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Arson Investigator

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 2016 the vast majority of fire inspectors and investigators were employed by local government, at 78 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.

Career Outlook for Arson Investigators

The arson investigation career, which the BLS categorizes alongside fire inspectors and investigators, is expected to grow 10 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is a bit faster than the average growth rate of all occupations, which stands at 7 percent for the same time period (BLS 2016).

In 2016, there were 14,100 jobs for fire inspectors and fire investigators. By 2026, the BLS believes that the job number will increase to 15,500, an addition of 1,400 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.

Arson Investigator Salary Data

According to the BLS, the median wage for an arson investigator was $56,670 in 2017. Those who were in the lowest 10 percent were earning as little as $34,800 per year, while those in the top 10 percent of earners were bringing home as much as $95,960 per year. As with an occupation, the salary for arson investigators can depend largely on experience, performance, location, organization, and specialization.

The shifts that an investigator works can affect 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. Overtime work can mean bonus pay in some cases.

How to Become an Arson Investigator

Unlike some professions, there is no single straightforward path to becoming an arson investigator. Following is one of the most common ways that people do pursue this particular career:

  • Step 1: Earn a high school diploma (4 years to complete): While there are no legal requirements requiring specialized education for arson investigators, a high school diploma is highly recommended to join this competitive field. In fact, according to Career One Stop, 98 percent of fire investigators have at least a high school diploma (CareerOneStop.org).
  • Step 2: Gain experience in law enforcement or with the fire department (timeline varies): Because most arson investigators work for local government, either for law enforcement or for 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 the career should also be prepared to undergo the standard law enforcement or fire department training, such as the police academy.
  • Step 3: Obtain specialized training (timeline varies): While on-the-job training is common, 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 2-year training program. The ATF program includes 6 weeks of classroom work and 100 fire scene investigations under the supervision of an ATF mentor. For those outside of 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: 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 main certification agency in this field is the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), which offers the Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI) credential.

It is clear from the above that the timeline to become an arson investigator can vary quite a bit. Indeed, some individuals may spend years working for the fire department before an arson investigation position is available. However, assuming there are positions open, a high school graduate could obtain an entry-level job in the field in a year or two, depending on local training regulations.

Investigator Education and Experience Requirements

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 20 percent of fire investigators have a bachelor’s degree and 4 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 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.

Arson Investigator Tasks and Responsibilities

Anyone considering a career in arson investigation probably wants to get a clear picture of 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 believes 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 so, the first 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 will also frequently be called to testify in court or to provide evidence for insurance companies. When there is no active investigation, a fire investigator may also be the person on the fire squad or police force that goes into the community to teach about the dangers of fire.

Arson Investigator Professional Certification

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:

  • Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI): The National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) offers this certification, which is the most widely held in the U.S. In order to obtain this certification, applicants must go through a credentials review and pass an exam.
  • Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator (CVFI): NAFI also offers specialized certification for vehicle fires. Applicants are eligible for this certification upon completing a NAFI-sponsored 36-hour course on the subject and successfully completing an exam.
  • Certified Fire Investigator: Mentioned earlier, the IAAI offers the CFI certification. In order to grant this certification, the IAAI will review the applicant’s education, training, and experience. If the applicant has sufficient documented evidence in these fields, they will be eligible to sit for the CFI exam.
  • Certified Fire Inspector I and II: The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers two levels of fire inspection certification. Level I certification requires a four-day course prior to an exam while Level II requires further experience after Level I.

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 quite helpful in seeking employment.

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