As a follow-up to the interfire.org article “How to Become a Fire Investigator” and in response to e-mails from students, this article discusses more specific information on how to pursue fire investigation as a career. First, it reviews the occupational outlook for fire investigation careers (as compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), it then suggests books to read to get a feel for the fire investigator’s job, and it concludes with a brief survey of training programs and scholarships in the fire investigation field.
What are the Employment Prospects for Fire Investigators?
Who Employs Fire Investigators?
Before summarizing the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we should first consider the variety of ways in which fire investigators are employed. Fire investigators are employed by:
- Federal government agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
- State government, such as the State Police or State Fire Marshal
- Local government and public safety agencies
- Private companies, most specifically insurance companies and private sector investigation companies
- Post-secondary educational institutions (as instructors at colleges and universities)
- Non-profit organizations such as professional associations
- Self-employment as a freelance investigator and/or consultant
Each of these employers hires fire investigators for different reasons: some investigators are employed to investigate fires on behalf of the public, others to investigate fires as part of an insurance claim investigation, others as researchers in fire science and fire investigation, and still others as instructors for educational institutions and seminars. Thus, there is a wide variety of specializations within the occupation.
In addition, not all persons responsible for determining the origin and cause of a fire hold the job title of “fire investigator.” Many fire investigations, especially in less-populated areas, are conducted by fire chiefs or fire service company officers. Therefore, the fire service (firefighting) is also a career path to becoming a fire investigator.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (United States Department of Labor) publishes the Occupational Outlook Handbook. This resource compiles the following information for many occupations:
- Nature of the Work
- Working Conditions
- Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
- Job Outlook
The occupation of fire investigator is not listed separately in the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). Therefore, this article combines information from four related occupational categories to assist you in determining the prospects for a career as a fire investigator. These occupations are:
In addition, Private Detectives and Investigators may be of interest if self-employment or employment in the private sector is an option you are considering. However, the OOH summary for this job category focuses on other forms of private investigation, not fire investigation.
- Firefighting Occupations
- Police and Detectives
- Claims Adjusters, Appraisers, Examiners, and Investigators
- Science Technicians (more specifically, Forensic Science Technicians)
The occupation of Fire Investigator is specifically mentioned in the OOH entry for Firefighting Occupations. The entry reads:
“Some firefighters become fire investigators, who determine the origin and causes of fires. They collect evidence, interview witnesses, and prepare reports on fires in cases where the cause may be arson or criminal negligence. They often are called upon to testify in court.”
This accurately describes one common path to the career of fire investigator. The description of Working Conditions for Firefighting Occupations also accurately describes what most fire investigators encounter: risk of death or injury from debris and collapse; contact with poisonous, flammable, or explosives gases and chemicals, and hazardous materials that may have immediate or long-term effects on the investigator’s health. In addition, work hours can be longer than average and irregular, depending on the duty schedules of the employer. Many fire investigators are also “on call,” and can be called to duty at any time when a fire needs to be investigated. Extra hours may result from emergency situations.
The Employment description for Firefighting Occupations covers only paid firefighters, not volunteers (who constitute the majority of the nation’s firefighters: according to NFPA, there were 1,078,300 firefighters in the United States in 2001, of which 73%, or 784,700, were volunteer). Paid career firefighters held 258,000 jobs in 2000. First-line supervisors held about 62,000 jobs and fire inspectors held about 13,000. More than 90% of firefighters worked in municipal or county fire departments. The remainder worked for federal and state installations, such as airports. The OOH does not separate out employment numbers for fire investigators.
The most recent published study that provides statistics for the number of fire investigators in the United States is The National Fire Academy Training Audience Study, released in November 1988. This document estimates that there were 2,900 career (commissioned, uniformed, and salaried) fire investigation personnel at that time. Fire Service Investigators were defined as those "who analyze fire causes and origin, including arson and legal follow-up activities." This number includes only career fire service, not volunteer departments, allied professionals, insurance investigators, or private fire investigators. The same study also counted 600 Police in Hazmat and Arson (defined as "assigned to arson to conduct criminal investigations of arson cases."). Sources contacted for this article (USFA, NFPA, IAAI, and NAFI) could not provide updated statistics for the number of fire investigators in the United States. However, professional association memberships can give us estimates. The International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) has 7500 members worldwide.
The Job Outlook for Firefighting Occupations in the OOH, describes “keen competition for available job openings.” This judgment is based on the fact that Firefighting Occupations are challenging, provide a public service, do not require completion of post-secondary education, and provide a guaranteed pension upon retirement (usually after 20 years of service). Employment of firefighters is expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2010, due to competition among public safety agencies for funding. Job growth is expected from conversion of volunteer to paid positions and replacing retiring firefighters. Layoffs of firefighters are uncommon. There was no separate outlook for fire investigators.
The Earnings for Firefighting Occupations does list specific information for fire investigators. In 2000, the median annual earnings of fire inspectors and investigators were $41,630. The middle 50% earned between $31,630 and $53,130 a year. The highest 10% earned more than $65,030. Fire inspectors and investigators employed in local government earned about $44,030 in 2000.
Police and Detectives
Other occupations, besides the fire service, provide a career pathway to fire investigator. The most common of these is law enforcement, called Police and Detectives in the OOH. State troopers, and local detectives and investigators may be assigned to special fire investigation units or task forces. Sometimes, they may be called “arson investigators,” a term which implies the further investigation of a fire that has been determined to be incendiary. In addition, some federal law enforcement officers, such as special agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are fire investigators. Overall, Police and Detectives held about 834,000 jobs in 2000. About 80% were employed at the local level, 13% at the state level, and 6% at the federal level. No specific statistics were given for law enforcement officers who are fire investigators. The career path for law enforcement, including civil service regulations and examinations, are pre-requisites before initiating a fire investigation specialty. Applicants for special agent positions with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives must have a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of three years’ related work experience. Employment of police and detectives is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2010, driven by security concerns. In 2000, the median annual earnings of detectives and criminal investigators were $48,870. Federal agents receive the applicable GS grade salary, plus law enforcement availability pay (LEAP), equal to 25% of the agent’s grade and step-awarded (due to the overtime required in the job).
Claims Adjusters, Appraisers, Examiners, and Investigators
The insurance industry also employs fire investigators. Rather than a public sector job, the insurance industry employs fire investigators to examine scenes that are the subject of an insurance claim. When adjusters or examiners suspect a claim might involve fraud, they refer the claim to an investigator. These investigators work in the insurance company’s Special Investigative Unit (SIU). Many of the fire cases referred to the SIU are suspected cases of arson, where the insured party deliberately set the fire and/or hired someone to do so.
Investigators will often conduct their own origin and cause determination (separately from any public sector investigation), take a recorded statement from the insured, review documents and records, search databases, interview witnesses, and consult the public sector fire investigator. If the insurance investigator determines that a fire claim does involve fraud, the insurance company may deny the claim.
Claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators held about 163,000 jobs in 2000. Two percent of adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators were self-employed. No separate employment figures were given for insurance investigators alone. The OOH states that “most insurance companies prefer to hire former law enforcement officers or private investigators as insurance investigators. Many experienced claims adjusters or examiners can also become investigators.” Employment for Claims Adjusters, Appraisers, Examiners and Investigators is expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2010. The OOH states that “Many insurance carriers are downsizing their claims staff in an effort to contain costs.” With respect to insurance investigators:
“Demand for insurance investigators should grow along with the number of claims in litigation and the number and complexity of insurance fraud cases. Competition for investigator jobs will remain keen, however, because this occupation attracts many qualified people, including retirees from law enforcement and military careers. Many claims adjusters and examiners also choose to get their investigator license.”
Earnings of this occupational group “vary significantly.” In 2000, median annual earnings for claims adjusters, examiners and investigators in the fire, marine, and casualty insurance industry was $45,060.
The OOH category of Science Technicians encompasses a wide range of science topics, including food science, biological science, chemical science, and nuclear science. It also includes forensic science technicians, who investigate crimes by collecting and analyzing physical evidence. At the fire scene, forensic science technicians often work with the fire investigator to collect evidence, then test it in the lab. Fire scene evidence most often includes accelerant evidence and trace evidence. As technology advances, fire investigation is becoming increasingly intertwined with forensic science.
In 2000, there were 6400 forensic science technicians in the United States. They work primarily for State and local governments, but are also employed by Federal agencies (such as the ATF’s National Laboratory Center) and private laboratories. In 2000, forensic science technicians made a median hourly wage of $18.04. Two- and four-year post-secondary programs train science technicians. For a list of undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs in forensic science, contact the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (www.aafs.org). Jobs for forensic science technicians are expected to grow slowly. Employment prospects may be more favorable at the State level if the number of qualified applicants remains low.
Complete OOH Entries
The complete Occupational Outlook Handbook entries used in this review can be accessed from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as follows:
Where Do I Start?
What if you aren’t sure you are committed to fire investigation as a career? How can you investigate the occupation before you invest time and money in a training program? Consider reading some of the top fire investigation textbooks to understand the duties and requirements of the job:
- Kirk’s Fire Investigation. 5th Edition. DeHaan, John D., Ph.D. ISBN 0130604585. January 2002. Considered by many to be the “bible” of fire investigation, this comprehensive textbook is used in many classrooms and considered by many to be “required reading.” Available from most retail booksellers.
- NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations 2001 Edition. The second “bible” for fire investigators, this document was developed to provide investigators with practical guidance based on accepted scientific principles or scientific research. A must for all fire investigators. Available from NFPA (www.nfpa.org).
- NFPA 1033: Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator. Identifies the professional levels of competence required for fire investigators. This document will help you understand the duties of the job and the skills and knowledge required. Available from NFPA (www.nfpa.org).
- Principles of Fire Behavior. Quintiere, James G. ISBN 0827377320. 1997. Explains the chemistry of fire and fire behavior, including heat transfer, ignition, flame spread, and burning rate. Available from most retail booksellers.
- Investigation of Motor Vehicle Fires, Fourth Edition. Cole, Lee S. The seminal work in the investigation of motor vehicle fires. Available from Lee S. Cole and Associates (www.lsc-associates.com)
- Pre-Course Reading Materials for National Fire Academy Arson Courses. These documents are pre-course readings for students enrolling in arson courses at the national fire academy. Available to download from http://www.usfa.fema.gov/fire-service/nfa/courses/oncampus/nfa-on7.shtm.
- Fire Investigator. IFSTA (International Fire Service Training Association). This IFSTA manual provides fire investigators with information, data, and resources linked to job performance requirements (JPRs) for fire investigators as defined in NFPA 1033, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator. Available from the IFSTA web site (www.ifsta.org).
- Introduction to Fire Origin and Cause. IFSTA. Assists the company officer and firefighter in making origin and cause determinations. Available from the IFSTA web site (www.ifsta.org).
Where Do I Train?
Fire investigators take their initial training at national training programs, state fire academies, and community colleges. Completion of an accredited or certification program may be a requirement for employment. Retraining, seminars, and recertification can also be taken from professional organizations such as NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), IAAI (International Association of Arson Investigators), NAFI (National Association of Fire Investigators, and many other organizations.
There are many excellent fire investigation training courses and programs, including ones leading to certification, as well as topic-specific and shorter duration seminars. The United States Fire Administration publishes the Fire/Arson Investigation Training Catalog (document # FA-131), a comprehensive listing of state and national fire investigation training courses. This publication is available at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-131.pdf.
In addition, follow these links to some of the top national training programs in the United States:
Most State Fire Academies offer fire investigator training courses, which may be required in your state. Besides the Fire/Arson Investigation Training Catalog list from USFA, try the National Association of State Fire Marshals’ list of State Fire Marshal web sites (http://www.firemarshals.org/links/sfmsites.html) or USFA’s State Points of Contact for fire service training (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/fire-service/pocs/st_pocs.shtm).
Finally, many community colleges offer fire investigation training courses and programs. Consult the community colleges in your area for more information and course offerings.
Before taking a training course, consult the job requirements of the employment you are pursuing and ensure that the course will fulfill those requirements.
Scholarships are available for students pursuing a fire investigation career. Two national sources of scholarships include NFPA (http://www.nfpa.org/Education/Scholarships/Awards/Scholarships_Awards.asp) and the John Charles Wilson Scholarships offered by IAAI (http://www.firearson.com/ef/jcwscholar/index.asp). Many local and state organizations also offer scholarships for the fire services occupations, many in honor of beloved public servants who have passed away. Search the web for “fire investigation scholarship” or “fire service scholarship.” Good luck!