Paths to Becoming a Fire Investigator

Posted: January 30, 2012 in Fire Investigation
Tags: , , ,

by: Jason A. Sutula

Fire Investigation Water HeaterAs with all professional roles in today’s workplace, determination is the key to developing the skills necessary to fulfill that role. Becoming a fire investigator is no different, even though there are several paths up the mountain to achieve the final goal. In short, these paths lead through the realms of the Fire Service, Law Enforcement, the Insurance Industry, and Engineering/Consulting.

The Realms of Fire Investigation Employment

Working as a firefighter for your local fire department is a natural path into fire investigation. Depending on the jurisdiction, funding, and need, a small percentage of firefighters can seek out or will be given the opportunity to advance into a fire investigation role. This typically includes both training on the job and via a classroom setting (e.g., at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa). Once an individual has completed the training and other state or local requirements, employment opportunities can be found at either the city or state level. Large metropolitan cities will often have the resources to support a Fire Investigation Bureau and every state will have a Fire Marshal’s Office that employs fire investigators.

A career in law enforcement can also lead into fire investigation. Most states and large municipalities will have a special division tasked with investigating fires of a “suspicious nature.” These divisions can go by various names such as “arson unit” or “arson task force.” The investigators that work in these divisions will sometimes be called “Arson Investigators,” which is a bit of a misnomer in the field of fire investigation and will be discussed more in a separate post.

In addition to local and state law enforcement agencies, fire investigators are also employed by the federal government. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (www.atf.gov) fields special agents who are educated and trained in fire investigation. These agents will routinely investigate suspicious large fire losses that garner national attention as well as fires with large loss of life or injuries.

The insurance industry is another entity with a need for qualified fire investigators. Working at the local, state, or federal level within the fire service or law enforcement is considered the “Public Sector.” Fire investigators hired by the insurance industry are considered part of the “Private Sector.” Insurance companies fund special investigative units in-house that provide fraud protection to the company. Fire investigators employed within the special investigative unit will help adjusters and examiners, who may become suspicious that a fire loss claim is fraudulent.

Also within the private sector are engineering/consultant firms that specialize in fire investigation. These companies can range from one-man operations to organizations employing hundreds of specialized investigators with unique skill sets, education, and training. Often, these operations provide fire expert and fire litigation services to attorneys, insurance adjustors, and other product corporations who may be involved in active litigation or are interested in minimizing the fire risk associated with a process or product.

Choose Your Path

All of the paths to becoming a fire investigator involve some combination of on the job training mixed with formal education beyond high school. The percentage of each component varies based on the whether an individual choses to start in the fire service, law enforcement, or college curriculum.

Becoming a fire investigator through the fire service typically requires the least amount of formal education beyond high school, but will require the greatest amount of on the job training. To follow this path, an individual must first become a firefighter and work in the field for several years before a potential opportunity opens to advance to the level of fire investigator. Once tapped to become a fire investigator, further training courses will be necessary (i.e., at the National Fire Academy) before gaining the required skills necessary to perform the role.

A second path is through law enforcement. This path requires more formal education prior to applying for employment. Most jurisdictions require applicants to be at least 21 years of age and have 1 to 2 years of college level curriculum on their resumes. In some locales and at the federal level (i.e., the ATF), a four-year degree is a minimum requirement for employment. Once employed as a police officer or ATF agent, a similar work experience period as seen in the fire service is required before an individual can be trained to work as a fire investigator.

A third path involves attending a four-year college and specializing in a major that will lead into forensic work as a fire investigator. One example of this is to apply to the Fire and Safety Department of Eastern Kentucky University (www.fireandsafety.eku.edu), which offers a four-year degree in Fire, Arson and Explosion Investigation. A second example is to consider a Fire Protection Engineering Program at either the University of Maryland, College Park (Department of Fire Protection Engineering, www.enfp.umd.edu) for a four-year undergraduate engineering degree and/or two-year Master of Science Degree or Worcester Polytechnic Institute (www.wpi.edu/academics/Depts/Fire) for a two-year Master of Science Degree. Attending college level program such as these has the added benefit of providing a firm knowledge base for meeting the requirements of NFPA 1033 – Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator (More on this standard in the next post). After finishing any of these degree programs, an individual will be able to approach engineering consulting firms that do fire forensic work and insurance agencies to apply for an entry level position.

Next post, I will focus on how the above paths build a foundation of knowledge that is necessary for the fire investigator to fully conduct his or her job. The required fundamental knowledge base of our field is presented in NFPA 1033 and will be discussed in more detail along with the current certification process for fire investigators.

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Comments
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  2. Lexi says:

    Forgot to mention, University of New Haven has a 4-year Bachelor’s degree in Fire Science with concentrations in Administration, Arson/Investigation, or in Technology. They also have a Fire Protection Engineering major.

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