It’s the fire investigator who must explore, determine, and document the source and cause of the fire, establish what human activities were responsible for it, then bring definitive testimony into the Critter Control 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 have to be conscientious and have a mind that likes to figure things out. You really can not take shortcuts. You have to take your own photographs, collect the evidence, do follow up investigations. In instances of incendiary fires, you must discover 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 at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) Sacramento field office. An arson investigator will try to determine who’s responsible for setting a fire; a fire investigator will attempt to determine the cause and origin of a fire. Most of the time, fire investigators are also arson investigators, says Agent Carman, who was an ATF arson investigator for four decades before becoming a fire investigator and serving on ATF’s Western National Response Team for nine years. “Frequently arson investigators might be a police officer of ATF agent who doesn’t have the background to perform 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 complicated, intriguing and challenging – and demands a wide selection of abilities to perform it effectively.
“A background in mechanical, civil, electrical, as well as chemical engineering plays a big role,” says Robert Duval, a senior fire investigator with the National Fire Protection Association. “You are looking at something that was destroyed and you have to have the ability to put it back together again in your mind or physically to determine the cause and origin. Technical training plays a role in determining lots of the factors concerning fire behavior and how it attacked the structure you’re looking at, whether it be an appliance, piece of equipment, or building.”
This technical feature of the job requires knowledge of building materials and construction and the effects of fire upon those substances. Evidence preservation methods, the effects of fire suppression, fire behaviour and burn patterns are also important technical aspects. Search techniques must also be learned in order that fire cause signs and ignition sources are preserved during the investigation.
Yet it’s important not to become mired in the technical facets of the investigation at the expense of the human component, suggests fire investigator Paul Zipper, who works in the Office of the State Fire Marshall in Massachusetts. “I have made 300 to 400 arrests of people who have set fires. Normally, there’s a fight, an episode, and it’s the interviewing that will tell you what happened. That’s how you solve cases.”
Consider two separate fires, both originating in a wastebasket under a sink. Initially, someone emptied an ashtray into the can, sparking 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 the way that fire was started. If you can interview well and learn how to read people, and mix with diagramming, investigation, photography, and report writing, you will be a good fire investigator.”
In the state of New York, investigators are fire marshals that are full driven police officers (some “Fire Marshals” are fire service personnel who have received police training and are ensured as “peace officers”). In Connecticut, “local fire marshals” are usually members of local fire departments or work under the municipal government and get some basic training on code enforcement and source and cause, but who don’t have any law enforcement powers in any respect! Who is a “fire marshal” may vary too much from one place 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 matters like collecting evidence, search and seizure, interrogation, and courtroom testimony, police or criminal justice training is extremely helpful.
How To Get There
Fire investigators may operate in either the private or public sector. Usually, 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 firms, 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 the US. The fire chief may have a fire investigator on staff. However, in some smaller communities, it may be the chief himself. Depending on the severity of the case, the fire chief or investigator may call in more experienced county, state or federal researchers. “A prudent investigator will not try to work independently but will rather use a team approach,” Corry says.
The career path for getting a fire investigator may be as complex and diverse as the job itself. Fire investigators working in the public sector typically come up through the ranks, starting out as employees or volunteers in police or fire departments, gaining experience in various facets of fire behavior as well as criminal law, and sometimes in their spare time, pursuing formal education and training. These fire investigators may work either within a municipality, county, or state office. At the national level, the ATF employs approximately 80 certified fire investigators who are generally called in to help with state and local analyses of high 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, engineering, forensics, and photography courses are all useful. After graduating, you might search for job openings within insurance or investigative firms at the entry 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 tell you to become active in as many professional organizations as possible. Coaching is available on the federal level from ATF, the FBI, and the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), and on the state level from the state police and Fire Marshal’s Office, as well as at various local agencies. Trooper Horgan says researchers in his state usually join professional associations and then start to visit 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 begin trying to develop credentials and a resume. Chris Porreca, group manager of the Arson Explosives Group for the Boston area branch of ATF agrees that it requires a high level of self-motivation to follow 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 be a state certified fire investigator (CFI) to gain knowledge and experience,” he says. “It requires plenty of long hours and a great deal of weekends to do your job, and then to do this as well.”
While the career has always been challenging, it has become even more so in recent decades. “The arsonist is becoming more sophisticated,” says Trooper Horgan. “More fires are being set up to try to fool the investigators, to look accidental when they are intentional. This makes our task that much harder and makes you’ve got to be an even more skillful investigator to solve the case.”