The epic flood of 2008 in Cedar Rapids provided this civil engineer a once-in-a-lifetime (I hope) experience. The days immediately following the flood were ones of disruption and figuring out a new reality on the fly. Projects that were priorities on Wednesday, June 11, were far down the priority list the next day.
Early the next week, I was working temporarily out of a local community college extension facility. I really did not have much to do. Imagine my excitement when word circulated that they needed a ”civil engineer” to look at a downtown vault. My turn had come!
A network of underground electrical vaults served the downtown business district of Cedar Rapids. One vault was separated from a major bank by a concrete block wall, which had collapsed into the bank basement during the flood. My utility needed to know if the vault was structurally safe before starting repairs.
This would be my first trip to the flood zone since the waters receded. The smell and destruction were unforgettable. I arrived at the vault. I put on the fall prote ction harness, my work boots and hard hat, and held my portable flashlight. Down I went. I investigated the damage and discussed the situation with the utility foreman and the bank building manager. We quickly determined that some temporary shoring would be sufficient to ensure a safe work space. It was structurally sound. My work on that project was finished.
As an aside, on the drive back to the office, I realized they had not connected any rope to my harness. What would they have done had I been overcome while in the vault? I can only assume they had a harpoon in the line truck, so my fears were unfounded.
This story illustrates the black and white of engineering, but also the gray. The distinction between a civil license and a structural license, and the appropriate practice of each, can be fuzzy. Most civil engineers receive considerable training in structural engineering. Yet, practicing as a structural engineer requires increasing competency in understanding and applying a growing assortment of codes and standards specific to the practice of civil engineering.
The paths to practicing as a structural engineer are varied. Some practicing civil engineers, by training and experience, are licensed as structural engineers. Some are licensed by successfully completing an eight-hour structural licensing exam. Others are licensed because they’ve passed the latest two-part, two-day, sixteen-hour structural exam as administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). The purpose of this exam is to protect the health, welfare and safety of the public.
The practice of structural engineering faces challenges due to the following:
- The previously described variety in paths to licensure
- Fewer than half the states have specific structural engineering licensure
- Among states that do, requirements are not the same
- Continuing education requirements, if they even exist in some states, are not the same
As a result of these challenges and confusion, the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations (NCSEA) has created its own certification process to help ensure that engineers have the appropriate qualifications to practice structural engineering and structural integrity. The purpose of this certification is also to protect the health, welfare and safety of the public.
Are you confused yet? Or, as my high school math teacher frequently asked, ”Clear as mud?”
Until the national licensing issues are clarified, my best advice is to comply with the unchanging ethical requirement of any licensee. That is to practice only in the disciplines in which you are genuinely competent.
And while you’re appropriately practicing, I am going to do more research on harpoons.