Arson and Fire Investigator: Career Guide

Arson and fire investigators examine the scenes of fires and determine the causes of the fire. Arson and fire investigators also examine the evidence present at the scene of a fire to determine if there was any criminal activity involved. Arson and fire investigators generally work for local, state, or federal law enforcement or firefighting agencies.

Arson and fire investigators with experience and a graduate degree, such as a master's degree, may move into advanced positions such as supervisor. A small number of seasoned investigators also work as self-employed consultants. Arson investigators may work for local or state governments, the ATF, or in the private sector, generally for insurance companies.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Arson and fire investigators have a number of duties. On the scene, they will collect evidence, identify any potential accelerants, and work towards determining the cause(s) of a fire. They may also interview witnesses, assist in the identification of offenders in cases of arson, and arrest suspects. Fire investigators will frequently prepare evidence for court and testify as expert witnesses, working closely with the prosecution to build a case where there is suspicion of arson or insurance fraud. Overall, these specialist investigators will possess a strong working knowledge of fires, construction, and engineering.

Steps for Becoming an Arson and Fire Investigator

Most agencies require a minimum of an associate's degree for arson investigators, who must also develop specialized training in arson detection and evidence collection methods, though many agencies require a certificate and others may require some college, but no degree.1 Federal fire investigators typically must have a minimum of a bachelor's degree. To become an arson investigator, you can expect to follow steps similar to the ones below:

  1. Attend a degree program and/or gain experience in a related field.*
  2. Become certified as a fire investigator.**
  3. Apply for an open position as a fire investigator.
  4. Be interviewed for the position.
  5. Get hired as an arson investigator.
  6. Receive on-the-job training once hired.

*Optional, depending on job. Those who wish to become an arson or fire investigator may also choose to pursue an emergency management degree. Prior experience in a related field may also help secure a job.
**Check with the requirements of the specific job opening for details.

Arson and Fire Investigator Job Training

Agencies typically require investigators to become Certified Fire Investigators (CFI) and possess specialized training. Investigators who work for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), for example, must complete two years of mandatory training, including six weeks of classroom time and the examination of a minimum of 100 fire scenes with the supervision of a seasoned CFI. Upon hire, novice arson investigators typically complete on-the-job training, working alongside a seasoned fire and arson investigator.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Arson investigators must be detail-oriented, be able to solve problems independently and with others, possess strong math skills, and be able to communicate effectively. Many arson and fire investigators start out as law enforcement officers or firefighters, to gain experience that may prove advantageous to candidates during the hiring process.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Arson Investigator
  • Fire and Explosion Investigator
  • Fire Investigator
  • Fire Marshal
  • State Fire Marshal

Arson and Fire Investigator Salary and Job Outlook

The median annual salary for fire inspectors and investigators is $60,200 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.2 Salaries for fire investigators vary depending on education, experience, and the employing agency. The BLS projects that employment for fire investigators will grow by 10%, which is faster than the national average, for the decade from 2016 to 2026.2

Related Careers

Interested in similar law enforcement careers?

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What type of hours do fire investigators typically work?

Answer: Investigators generally work full time. However, work hours may be irregular as arson investigators must go to fire scenes when a fire occurs, regardless of the time or the day of the week.

Question: In what kind of environment do arson investigators work?

Answer: Arson investigators work both in the field and in the office with a variety of people.

Question: Are there any dangers to working as a fire and arson investigator?

Answer: Arson investigators deal with more injuries and illnesses than those in other professions and they may be exposed to toxic and/or hazardous materials. Investigators must take precautions when investigating a fire scene by wearing boots, a helmet, gloves, and other protective clothing.

Question: How many arson and fire investigators work in the US?

Answer: An estimated 14,100 fire investigators were employed across the country in 2016, according to the BLS.2

Additional Resources

References:
1. O*NET OnLine, Summary Report for Fire Investigators: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-2021.02
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Fire Inspectors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/fire-inspectors-and-investigators.htm