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 May 2019), they made an average annual salary of $64,730, significantly more than the average for all occupations in the U.S., $53,490.
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.
The BLS predicts that the demand for all fire inspectors and investigators will grow by 8 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than the national average for all occupations at 4 percent (BLS 2019). However, the BLS also notes that for fire investigators specifically, that demand is only expected to grow about 6 percent during the same decade (BLS 2019). On the other hand, the demand for the forest fire inspector and prevention specialist role is expected to have a 24 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.
In terms of salary, the median annual wage for a fire inspector or investigator is $61,660 with the lowest 10 percent of earners bringing in less than $38,090, and the highest 10 percent more than $96,400. Interestingly, the most in-demand specialty, forest fire inspectors, is also the lowest-paying with a median salary of just $45,270 (BLS 2019).
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.
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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:
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:
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:
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.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).