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A career investigating arson makes for a varied and exciting workday. The primary responsibility of an arson or fire investigator is to decipher how a fire occurred and why. To become an arson investigator, a person needs knowledge of forensic evidence techniques, engineering, the scientific aspects of fire behavior, and investigative skills. The investigator may work for a private insurance company, an attorney, or public service agencies such as a fire department or federal agency.
Someone who wants to become an arson investigator will need formal training. Degree programs in fire science are available at universities. Programs include subjects such as fire behavior, fluid mechanics, analysis and practical simulations in lab settings. Structural engineering, chemistry, criminal law, photography, and forensic evidence techniques are also courses worth taking. Most agencies look for someone with at least an associate's degree.
People skills are a great asset for someone who wants to become an arson investigator. Law enforcement training includes interviewing and interrogation techniques for good reason. Arson investigators often speak with witnesses and owners of damaged property, searching for possible motivations for arson or everyday practices that could have started the fire accidentally. Investigators also benefit from training in trial and deposition preparation as well as courtroom demeanor in case they have to testify.
Once the investigator is on the job, extended training will be necessary. From simple accelerants to complex remote ignition devices, technology used in fire-setting is as varied as the arsonists themselves. Continued education seminars and conferences in court preparation, hazardous material (HAZMAT) training, and updated evidence collection keep investigators' skills sharp. Careful collection of evidence and attention to chain of custody procedures ensures a solid case.
To become an arson investigator in the private sector means working for an attorney, private forensic consulting firm, or an insurance company. Many people commit arson for the purpose of collecting insurance, so the arson investigator's role is important in preventing fraudulent claims. Most arson investigators work with fire or police departments. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) employs around 80 full-time certified fire investigators whose expertise is called on in both federal and local fire scenes.
Local and state investigators usually volunteer at first, then pursue formal training on their own while learning at the feet of more experienced personnel. Hopeful candidates can obtain voluntary certifications by joining professional organizations like the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) and in the US, the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI). Arsonists are inventive and trends in any crime change over time, affording those who would like to become an arson investigator numerous opportunities for a career in this field.
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