing some kind of project. We had to tell about 50 people what we were doing because they'd ask as they were near us in the line. Our boss thought it was hilarious that people thought my coworker looked young enough to be in 8th grade and other people thought I looked old enough to have an 8th grader. Our friends at work still sometimes jokingly ask me what grade my son is in now (referring to my coworker)

    2. One day my mentor sent me and our intern to take some measurements outside a hospital where we were prepping for a small project near the building entrance. As I headed for the door to leave the office I turned around to grab my ID for site visits. My mentor said, "eh, you shouldn't really need that." My response was "I bet you I do. I feel like I get stopped more than you guys do." While I haven't really experienced discrimination in the office or on project teams as a female in engineering, I do find that I get questioned more in the field by people that don't automatically believe me when I say I'm an engineer. Sure enough, when I started measuring things the security guard came out and asked what I was doing. When I told him I was an engineer and taking some measurements for one of the hospital's projects he responded with "you have some ID or something I can see?" As soon as he walked off the intern laughed and said he couldn't wait to go back and tell my mentor I'd been right. I have hope someday the public will catch up and won't have the mental image of an engineer as being a guy.

    3. I was tasked with going out and field confirming some sanitary sewer manhole locations in an area of the city atlas that didn't seem to be correct. My boss needed the info for a project he was putting together for a homeowner. The neighborhood is in a historic area with very pricy homes. I knocked on door after door and had no one answer. It was hot outside and eventually I quit walking back to the front door of all the houses and just walked down the easement that was along the creek behind the homes. (None of the houses had fences.) Well, one neighbor apparently saw me on a security camera, got in her car, and started following me. When I came back to the street to walk to where my car was parked, she stopped me and demanded to know who I was and what the ___ I was doing in her neighborhood because, per her words, I didn't look like I belonged there. (I was in a nice skirt, a blouse, and construction work boots.) I told her who I was and what I was doing. I even showed her the sewer atlas sheet I had with me. She asked why she should believe me and insinuated she was about to call the cops. I started to panic a little and showed her my ID and my business card. When she saw the company name said told me she knew the company founder and would be confirming with him that I was actually sent out there. On my walk back to my car I was asked by two teens with an attitude why I was on their street. I got in my car and cried out of frustration. I'd tried to do the right thing, and it didn't seem to matter. As soon as I got to the office I went straight to the CEO's office to give him a heads up about what happened. Turned out she'd already called him. Luckily he was very gracious with me. From now on I'll knock on every single door even if it is a zillion degrees out and no one is answering.

    Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
    Tulsa, OK

  • 5.  RE: When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

    Posted 10-22-2021 02:44 PM
    I was conducting speed studies on roundabout entries and exits using radar to test my theory about how different designs controlled driver speed.  I would typically set up on the shoulder a short distance from the splitter island and either stand next to my car or check speeds from the driver's seat inside.  Twice, a State Patrol officer stopped by to ask me what I was doing.  One location was on a state highway, the other was on a side street to a freeway interchange.  When I showed them my handheld radar and explained that I was a Traffic Engineer doing a study on roundabout speeds they were OK with it.  Roundabouts are ubiquitous in our state now but some still see them as a novelty.

    While I was a bit surprised by this I also found it rather comforting.  I learned that our State Patrol doesn't hesitate to check out anything out of the ordinary, even if someone is legally parked on the shoulder.  What's also funny is that I conduct speed studies on local county roads for work quite often and no one passing by even seems to care.

    Daniel Dovey P.E., M.ASCE
    Senior Engineer
    King County Dept Of Transp
    Bellevue WA

  • 6.  RE: When Civil Engineers Confront the Public

    Posted 10-25-2021 05:13 PM
    Very sorry to hear of your experience, Jay.

    Having chosen water resources (specifically water, sewer, stormwater) engineering as my specialty area, I've spent virtually all of my 30-year career in the public eye as a consultant and in the local government sector. Your experience can happen to just about anyone (part of working in the field), but as black engineers and not in any way to blame the victim, we do have to be more aware of precautions we may need to take in order to keep the public at ease, and not draw extended and/or unnecessary attention while working out of the office. For examples:

    1. If I was issued an employee ID badge (preferably with photo), I always wore it around my neck on a lanyard, or clipped on my shirt or belt loop so it's easily visible to anyone facing me. [You can create a wearable ID with a business card, and present your drivers license as needed.]
    2. If a shirt/tee-shirt was issued bearing the corporate or municipal logo/name, I'd wear it in the field.
    3. I've worn a brightly-colored traffic vest and hard-hat as substitutes or to complement the above listed strategies.
    4. When working in rights-of-way or easements, be knowledgeable of specific state statute(s) and/or municipal ordinance(s) that provide you with access authority. This could be necessary to support your activities if confronted by a police officer or other public official.
    5. If a vehicle was assigned/available and bearing the corporate or municipal logo/name, I'd drive (or ride in) that to the field instead of my or co-worker's personal vehicle.
    These, among others, should be considered standard operating procedures in order to safeguard our safety and the public's confidence. I think the key is to proactively communicate our official/academic capacity to keep the legitimately concerned or skeptically inclined members of the public at ease as much as practical. Fortunately, I've never had your experience, and glad that you found a way to keep the experience from steering you away from a profession that desperately needs greater diversity in its representation.

    Ronald Eyma P.E., M.ASCE
    Municipal Engineer/Consultant
    Plantation FL