An arson investigator studies a fire to determine how it was started, and by whom with the ultimate goal of determining whether a fire was an accident or arson. To accomplish this goal, 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 (BLS), in 2019, the vast majority of fire inspectors and investigators were employed by local government, at 76 percent.
An arson investigator has a number of responsibilities, including the analysis of collected evidence from the scene of a fire, reconstruction of the scene and collaboration with other types of specialists, such as engineers and attorneys. Additionally, arson investigators may be called to testify at trials.
The arson investigation career is well-suited to those who are fascinated by the investigatory process, highly analytical, and able to work with and communicate well with other professionals. Employment as an arson investigator could be a great career move for those who are looking for an exciting job opportunity.
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The arson investigation career, which the BLS categorizes alongside fire inspectors and investigators, is expected to grow 10 percent between 2018 and 2028, which is a bit faster than the average growth rate of all occupations, which stands at 5 percent for the same time period (BLS 2019).
In 2018, there were 15,200 jobs for fire inspectors and fire investigators. By 2028, the BLS believes that the job number will increase to 16,500, an addition of 1,300 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 (May 2019), the median wage for an arson investigator was $61,660. Those who were in the lowest 10 percent were earning $28,090 or less annually, while those in the top 10 percent of earners were bringing home $89,710 or more per year. As with most occupations, the salary for arson investigators can depend largely on experience, performance, location, organization, and specialization.
The shifts that an investigator works can affect salaries 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. Overtime work can mean bonus pay in some cases.
Unlike some professions, there is no single straight-forward path to becoming an arson investigator. Following is one of the most common ways that people do pursue this particular career:
From the steps above, it is clear to see that the pathways to becoming an arson investigator can vary quite a bit.
As mentioned above, at a minimum, an arson investigator must have a high school diploma and experience working with law enforcement or the fire department. Around 40 percent of fire investigators have a bachelor’s degree and 24 percent have a master’s degree (CareerOneStop.org). After completing their academic education, those interested in arson investigation 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 demonstrated great attention to detail and the ability to think critically. Clear 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.
Anyone considering a career in arson investigation is likely curious to know what the day-to-day experience of this career looks like.
As with any job in law enforcement or the fire department, there is really no such thing as a typical day for an arson investigator. Instead, there are some common responsibilities and tasks that this type of professional will undertake on a regular basis.
Arson investigators are not typically among the first responders to a fire. Rather, these specialized investigators are notified of a situation when other firefighters or law enforcement suspect the fire may have been intentionally set. Once on the scene, investigators will both evaluate the physical evidence that they find and begin to conduct interviews with witnesses, including the firefighters on the scene.
Using the information they collect, a fire investigator will try to reconstruct the fire, including how and where the first started, whether any accelerant was used, and how the first likely spread. With these details, they will make a determination as to whether a fire was intentionally set. If arson is suspected, the fire investigator will also point to likely suspects. As with any law enforcement or government occupation, arson investigators are expected to keep thorough records of their process and their findings in the form of reports.
In addition to their work at the scene of a potential arson case, investigators are also frequently called to testify in court or to provide evidence for insurance companies. When there is no active investigation, a fire investigator may be the person on the fire squad or police force that goes into the community to teach about the dangers of fire.
Arson investigators who want to be competitive in their field and establish their expertise may choose to seek professional certification. There are a number of certification programs available in the field, including:
It is important to note that certification, in many cases, is not absolutely required to obtain a position as a fire or arson investigator. However, due to the importance of the position as well as the competitiveness of the market, earning some type of certification can be helpful in seeking employment.
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).