It’s the fire investigator who must research, determine, and document the source and cause of the fire, establish what human activities were responsible for it, then bring definitive testimony into the court to win a conviction in cases of arson.
“You need to be conscientious and possess a mind that likes to figure things out. You really can not take shortcuts. You have to take your own photos, collect the evidence, do follow up investigations. In cases of incendiary fires, you need to discover the criminal.”
An arson investigator will attempt to ascertain who’s responsible for setting a fire; a fire investigator will try to ascertain the cause and origin of a fire. The majority of the time, fire investigators are also arson investigators, says Agent Carman, who had been an ATF arson investigator for four decades before becoming a fire investigator and serving ATF’s Western National Response Team for nine decades. “Frequently arson investigators may be a police officer of ATF agent who does not have the background to execute a fire investigation – an area that’s 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 efficiently.
“A background in mechanical, civil, electrical, as well as chemical engineering plays a huge role,” states Robert Duval, a senior fire investigator with the National Fire Protection Association. “You are taking a look at something which was destroyed and you need to have the ability to put it back together again in your mind or to ascertain the cause and origin. Technical training plays a part in determining lots of the factors concerning fire behavior and the way it attacked the structure you’re considering, whether it be an appliance, piece of equipment, or construction.”
This technical feature of the job requires knowledge of building materials and construction and the effects of fire upon these substances. Evidence preservation procedures, the effects of fire suppression, fire behaviour and burn patterns are also significant technical aspects. Search techniques also have to be learned in order that fire cause signs and ignition sources are maintained during the investigation.
Yet it’s important not to become entangled in the technical facets of the investigation at the expense of the individual element, indicates fire investigator Paul Zipper, who works in the Office of the State Fire Marshall in Massachusetts. “I’ve made 300 to 400 arrests of those who have set fires. Normally, there is a fight, an episode, and it is the interviewing that will tell you what happened. That is how you solve instances.”
Consider two different fires, both originating at a wastebasket under a sink. Initially, someone emptied an ashtray to 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 harms. “Both fires originated in a garbage can,” says Zipper. “But I challenge anyone to tell me the way that fire has been started. If you are able to interview well and learn how to read people, and combine with diagramming, investigation, photography, and report writing, you’ll be a fantastic fire investigator.”
In the state of New York, researchers are fire marshals that are full driven police officers (some “Fire Marshals” are fire support employees who have received police training and are ensured 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 source and cause, but who don’t have any law enforcement powers in any respect! Who’s a “fire marshal” may vary too much from one spot to another to make any blanket statement. In New England and several different nations, say police officers function as fire investigators on behalf of the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Since 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 private or public sector. Usually, those in the public sector are employed by municipalities, police or fire departments and federal and state agencies. Those working in the private sector might be used by insurance companies, attorneys, or private source and cause companies, or organizations like the National Fire Protection Association. In certain countries, 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 evaluation specialist at American Re-Insurance Company. There are 26,354 fire departments in america. However, in some smaller communities, it might be the chief himself. Based on the seriousness of the situation, 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 might be as complicated and diverse as the job itself. Fire researchers working in the public sector typically come up through the ranks, starting out as volunteers or employees in police or fire departments, gaining experience in a variety of facets of fire behavior in addition to criminal law, and at times in their spare time, pursuing formal education and training. At the federal level, the ATF employs approximately 80 certified fire investigators that are generally called in to help with state and local analyses of high fire scenes. ATF investigators first function as ATF special agents, and then are chosen to undergo a rigorous two-year training program in fire investigation.
Those seeking employment in the private sector may come in by the public sector, or they may undertake an educational curriculum on fire engineering or science, such as those provided by the University of New Haven, University of Maryland, Indialantic Bat Removal, Oklahoma State, or Worcester Polytechnic Institute. If you’re in college now, technology, forensics, and photography classes are useful. After graduating, you may search for job openings within insurance or investigative firms at the entrance level, and then try to work your way up. Or you could 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 associations and then begin to visit some of the training provided by police departments on fundamental arson investigation, attend the National Fire Academy’s two-week training program in Maryland, and begin trying to develop credentials along with a resume. Chris Porreca, group manager of the Arson Explosives Group for the Boston area branch of ATF agrees that it takes a high level of self-motivation to follow a career in fire investigation. “We ask candidates if they’ve worked fire scenes, signed up and gone to conferences on the local, national and state 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 too.”
While the livelihood has always been challenging, it’s become increasingly so in recent decades. “The arsonist is getting more sophisticated,” says Trooper Horgan. “More fires are being set up to attempt to fool the investigators, to seem accidental when they’re intentional. This makes our task that much harder and makes you’ve got to be an even more skillful investigator to resolve the situation.”