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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 activities were responsible for it, then bring definitive 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 need to be conscientious and have a mind that likes to figure things out. You really can’t take shortcuts. You must take your own photos, collect the evidence, do follow up investigations. In instances of incendiary fires, you must find the criminal.”

Although lots of 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 ascertain who’s responsible for setting a fire; a fire investigator will try to determine the cause and origin of a fire. The majority of the time, fire investigators are also arson investigators, says Agent Carman, who was an ATF arson investigator for four years before becoming a fire investigator and serving on ATF’s Western National Response Team for nine decades. “Frequently arson investigators might be a police officer of ATF agent who doesn’t have the background to execute a fire investigation – an area that is becoming increasingly entangled in the science and engineering of fire behaviour,” says Special Agent Carman. The job of fire investigation is complex, challenging and intriguing – and demands a wide range of skills to perform it effectively.

“A background in mechanical, electrical, civil, as well as chemical engineering plays a huge role,” states Robert Duval, a senior fire investigator with the National Fire Protection Association. “You are looking at something which was destroyed and you have to have the ability to put it back together again in your mind or physically to ascertain the cause and origin. Technical training plays a role in determining lots of the factors in terms of fire behavior and how it attacked the structure you’re considering, whether it be an appliance, piece of equipment, or building.”

This technical aspect of the job requires knowledge of building materials and construction and the effects of fire upon those substances. Evidence preservation procedures, the effects of fire suppression, fire behavior and burn patterns are also significant technical aspects. Search techniques must also be learned in order that fire cause signs 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 element, suggests fire investigator Paul Zipper, who works in the Office of the State Fire Marshall in Massachusetts. “I’ve made 300 to 400 arrests of people who have set fires. Normally, there is a fight, an episode, and it’s the interviewing that will tell you what happened. That’s how you solve instances.”

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. At the second, someone lit a match and threw it to 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 has been started. If you can interview well and learn to read people, and mix with diagramming, investigation, photography, and report writing, you will be a fantastic fire investigator.”

In the state of New York, investigators are fire marshals who are full driven police officers (some “Fire Marshals” are fire service employees who have received police training and are sworn as “peace officers”). In Connecticut, “local fire marshals” are 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 don’t have any law enforcement powers at all! Who is a “fire marshal” may vary too much from one spot to the next to make any blanket statement. In New England and several different states, state police officers function as fire investigators on behalf of the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Because fire investigators must follow due process of law in issues like collecting evidence, search and seizure, interrogation, and courtroom testimony, police or criminal justice training is very useful.

Fire investigators may operate in either the public or private sector. Typically, those in the public sector are employed by municipalities, police or fire departments and state and federal agencies. Those working in the private sector may be employed by insurance companies, attorneys, or private origin and cause companies, or organizations like the National Fire Protection Association. In certain 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 america. The fire chief may have a fire investigator on staff. However, in some smaller communities, it might be the chief himself. Depending on the severity of the situation, the fire chief or investigator may call in more experienced county, state or federal investigators. “A prudent investigator will not attempt to work alone but will instead use a team approach,” Corry says.

The career path for getting a fire investigator might 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 in fire or police departments, gaining experience in various aspects of fire behavior in addition to criminal law, and at times in their spare time, pursuing formal education and training. At the national level, the ATF employs approximately 80 certified fire investigators who are generally called in to assist with local and state analyses 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 experience 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 by the public sector, or they may undertake an educational 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, technology, forensics, and photography courses are all useful. After graduating, you might search for job openings within insurance or investigative firms at the entrance level, and then try to work your way up. Or you might consider volunteering at your neighborhood firehouse to get a foothold in the public sector.

Virtually every fire investigator will inform you to become active in as many professional associations as possible. Trooper Horgan says researchers in his nation usually join professional organizations and then begin 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 develop credentials and a resume. Chris Porreca, group manager 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 candidates if 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 knowledge and experience,” he says. Before 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 by himself. “It requires plenty of long hours and a lot of weekends to do your job, and then to do this as well.”
While the livelihood has always been challenging, it’s become increasingly 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 seem accidental when they are intentional. This makes our task that much harder and makes you have to be an even more proficient investigator to resolve the case.”