Meet the Experts: Q & A with Gary Woodall, P.E., CFEI

Q: What are the most common misconceptions people have about electricity?

GW: I think one of the big issues is that because people can’t see electricity, they have a hard time understanding what it is.  Also, most people don’t realize that it doesn’t take much electrical current to kill a person—just 10 milliamps will prevent a person from letting go of an object. I also think most people don’t think about the danger of wet feet when dealing with electrical- electrocution because of wet feet can easily happen.

Q: What are some of the most common things that go wrong with electrical in residential, commercial or industrial settings?

GW: In residential settings, we see a lot of problems with high resistance connections in receptacles, power strips, and people leaving an electrical range on which leads to a fire. Recessed lighting can be a big issue because it keeps heat in; this can cause the cellulose insulation covering it to get too hot and cause a fire in the attic. In commercial and industrial settings we also see high resistance connections go bad, improper protection, or circuit breakers that are too large. Also, in industrial settings sometimes you have these huge machines causing vibrations which can cause wiring to short out. Lightning and power surge are also two big issues. Manufacturing equipment is computerized; if it’s not protected from surges a lot of damage can be done.

Q:  What are the benefits of having an electrical engineer inspect a fire scene and how do EEs collaborate with FIs?

GW: Typically an FI will go to a fire scene initially and see what’s involved. A high percentage of fires involve electrical wiring, appliances or lighting that has to be included or excluded as a cause of the fire. EEs and FIs will often discuss the area of origin and look for potential causes there. We also work together to determine which evidence needs to be secured. EEs are necessary if there is subrogation potential—there is almost always electrical involved in some way. Also EEs are qualified experts suited to testify in court if the case involves electrical issues or electrical appliances.

Q:  What led you to pursue a career in electrical engineering?

GW: It started off when I was very young. I made a motor using nails, electrical tape and copper wire—that started off my curiosity about electrical things. I grew up on a small farm where we did everything ourselves, including wiring things, so I picked it up there too. I thought electrical was interesting.

Q: What is a skill set or qualification you possess that we won’t find listed on your resume?

GW: Curiosity. I want to know what the cause is; I want to get down to the bottom of it. I really like the investigation aspect of forensic engineering.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

GW: I really enjoy mentoring younger professionals. I’m at the stage of life where I want to see others succeed.

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