How to Become an Arson Investigator

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An arson investigator is part detective, part fire scientist. After fires are reported and suppressed, arson investigators help determine the cause of the blaze and, if appropriate, whether criminal activity is involved. As an arson investigator you’ll coordinate your efforts with fire departments, law enforcement agencies, the courts and criminal justice system.

Following successful arson investigator training, these professionals find their careers in the public sectors of federal, state and local law enforcement or with attorneys and insurance companies embroiled in legal cases resolved the loss of life and property. The position carries exceptional social responsibilities and, for this, arson investigators may be well compensated and enjoy opportunities for advancement.

Ask any working agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (A.T.F.) or your local community fire arson team and each may tell you how to become an arson investigator for their agency. Job requirements and educational requirements may vary by region and organization. However, a common requirement held across the country calls for applicants to have a combination of firefighting experience and post-secondary firefighting or arson investigator training.

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Step One Become a Firefighter

Working as a volunteer firefighter or intern is a great way to open the door to the fire professions. As a volunteer, you’ll receive a basic education in how fires start, how to evacuate occupants, and suppress or contain the blaze. While with the department or organization you’ll learn the distinctions between fire prevention, fire investigation and fire arson investigation specialties.

Enroll in a basic firefighter course or, if accepted for recruitment, attend a school or academy that participates with your organization. You can choose between a earning a firefighter certificate, or an associates or bachelor’s degree in chemistry, fire science, engineering, or criminal justice.

Step Two Enroll in an Arson Investigator Training Program

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An arson investigator training program – unlike a basic fire course or advance investigator/inspection program – focuses directly on fire investigation, research, analysis, and reporting. It’s designed to train you for certifications and advancement in this field of forensic science and criminal investigation.

You may take classes in the court system, legal ethics, interview and testimony gathering, and criminal procedure. Field work, internships or practical experience is combined with classroom lectures and lab training. You’ll study building codes, construction materials and human behaviors that contribute to fire. You’ll learn to distinguish cause from deliberate foul play and neglect.

Some arson investigators focus on electrical fires, vehicular fires, manufacturing or industrial fires or storage and warehousing fires. Additional courses can include detection and handling of hazardous materials, emergency medical technician protocol, assessments and inventories.

Legal training is fundamental to the program. Arson investigators may work with a diverse population that includes police detectives, federal agents, forensic scientists and accountants, toxicology lab technicians, coroners, courthouse personnel, insurance investigators, banks and lenders, and property owners. An arson investigator must know about evidence protection, the rights of a suspect, and due process.

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Step Three Get a Job and Build Your Credentials

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) new jobs for fire investigators and inspectors will increase by nine percent from 2010 to 2020 based on population growth and retirement of existing personnel.

Whether you choose to work in the public or private sector, advancement is typically tied to years of service, accomplishments and milestones, and ongoing education. The National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) and the U.S. Fire Administration are among federal entities offering advanced training leading to certifications in fire inspection or investigation.

The International Association of Arson Investigators offers testing to certify a professional’s skills. The Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI) exam ranks aptitude based on education, expertise, and training. Individual states may also establish a means for re-certifying arson investigators and agents. For example, in Illinois arson investigators hold certification for three years, after which they must renew. The requirements include experience in certified ride-along-programs and successful testimony (depositions, pre-trial reports, etc.).

Salaries vary widely by employer type and regional cost of living. But entry rank can be established based on criteria of education, volunteer work, and firefighting experience. Continuing education is a vital component toward earning or renewing certifications in the field.

On a typical day on the job, you may visit a fire scene to determine the origin of a fire to determine whether flammable chemicals may have been used to accelerate burning. You’ll make drawings and measurements, gather physical evidence, and take extensive photo records. You may send samples to the lab or read lab findings from another case.

It’s not easy to resolve the tangle after a fire. But well-trained and qualified arson investigators can spell all the difference between intent and accident and help bring criminals to justice. Start on your own career path by exploring arson investigator training programs.

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