It takes a special breed of person to become a fire investigator. Imagine having a keen analytical thirst for solving problems combined with a background in engineering and firefighting. Fire investigators often begin their careers from the back of a fire engine and move into fire detective work.
A typical day in the life of a fire investigator may start by a visit to a devastated pile of smoking rubble. Can you determine how the fire began? How did the building design or interior furnishings contribute to the spreading blaze? Was foul play involved? Later in the day, you’re on your way to testify at a preliminary hearing as part of the city’s charges against a manufacturing company that ignored prevention codes and went up in flames.
Not everyone follows the same pathway to the fire investigation field, and not all employers are looking for the same skill sets. Investigators hold federal jobs with agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). They may work for state departments of fire and safety or for a regional or county fire department. The largest number of fire investigators — 73 percent –is employed by local government, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s no secret that many fire investigators begin their careers as paid or volunteer firefighters for urban or rural fire districts. There’s no shortcut to on the-job experience, and students find that fire investigator training programs favor candidates who have already been hired in the field or who have combined some fire science training with actual firefighting. Moreover, many fire departments or firefighting organizations offer opportunities for advancement based on time served. You might as well start right now.
Your fire department may even include fire academy as part of your basic firefighter training, sending you to a regional or state school to complete initial fire science training. You’ll learn about fire causes, alarm systems, hydraulic water and sprinkler systems, firefighting tools, hazardous materials, evacuation and fire suppression.
Depending on your prospective employer, you’ll need to complete at least a two-year investigator training program to qualify for certification and/or employment. A federal agency, such as the ATF, requires new investigators to complete a four-year fire science degree before becoming an agent.
You’ll find qualified fire investigator training schools, public and private, that offer wide-ranging programs that lead to an Associate of Applied Science in Fire Science Technology. The National Fire Academy, ATF, the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) and Federal Bureau of Investigation all operate advanced schools in fire investigation.
Formal coursework combines classroom instruction with field work and research opportunities. You’ll study fire physics, research tools and data-keeping software, interrogation techniques, arson behavior, psychology, evidence gathering and labeling, fire protection, hazardous materials, forensic documentation methodology, courtroom protocol, and public service ethics. Comprehensive programs may also include emergency medical technician training and fire service vehicular operations.
Having a background in civil or mechanical engineering, law enforcement, or forensic investigation are all pluses when it comes to rounding out your skill sets. Training programs allow students to take internships or maintain present firefighter jobs to help integrate their education.
Don’t be daunted if your first job in fire investigation comes with a probationary period – it’s a common practice in public agencies. As you build experience you may want to consider earning a credential from The National Association of Fire Investigators as a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI). Begun in 1983, the CFEI credential is awarded to candidates who pass the basic exams. Advanced certifications are awarded for the Certified Fire Investigation Instructor (CFII) and Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator (CVFI).
Ongoing training is a traditional component for professional certifications and designations. For the certified fire and explosion investigators must undergo recertification training and testing every five year to maintain standing.Certifications are not limited to one organization. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers its own certification program for fire investigators – also good for five years.
Fire investigators can take specific fire science training to become a certified arson investigator. You may choose to work in the private sector, working as a risk analysis in the insurance field or a consultant who supports the building trades with up-to-date support tools and methods in fire planning, fire prevention and fire suppression.
With growth in fire investigation jobs predicted at nine percent for the 2010-2020 decade, new jobs will be competitive and the best candidates, according to the BLS, will have experience plus specialized fire inspector training.