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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, whether a criminal act of arson was involved. These professionals employ both the skills of a scientist and those of a detective in their investigations. They work in conjunction with fire departments, law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, and the criminal justice system to resolve questions surrounding how a fire got started. Since fires can involve a loss of property or even a loss of life, fire inspectors carry an important social responsibility in their line of work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017), they made an average annual salary of $62,260, significantly more than the average for all occupations in the U.S., $50,620.

 

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

Outlook for the Fire Investigator Career

The BLS predicts that the demand for all fire inspectors and investigators will grow by 10 percent between 2016 and 2026 (BLS 2017). However, the BLS also notes that for fire investigators specifically, that demand is only expected to grow about 7 percent. On the other hand, the demand for the forest fire inspector role is expected to have a 27 percent growth over that same period. Clearly, the specialty that an investigator decides to pursue can have a major impact on how in demand they will be.

In terms of salary, the median annual wage for a fire inspector or investigator is $59,260 with the lowest 10 percent of earners bringing in less than $34,800, and the highest 10 percent more than $95,960. Interestingly, the most in-demand specialty, forest fire inspectors, is also the lowest paying with a median salary of just $37,380.

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 in addition to 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.
  • Step 2: (Optional) Attain an associate or bachelor’s degree. Some candidates may pursue an associate or bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, fire science, engineering, criminal justice, or a related discipline prior to applying to police or fire academies to get some job experience. 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 both physical and classroom work and typically requires at least 600 hours of time.
  • 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) in order 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. There are several arson investigator training programs that 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 a number of 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)

 

These programs are accredited by the National Certifying Board of the NAFI. 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. There are several free and paid programs available including witness interviewing techniques, code administration fundamentals, and fire protection.

 

The International Association of Fire Investigators offers a Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI®) program. In order to attain this credential, applicants must do 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 I (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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