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“Learn the step-by-step process of doing a picking system fire investigation as an engineering expert”

By John D. Gaskell, Retired Consulting Engineer

Author of “The Complete Guide to FORENSIC ENGINEERING

Forensic engineering is defined by the National Academy of Forensic Engineers (NAFE) as “the application of the art and science of engineering in matters which are in, or may possibly relate to, the jurisprudence system, inclusive of alternative dispute resolution.” These engineers serve as consultants to the legal profession and as expert witnesses in courts of law.

Acceptance of Cases

Accept only cases in your field of expertise, but don’t necessarily limit them to your area of specialty. My cases as an electrical engineer included electrocutions, fires of suspected electrical origin, standard of care determinations, equipment failures, arc fault accidents, conveyor accidents, lightning strikes, and others. Yours will be different but also interesting and challenging.


The following is a narrative synopses of one of my cases. This is not intended to be a formal presentation of legal actions. No confidential or privileged information is revealed. This is simply my recollection, intended only to illustrate an expert’s typical involvement in judicial matters.

I was the chief investigator and expert witness on all of the forensic cases of Gaskell Associates, Ltd., and later those of the Gaskell Associates division of Thielsch Engineering, until my retirement. However, it was my practice to meet on each case with my senior staff to “brainstorm” the case. This often opened up avenues of investigation that had not previously occurred to me. I attribute much of my success to hiring others who are smarter than I am.

Picking System Fire

A fire occurred at an office supply distribution center while they were in the process of having a “picking system” installed. A picking system is an electronic method of identifying products that were ordered. When an order is taken from a customer, a bar code for each item is recorded. The warehouse employee then scans the order, and an LED type display lights up on each bin that includes items ordered. This speeds up the picking process.

When we arrived at the appointed time for the site portion of the fire investigation, I was surprised by the number of attendees: forensic engineers, insurance adjusters, manufacturer’s representatives, installer’s representatives, and various people from the distribution center. The sign in sheet was 2 pages long. After an extensive meeting, we were allowed to view the scene of the fire in small groups; photography was permitted, but touching was not. In the afternoon, we viewed video surveillance of the actual start of the fire. The security surveillance camera was not close, was at a bad angle, and had poor resolution. But the fire appeared to start in the vicinity of one of the picking LCD screens. However, the fire spread so fast and the damage was so extensive that there wasn’t much left. Before we left for the day, a group (representative of all parties) was designated to search through the trash. Fortunately, we were not selected.

We requested and received an exemplar of each part of the picking system, examined them, and did a few tests, to no avail. The wiring was all low voltage with proper ratings.

Shortly thereafter, we were told to stop all work on the fire investigation and to submit our bill to date. I later heard a rumor that our “trash pickers” had found a broken and burnt light bulb in the trash, and it was thought to be the cause of the fire. But I never heard an official resolution of the case. Some cases just end, without notice of the outcome. But as long as they end with a check for final payment, that’s okay.

Litigation consulting is interesting, challenging, and profitable. If what is involved interests you, I recommend adding “Forensic Engineering” to your practice as a consulting engineer.

Get Jack’s new book: The “Complete Guide” to FORENSIC ENGINEERING to learn the details. Also, the largest chapter in his book: The “Complete Guide” to CONSULTING ENGINEERING covers the “highlights” of Forensic Engineering. Visit to find out more.

Learn how to be a forensic engineer. Learn how to be a forensic expert witness. How to be an engineering expert witness. How to obtain training as a forensic engineer. How to obtain training as an engineering expert witness. Learn how to do a fire investigation.