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How To Become A Fire Investigator

Genevieve Belfiglio

Part 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.

"This 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."

Although 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.

"A 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."

This technical 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 investigation.

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."

Consider 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."

While not 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 helpful.

How To Get There

Fire investigators 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.

The career 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 fire growth.

Those seeking 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.

Virtually 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."

While the 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."

Reference Directory

(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)

The Bureau 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

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

The International 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

The National Association of Fire Investigators provides regional and national training and certification programs. Go to

The National Association of State Fire Marshals Web site posts regional training offered throughout the country. Go to

A Pocket Guide to Accelerant Evidence Collection, 2nd Edition, Massachusetts Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators. Available at

Interfire 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

The Massachusetts 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 to

A New Forensic Resource for Fire Scene Investigation

The 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.

Source: ATF, accessed at:


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