An arson investigator studies a fire to determine how it was started, and by whom, and ultimately whether it was caused by accident or arson. To do so, the investigator will collect and analyze evidence, talk to witnesses, and attempt to reconstruct the events leading up to the fire.
The arson investigator often works for either a fire department or for law enforcement at the local or state level. Some investigators work for private companies, including insurance agencies. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 the industries that employed the most fire investigators were:
An arson investigator has a number of responsibilities. He or she will analyze the collected evidence, reconstruct the scene of the fire, work with other types of specialists, such as engineers and attorneys, and keep records of the investigation. The investigator will also testify at trial. Those who are working in the field may carry a weapon and have police powers. Employment as an arson investigator could be a great career move for those who are looking for an exciting job opportunity.
The outlook for the career is slower than it is in other career fields, growing at a rate of about 9 percent, according to the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010, there were 13,600 jobs for fire inspectors and fire investigators. By 2020, the BLS believes that the job number will increase to 14,800, an addition of 1,200 jobs. The competition for jobs in this field is high, so it is important for those who are considering a career as an arson investigator to look at methods that could help to improve their chances of landing a job in the field after training. To gain an advantage, having fire suppression training or training in criminal investigation and related fields could be a boon.
The International Association of Arson Investigators is a quality resource for those in the field and those who are interested in additional information. The organization’s site features news, career information, a training calendar, and job listings.
According to the BLS, the median wage for an arson investigator was $53,990 in 2012. Those who were in the lowest 10 percent were earning as little as $33,920 per year, while those in the top 10 percent of earners were bringing home as much as $87,400 per year. However, it is important to remember that the wage is not necessarily set in stone. The arson investigator salary always has the potential to vary based on experience, performance, location, organization, and specialization.
The shifts that an investigator works can affect the salary as well. It is common for an arson investigator to work on holidays, weekends, and in the evenings, and it is not unheard of for an investigator to work a 24-hour shift every now and again.
At a minimum, an arson investigator is going to need to have a high school diploma and experience working with law enforcement or the fire department. They will then be able to attend specialized academies and classes to supplement the on-the-job training that they receive. In some cases, a law enforcement organization or a fire department will require that someone who becomes an investigator have a minimum number of years’ experience in fire suppression or law enforcement, or have achieved a certain rank within the organization. The training in this field varies based on the state. The programs will likely consist of classroom training as well as on-the-job training. Investigators who are working in the private sector will also need to have a private investigator license in most states.
Some of the skills prospective investigators often have include great attention to detail and the ability to think critically. Great communication skills are also highly important. The ability to analyze evidence and find the cause of the fire based on that evidence is vital to the success of an investigator working in this field.
Having certification ensures competency and may help in the job hunting efforts. Investigators may want to look at the different certifications from the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA. Other organizations offering certification include the IAAI and the National Association of Fire Investigators.
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Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.