An arson investigator studies a fire to determine who or what started it 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 2020, most fire inspectors and investigators were employed by the local government, at 71 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.
Read on to learn what it takes to become an arson investigator, including educational requirements, certification, and average salaries.
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Arson investigation positions, which the BLS categorizes alongside fire inspectors and investigators, are expected to grow 11 percent between 2020 and 2030. This is faster than the average growth rate of all occupations, which stands at 8 percent for the same period (BLS 2021).
In 2021, there were 17,700 jobs for fire inspectors and fire investigators. By 2030, the BLS believes that the job number will increase to 19,700, an addition of 2,000 jobs. The competition for jobs in this field is high, so it is essential for those considering a career as an arson investigator to look at methods that could help improve their chances of landing a job in the field after training. To gain an advantage over other applicants, having fire suppression training or training in criminal investigation and related fields could be a boon.
There are two professional organizations to support the field of fire investigation. The National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) includes qualified fire and explosion investigators in an international registry. In addition, NAFI offers the only certification based directly on the scientific principles of NFPA 921. This is a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and used by public sector employees and private sector professionals to determine the cause of a fire.
The International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) is an international professional organization dedicated to suppressing arson crimes. This organization offers career resources such as certification, educational program credentialing, professional development, a scholarly journal, a membership directory for professional networking, and job listings. The IAAI has more than 10,000 members in more than 70 chapter organizations worldwide.
Arson investigators earn salaries well above the national average for all occupations, currently at $56,310 (BLS May 2020). According to the BLS (May 2020), the median wage for an arson investigator was $67,680, which is more than 20 percent higher than the national average. Those in the lowest 10 percent were earning $39,860 or less annually, while those in the top 10 percent of earners were bringing home $100,780 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 evenings, and it is not unheard of for an investigator to work a 24-hour shift now and again. Overtime work can mean bonus pay in some cases.
PayScale (2022), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows similar annual salaries for fire inspectors. As of January 2022, fire inspectors earn $62,938 per year, slightly lower than the BLS data. The lowest 10 percent earn $53,000, and the highest 10 percent earn $79,000 based on 49 salaries. In addition, some positions include bonuses of up to $3,000. These salaries vary based on years of experience and levels of education.
Salaries also vary based on the cost of living in a particular location. The Missouri Economic Research Index Center (MERIC) offers a cost of living data series which ranks the affordability of living expenses in all 50 states. Interestingly, three of the top five paying states in the nation are also in the top 15 most expensive states to live.
According to the BLS (May 2020), the top five-paying states for fire inspectors and investigators are:
An increasing number of wildfires may account for higher-than-average salaries for fire investigators in the top-paying states. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), the states listed above are in the top 12 high to extreme wildfire states in 2021. Fire investigators are charged with determining whether wildfires were started by natural events like lightning storms or human causes such as campfires.
There is no single straight path to becoming an arson investigator, unlike some professions. However, the following is one of the most common ways that people do pursue this particular career:
Step 1: Earn a high school diploma (four years): While no legal requirements require specialized education for arson investigators, a high school diploma is highly recommended to join this competitive field. In fact, according to CareerOneStop (2022), 96 percent of fire investigators have at least a high school diploma.
Step 2: Gain experience in law enforcement or with the fire department (timeline varies): Because most arson investigators work for local government, either law enforcement or the fire department, gaining experience in one of these agencies will be critical. On-the-job training is quite common for arson investigators, so obtaining a position working with an experienced arson investigator is ideal.
Those who want to pursue this career should also be prepared to undergo the standard law enforcement or fire department training, such as the police academy. CareerOneStop (2022) shows the majority of fire inspectors and investigators have at least some college (30 percent), an associate’s degree (17 percent), or a bachelor’s degree (22 percent).
Step 3: Obtain specialized training (timeline varies): While on-the-job training is typical, many arson investigators also pursue specialized training outside of work hours. For example, those who want to become Certified Fire Investigators (CFIs) with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) must undergo that organization’s two-year training program.
The ATF program includes six weeks of classroom work and 100 fire scene investigations under the supervision of an ATF mentor. For those outside the ATF, prospective arson investigators may pursue less rigorous training, such as the seminars offered by the Public Agency Training Council.
Step 4: Pursue professional certification (timeline varies): After gaining some experience and education, arson investigators may choose to pursue professional certification, the details of which are listed further down on this page.
The two leading certification agencies in this field are the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), which offers the Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI) credential, and the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI), which offers the Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI) credential.
From the steps above, it is clear that the pathways to becoming an arson investigator can vary quite a bit based on education and length of experience.
As mentioned above, at minimum, an arson investigator must have a high school diploma and experience working with law enforcement or the fire department. Approximately 75 percent of fire investigators have attended college or earned a degree, according to CareerOneStop (2022):
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. 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 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 essential. The ability to analyze evidence and find the cause of the fire based on that evidence is vital to an investigator’s success 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 no such thing as a typical day for an arson investigator. Instead, there are some typical responsibilities and tasks that this type of professional will undertake regularly.
Arson investigators are not typically among the first responders to a fire. Instead, 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 evaluate the physical evidence they find and begin to conduct interviews with witnesses, including the firefighters on the scene.
Using the information they collect, a fire investigator will 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 decide whether a fire was intentionally set. The fire investigator will also point to possible suspects if arson is suspected. 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 frequently called to testify in court or provide evidence for insurance companies. When there is no active investigation, a fire investigator may be the person in a local fire department 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. Certification programs are offered through the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) and the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI).
The International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) is committed to the suppression of arson crimes through professional fire investigations and offers these certifications:
The National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) is an international organization, and its National Certification Board, the CFEI, offers the following credentials:
It is important to note that certification, in many cases, is not always required to obtain a position as a fire or arson investigator. However, due to the importance of the role and the competitiveness of the market, earning some type of certification is helpful when seeking employment.
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.