The job of a fire investigator is actually several rolled into one. At once, you are a detective, law enforcement officer and engineer. You are tasked with determining the origins and cause of a fire or explosion, and whether arson was involved. If this combination of skills appeals to you, this may be a good career path to consider. Here is an overview of what you need to know before pursuing this line of work.
What Do Fire Investigators Do?
The first thing you probably should know is exactly what you would be doing on the job. First and foremost, you are responsible for collecting and analyzing any evidence that may be present at the scene and interviewing any witnesses. You will need to reconstruct the scene to get an understanding of what happened. After evidence has been gathered, you will typically need to send some of it to labs to be checked for fingerprints and the presence of accelerants. Fire investigators work closely with lawyers, engineers and chemists to analyze information. You are responsible for documenting evidence and creating diagrams. You must keep accurate and detailed records of your investigation and evidence should you need to testify in court. Depending on where you are employed, you may have certain police powers, such as the authority to arrest someone and being able to carry a weapon.
Where Do They Work?
Fire investigators can be found in both the private and public sector. Those in the latter typically work for federal or state agencies, police departments, fire departments and municipalities. Investigators in the private sector often work for lawyers, insurance companies, private investigation firms and organizations, like the National Fire Protection Association.
Education and Experience
The path to becoming a fire investigator is actually quite varied. In the public sector, many fire investigators have worked their way up the ranks of their police or fire department, gaining knowledge and experience along the way. They may or may not also pursue formal education. In some states, working in one of these fields for a set amount of time, and possibly achieving a certain rank, is a requirement for becoming a fire investigator. As for the private sector, many fire investigators have either transitioned from the public sector or received a formal education in fire science, engineering or chemistry. At the very least, you will be required to have graduated from high school, but many employers will want candidates with a degree in one of the aforementioned disciplines.
Training and Certification
No matter what path you take to becoming a fire inspector, you will typically undergo some formal training, with the exact nature depending on the state. Regardless, there is usually a mix of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. Classroom courses typically last several months, and cover subjects such as how to conduct an investigation, courtroom procedure, legal codes, proper handling of hazardous materials and proper use of equipment. Many states have a certification exam you must pass; there are also additional certifications you may wish to pursue, from organizations such as the International Association of Arson Investigators. If you are interested in working in the private sector, you may need to have already obtained such certifications, as well as a private investigator license from your state.