Fire and Arson Investigator Career Profile

Duties, Education Requirements, and Salary Outlook for Fire Investigators

Arson investigator. Fireman investigating fire scene, with dog
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If you've ever seen the result of a house or structure fire, then you know what kind of carnage an arsonist is capable of causing. Fire brings destruction. It can be devastating to a family or business, even if no one is hurt in the process. To the untrained eye, fires cause total devastation without the slightest trace of evidence. Unless, of course, you're a fire and arson investigator.

Most states and many local governments have established some investigative body to look into incidents of fire and arson. These agencies employ specially trained inspectors and investigators to root out the causes of fires to aid in future prevention and to bring criminals to justice.

Job Functions and Work Environment

Fire and arson investigators are sworn law enforcement officers and work for state law enforcement agencies, police departments or fire departments. They are specially trained to identify and collect evidence relating to fires and make determinations as to their causes. They are also tasked with identifying potential suspects in the event they find that arson has occurred.

Fire inspectors and arson investigators may also inspect structures, homes, and businesses to ensure they meet fire safety standards and regulations to prevent or mitigate the effects of a major fire.

Investigators use a combination of crime scene investigation, interview, and interrogation techniques and knowledge of fire science to inspect scenes. They look for evidence of the use of accelerants, such as gasoline and other flammable materials, and work to identify the source, starting point and spread of fires.

The job of a fire investigator often includes:

  • Responding to and investigating fire scenes
  • Identifying and collecting evidence
  • Determining whether or not a crime has been committed
  • Writing reports
  • Identifying potential motives and suspects
  • Interviewing witnesses and interrogating suspects
  • Arresting suspects
  • Working closely with other law enforcement partners
  • Providing courtroom testimony

Arson investigators generally do not initiate investigations but respond to requests from fire departments or other law enforcement agencies in the event of suspicious fires or circumstances. They may also work for private corporations, such as insurance companies, to investigate fires in the event it has been determined no crime has occurred.

Fire and arson investigators may also work in laboratories and conduct experiments to learn more about how fires start and spread. They also study the effects of accelerants and the type of evidence they may leave, and share that information with other investigators.

Education And Skill Requirements

The minimum requirements to work as a fire and arson investigator are typically similar to those of other police officers. Fire investigator careers are among the many criminal justice careers that do not require a college education. However, in light of the scientific nature of fire investigations, a college education will be quite beneficial, particularly in criminal justice, criminology, and especially fire science or chemistry.

Because fire investigators are usually law enforcement officers, job candidates will need to attend a police academy. Some departments may sponsor academy training, while others will require candidates to obtain law enforcement certification prior to being hired. It's always best to check with your individual agency of interest for specific requirements before completing the job application.

As with other detective and investigator careers, prior law enforcement experience is preferred and may often be required. Also, veteran's preference points are often awarded and candidates with past relevant work experience, education and training will receive preference in hiring. Certifications are available from several fire investigator associations.

Employment as a fire or arson investigator will also likely require a thorough background investigation. It may include a credit check, criminal history check and perhaps even a psychological and polygraph exam.

Job Growth and Salary Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, fire and arson investigator careers are expected to grow at a rate of 9 percent through 2020. It is lower than the national rate for all occupations.

However, as with most law enforcement and other criminal justice jobs, a high attrition rate can be expected due to early retirements and resignations. Because of this, potential job candidates can expect to continue to find openings in the field.

Fire and arson investigators earn on average between $52,000 and $56,000 per year. The lowest 10 percent earn around $34,000 and the highest paid 10 percent may earn over $80,000.

Is a Career a Right for You?

Fires present special challenges to law enforcement professionals and thus require special knowledge and training. If you enjoy problem-solving and challenging puzzles and are interested in investigations, chemistry, physics, and fire science, then a job as a fire and arson investigator may be the perfect criminology career for you.