How to Become a Fire Investigator

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Fire investigators, also known as arson investigators, perform an invaluable service to society: they determine the causes of fires and, when necessary, determine whether a criminal act of arson was involved. These professionals employ both the skills of a scientist and a detective in their investigations. They work with fire departments, law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, and the criminal justice system to resolve questions surrounding how a fire started.

Fire inspectors carry an important social responsibility in their line of work since fires can involve a loss of property or even a loss of life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022), they made an average annual salary of $76,910, significantly more than the average for all occupations in the U.S.; which was $61,900 in May 2022.

So how does one become involved in this exciting career? While experience and educational requirements vary by region and organization, some common training programs and certifications can prepare prospective arson investigators for the challenges they will face. Fire investigators commonly have experience in firefighting in addition to postsecondary training. The various certifications and other recommended qualifications are covered below.

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Skills & Personality Traits of the Successful Fire Investigator

The investigation of fires requires a specialized skill set. The BLS details some of the important qualities and skills of arson investigators:

  • Communication skills: Since arson investigators must collaborate with several organizations, including fire departments, insurance companies, courts, and criminal justice institutions, they must have the ability to communicate well. They are expected to be able to explain fire code violations in clear language to property managers, in addition to interviewing witnesses after fires have taken place.
  • Analytical thinking: Fire investigators are tasked with determining the cause of fires and must be able to recognize various fire code violations or other factors contributing to a blaze.
  • Attention to detail: When determining the cause of a fire or performing an inspection, it is essential to pay attention to even small violations of codes. Therefore, being detail-oriented is an important part of this profession.
  • Honesty, integrity, and consistency: Arson inspectors must consistently apply fire codes and investigation tactics. They must also remain objective in their search for evidence and testimonies since their determinations can have legal (or criminal) ramifications.

Those interested in becoming fire investigators may find it useful to read the testimonies of people in that line of work. The International Association of Arson Investigators, Inc. boasts over 11,000 members worldwide and provides these professionals with articles, news alerts, and other resources. Furthermore, due to the important nature of the work, this site provides a community of like-minded individuals to share experiences and information surrounding the job.

Role Requirements for Becoming a Fire Investigator

Arson investigators have a range of responsibilities in their role. According to the BLS, fire inspectors commonly do the following:

  • Analyze evidence from fires and explosions (e.g., burn patterns, security videos, witness testimony, etc.) to determine the causes
  • Interview witnesses after events to get a complete picture
  • Reconstruct the scenes of fires
  • Pinpoint fire hazards
  • Ensure compliance with fire codes in buildings
  • Perform tests on various equipment such as fire alarms, sprinklers, and smoke detection systems
  • Check gas storage tanks, air compressors, and other systems that sometimes cause fires
  • Review building evacuation plans
  • Engage in follow-up visits after fire code infractions
  • Work with developers on building and emergency plans
  • Educate others on fire safety
  • Collaborate with chemists, engineers, firefighters, lawyers, and other professionals
  • Maintain detailed records including photographs, diagrams, videos, and written accounts to be used in reports and court testimonies
  • Testify in court proceedings

While many fire inspectors and investigators work normal business hours, they must be prepared to respond when fires happen, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. It is also important to note that these professionals have higher rates of injuries and illnesses than other professions. Smoke inhalation, walking on unstable structures, and other maladies can generally be avoided with caution and by wearing protective gear.

Career Outlook for the Fire Investigator Career

The BLS (2022) predicts that the demand for all fire inspectors will grow by 6 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is faster than the national average for all occupations at 5 percent (BLS). However, the BLS also notes that for fire inspectors and investigators combined, that demand is only expected to grow about 3 percent during the same decade (BLS).

On the other hand, the demand for the forest fire inspector and prevention specialist role is expected to have a 19 percent growth over that same period. The specialty that an investigator decides to pursue can have a major impact on how in demand they will be.

Fire Investigator Salaries

In addition to a strong occupational outlook, fire inspectors and investigators boast salaries that are higher than the average for occupations. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (May 2022), the 14,510 fire inspectors and investigators across the nation earned an average annual salary of $76,910.

In more detailed terms, here is a breakdown of the salary percentiles among all fire inspectors and investigators in the country (BLS May 2022):

United States
Number of professionals Employed 14,510
Annual Mean Wage $76,910
10th percentile $42,930
25th percentile $53,290
50th percentile $69,450
75th percentile $96,470
90th percentile $125,610

The national figures were slightly different according to another source of data, PayScale (July 2023), which relies on self-reported salaries. Among the fire inspectors or investigators reporting their annual salaries, PayScale found these percentiles for the US:

  • 10th percentile: $50,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $72,036
  • 90th percentile: $118,000

Interestingly, the most in-demand specialty, forest fire inspectors, also earn good salaries with a mean annual wage salary of $56,780 (BLS May 2022).

Education and Professional Licensure Requirements for Fire Investigators

There are no specific educational requirements for fire investigators. Rather, most people come to the occupation through previous work as firefighters, meaning that much of the required training happens on the job.

Certification requirements for fire investigators vary by state, but many states do require certification that covers the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. More details about potential certifications are available at the end of this article.

Steps to Becoming a Fire Investigator

According to the BLS, most fire inspectors and investigators have high school diplomas and previous experience working in fire or police departments and pursuing one of many available certifications and training programs. Here is one possible path to becoming an arson investigator:

Step 1: Graduate from high school.

According to Career One Stop, a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, only 4 percent of employed fire inspectors and investigators still need to complete high school, which means it is virtually required for any job. While in high school, students should excel in math and sciences such as chemistry and biology.

Step 2: (Optional) Attain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Some candidates may pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree in chemistry, fire science, engineering, criminal justice, or a related discipline prior to applying to police or fire academies to get some job experience. According to Career One Stop, 22 percent of these specialists have at least a bachelor’s degree, while 17 percent hold associate degrees. Prior to being hired as firefighters, many also receive training as emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

Step 3: Attend a fire academy.

Working as a firefighter is a high-intensity and high-stress job, which means thorough training to ensure fast reaction times and smart decisions is critical. Although the specifics around a fire academy differ among local departments, prospective arson investigators should be prepared to undergo this grueling training. Fire academy training will include physical and classroom work and typically requires at least 600 hours.

Step 4: Gain work experience working in a fire or police department.

Fire inspectors or investigators normally have previous work experience in a related field. This on-the-job training can range from being a volunteer firefighter or intern to being a police officer, although most do work for the fire department. Some departments may require that a police officer or firefighter achieve an elevated ranking (e.g., lieutenant or captain) to be eligible for a fire inspector position. While these requirements and recommended paths will vary by agency or region, the prospective fire inspector should receive an experiential education on the origins of fires, evacuation procedures, fire codes, fire prevention, and other specialized knowledge to be prepared for this career.

Step 5: Attend a training program to get certified.

Several arson investigator training programs prepare people for careers in this field. Some of the courses include specific training in fire investigation, research, analyses, and reporting procedures. Generally, this training is combined with fieldwork, internships, and labs. There are some specialties within the realm of fire investigation that an individual may choose to pursue, including a focus on vehicular, electrical, chemical, warehouse, forest, or other types of fires. In addition to the practical knowledge of fire prevention and analyses, these candidates will typically receive some legal training as well since they often work in conjunction with police detectives and criminal justice professionals.

Step 6: Apply for a job as a fire inspector or investigator.

In addition to completing an application and affiliated certification program, candidates generally must also pass a background check, which may include a drug test. Be sure to check the employing agencies’ specific requirements prior to applying.

Fire Inspector Certification

There are several certifications available for arson and fire investigators. Although certifications are not legally required to work in the field, some departments may prefer or even require them for employment or advancement.

The National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) offers three certifications:

  • Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI)
  • Certified Fire Investigator Instructor (CFII)
  • Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator (CVFI)

The National Certifying Board of the NAFI accredits these programs. Each of the certifications generally requires a review of candidates’ credentials, completion of an application, passing an exam, maintenance of NAFI membership, and recertification every five years. Since the CFII and CVFI certifications involve more advanced training, in addition to the requirements above, applicants will have to complete a training course. Interested applicants can consult the NAFI site for specific requirements.

Another entity that offers training programs is the U.S. Fire Administration, which has several free and paid programs available.

The International Association of Arson Investigators offers a Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI®) program. In order to attain this credential, applicants must earn at least 150 points in an evaluation of experience, education, and training, in addition to passing a proctored examination with at least a 70 percent grade. Similar to the other certifications, IAAI-CFI candidates must recertify every five years.

The National Fire Protection Association offers various training programs and certifications for arson investigators. These include:

  • Certified Electrical Safety Compliance Professional (CESCP)
  • Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFPS)
  • Certified Fire Inspector I (CFI)
  • Certified Fire Inspector II (CFI-II)
  • Certified Fire Plan Examiner (CFPE)

Finally, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Explosives and Firearms (ATF) offers a CFI certification. This certification is unique in that it is provided by a federal law enforcement agency and may better prepare candidates to qualify as witnesses in court proceedings. This two-year training program requires six weeks of courses and fieldwork covering 100 fire sites under the tutelage of an experienced CFI.

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Jocelyn Blore

Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.