detective, scientist, engineer, and law enforcer, the fire investigator
represents the collusion of multiple careers rolled into one. It is the
fire investigator who must explore, determine, and document the origin
and cause of the fire, establish what human actions were responsible for
it, then bring authoritative testimony to the courtroom to win a conviction
in cases of arson.
isn't a job for a lazy man," says Paul Horgan, accelerant detection
canine handler and state trooper assigned to the Office of the Massachusetts
State Fire Marshal. "You have to be conscientious and have a mind
that likes to figure things out. You really can't take shortcuts. You
must take your own photographs, collect the evidence, do follow up investigations.
In instances of incendiary fires, you must find the criminal."
many people use the terms "fire investigator" and "arson
investigator" interchangeably, they are not one and the same, says
Special Agent Steve Carman, CFI in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms (ATF) Sacramento field office. An arson investigator will try
to determine who is responsible for setting a fire; a fire investigator
will attempt to determine the cause and origin of a fire. Most of the
time, fire investigators are also arson investigators, says Agent Carman,
who was an ATF arson investigator for four years prior to becoming a fire
investigator and serving on ATF's Western National Response Team for nine
years. "Frequently arson investigators might be a police officer
of ATF agent who doesn't have the background to perform a fire investigation
- an area that is becoming increasingly grounded in the science and engineering
of fire behavior," says Special Agent Carman. The job of fire investigation
is complex, challenging and intriguing - and requires a wide range of
skills to perform it effectively. Every fire investigator has a personal
perspective on what skills are needed most.
background in mechanical, electrical, civil, and even chemical engineering
plays a big role," says Robert Duval, a senior fire investigator
with the National Fire Protection Association. "You are looking at
something that was destroyed and you have to be able to put it back together
again either in your mind or physically to determine the origin and cause.
Technical training plays a role in determining a lot of the factors in
terms of fire behavior and how it attacked the structure you are looking
at, whether it be an appliance, piece of equipment, or building."
aspect of the job requires knowledge of building construction and materials
and the effects of fire upon those materials. Evidence preservation methods,
the effects of fire suppression, fire behavior and burn patterns are also
important technical aspects. Search techniques must also be learned so
that fire cause evidence and ignition sources are preserved during the
Yet it is
important not to become mired in the technical aspects of the investigation
at the expense of the human component, suggests fire investigator Paul
Zipper, who works in the Office of the State Fire Marshall in Massachusetts.
"I have made 300 to 400 arrests of people who have set fires. Typically,
there's a fight, an incident, and it's the interviewing that will tell
you what happened. That's how you solve cases."
two separate fires, both originating in a wastebasket under a sink. In
the first, someone emptied an ashtray into the can, igniting a fire from
burning ash. In the second, someone lit a match and threw it into the
trashcan in hopes of collecting an insurance claim from damages. "Both
fires originated in a trash can," says Zipper. "But I challenge
anybody to tell me how that fire was started. If you can interview well
and learn to read people, and mix that with diagramming, investigation,
photography, and report writing, you will be a good fire investigator."
all fire investigators have a law enforcement background, many do. In
the state of New York, investigators are fire marshals who are full powered
police officers (some "Fire Marshals" are fire service personnel
who have received police training and are sworn as "peace officers").
In Connecticut, "local fire marshals" are usually members of
local fire departments or work under the municipal government and get
some basic training on code enforcement and origin and cause, but who
have no law enforcement powers at all! Who is a "fire marshal"
may vary too much from one place to the next to make any blanket statement.
There are local (FD or PD), state (State Fire Marshals) and federal (Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) fire investigators. Except for the ATF
where all certified fire investigators are ATF agents, the rest of the
system can vary. In New England and a number of other states, state police
officers serve as fire investigators on behalf of the Office of the State
Fire Marshal. Because fire investigators must follow due process of law
in matters such as collecting evidence, search and seizure, interrogation,
and court testimony, police or criminal justice training is extremely
may work in either the public or private sector. Typically, those in the
public sector are employed by municipalities, fire or police departments
and state and federal agencies. Those working in the private sector may
be employed by insurance companies, attorneys, or private origin and cause
firms, or organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association.
In some states, the local fire chief has jurisdiction over the fire ground
and is ultimately responsible for determining the origin and cause of
a fire, says Robert Corry, fire investigation specialist at American Re-Insurance
Company. There are 26,354 fire departments in the US. The fire chief may
have a fire investigator on staff. However, in some smaller communities,
it may be the chief himself. Depending on the severity of the case, the
fire chief or investigator may call in more experienced county, state
or federal investigators. "A prudent investigator won't attempt to
work alone but will instead use a team approach," Corry says.
path for becoming a fire investigator may be as complex and varied as
the job itself. Fire investigators working in the public sector typically
come up through the ranks, starting out as employees or volunteers within
fire or police departments, gaining experience in various aspects of fire
behavior as well as criminal law, and sometimes in their free time, pursuing
formal education and training. These fire investigators may work either
within a municipality, county, or state office. At the national level,
the ATF employs approximately 80 certified fire investigators who are
generally called in to assist with local and state investigations of large
fire scenes. ATF investigators first serve as ATF special agents, and
then are selected to undergo a rigorous two-year training program in fire
investigation. Some undergo advanced training in highly specialized aspects
of investigation, such as computer modeling, fire sprinkler systems, and
employment in the private sector may come in from the public sector, or
they may undertake an academic curriculum on fire science or engineering,
such as those offered by the University of New Haven, University of Maryland,
Oklahoma State, or Worcester Polytechnic Institute. If you are in college
now, engineering, forensics, and photography courses are all useful. After
graduating, you might look for job openings within insurance or investigative
firms at the entry level, and then attempt to work your way up. Or you
might consider volunteering at your local firehouse to gain a foothold
in the public sector.
every fire investigator will tell you to become active in as many professional
organizations as possible. Training is available on the federal level
from ATF, the FBI, and the International Association of Arson Investigators
(IAAI), and on the state level from the state police and Fire Marshal's
Office, as well as at various local agencies. Trooper Horgan says investigators
in his state usually join professional organizations and then start to
go to some of the training offered by police departments on basic arson
investigation, attend the National Fire Academy's two-week training program
in Maryland, and start trying to build up credentials and a resume. Chris
Porreca, group supervisor of the Arson Explosives Group for the Boston
field division of ATF agrees that it requires a high degree of self-motivation
to pursue a career in fire investigation. "We ask applicants whether
they have worked fire scenes, signed up and gone to conferences on the
local, state and national level, and taken the initiative to become a
state certified fire investigator (CFI) to gain experience and knowledge,"
he says. Prior to becoming an ATF fire investigator, Porreca was certified
by the State of New York for fire investigation, which he said demonstrated
to the ATF his desire to go out and learn required skills on his own.
"It requires a lot of long hours and a lot of weekends to do your
job, and then to do this as well."
career has always been challenging, it has become even more so in recent
years. "The arsonist is becoming more sophisticated," says Trooper
Horgan. "More fires are being set up to try to fool the investigators,
to look accidental when they are intentional. This makes our job that
much harder and makes you have to be an even more proficient investigator
to solve the case."
(compiled by Tpr. Paul Zipper, CFI, for the Handbook on Firesetting
in Children and Youth, edited by David J. Kolko ISBN: 0-12-417761-1)
of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) offers training in a number of
areas, including advanced arson for profit, arson prosecution, and interviewing
at its Glenco, Georgia training facility. Regional training is sometimes
offered. For more information, go to www.atf.gov
The US Fire
Administration (USFA) offers training at the National Fire Academy in
basic fire investigation, management of arson prevention and control,
and interview interrogation and courtroom testimony at its facility in
Emmitsburgh, MD. For more information, go to usfa.fema.gov
Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) has chapters in every state
and provides training in a variety of areas, including a Fire and Arson
Career Development School. Go to www.firearson.com
Association of Fire Investigators provides regional and national training
and certification programs. Go to www.nafi.org
The National Association of State Fire Marshals Web site posts regional
training offered throughout the country. Go to www.firemarshals.org
Guide to Accelerant Evidence Collection, 2nd Edition, Massachusetts Chapter
of the International Association of Arson Investigators. Available at
VR is a CD based high-technology comprehensive fire investigation program
produced as a collaborative effort of the ATF, the US Fire Administration,
the National Fire Protection Association and American Re-Insurance Company.
The program is designed to deliver basic fire investigation skills training;
provide reference material in the form of documents and annotated photographs
and forms; and provide a virtual reality fire investigation exercise.
There is also an Interfire website that features specialized articles
on fire and arson, search engines for research, links to websites containing
recalls on dangerous products and vehicle recalls, MSDS sheets, related
training opportunities and much more. Go to www.interfire.org
Coalition for Juvenile firesetters provides a comprehensive set of training
regionally and nationally on fire investigation, interview and interrogation.
The site also provides links to additional training opportunities. Go
A New Forensic Resource for Fire Scene Investigation
ATF Fire Research Laboratory (FRL) is the first scientific research laboratory
in the United States dedicated to supporting the unique needs of the fire
investigation community. Research is crucial to understand the scientific
principles associated with fire ignition, growth and spread. This information
is critical for accurate fire scene reconstruction and to develop reliable
scientifically valid theories for effective criminal prosecutions. At
the present time, there are no fire research facilities in the United
States, or elsewhere, dedicated to the specific needs of the fire investigation
community. The FRL will provide the necessary facilities, equipment and
staff to work on important fire investigation issues such as fire scene
reconstruction, flashover studies, validation of fire pattern analysis
indicators, impact of accelerants on fire growth and spread ignition studies
and electrical fire cause analysis.
accessed at: http://www.atf.gov