Becoming a Fire Investigator: Job Description & Salary Information

About this article
Get the truth about a fire investigator's salary, training requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming a fire investigator.
View available schools

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Fire Investigator

As fire investigator, you collect evidence to help determine the source or cause of a fire. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of becoming a fire investigator and decide if it's a good career choice for you.

Pros of Becoming a Fire Investigator
High average annual pay of $59,000 in 2014*
Certifications available that increase marketability*
Work is available in a variety of venues (fire and police departments, insurance companies, private investigation companies, self-employment)*
Variety in work tasks is possible (interviewing witnesses, collecting and analyzing evidence, testifying in court)**
Job provides a necessary service and depends on results, leading to a feeling of accomplishment**

Cons of Becoming a Fire Investigator
Job growth slower than average (6% from 2012-2022)*
Work hours can be long and irregular (24-hour shifts and night/weekend work possible)*
Previous related experience usually necessary, such as in a fire or police department*
Protective gear may need to be worn at fire scenes to reduce exposure to hazardous materials*

Sources: *The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET Online.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a fire investigator, you'll collect evidence to help determine the causes and sources of fires. You might interview witnesses and reconstruct fire scenes. Other duties include maintaining and processing evidence and keeping highly-detailed records that may be used for legal purposes. You'll often work with other specialists, like chemists and lawyers, to analyze information, and you could be called upon to testify in court.

Depending on your employer and job duties, you might hold police power and carry a weapon. Local and state governments employed the majority of fire investigators, though work may also be found with insurance companies and private investigation firms. With experience, you could become self-employed as a private investigator. It's possible to work long shifts, which can include nights and weekends. Furthermore, you may be exposed to hazardous materials at fire scenes, so you'll likely need to wear a uniform and protective gear while working.

Salary Information and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fire inspectors and investigators made a mean annual salary of around $59,000 in May 2014. Top wages were found in the area of aerospace product and parts manufacturing. The highest concentrations of employment were in local government.

Following BLS statistics, the field's job outlook was expected to be slower than the average for all industries, at 6% from 2012-2022. Additionally, because the field is small with 12,200 jobs in 2012, this translated into a projected job growth of only 800 jobs in the aforementioned decade.

Education and Training Requirements

Most fire investigators move into the job after gaining experience in a related field (such as law enforcement) or attaining a specific rank (such as captain). The majority of investigators have at least a high school diploma, and they're typically required to be U.S. citizens and have a driver's license as well as pass a background check and drug test. Some employers might prefer to hire those with a 2- or 4-year degree in fire science or engineering. Typically, you'll receive training on the job and attend police or fire academies, which can take several months. Topics covered include how to conduct an investigation, working with the law and in the courtroom, and how to use equipment.

Some states require fire investigators to complete an exam in order to be certified. Your employer might require a certain amount of annual training in order for you to keep your certification. If you work for a private company, you might need to have a private investigation license.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers commonly look for fire investigators with multiple years of experience and some combination of certifications. Travel is usually required, and many postings specify that independent work and decision-making are two important components of the job. While the list below is by no means exhaustive, it's a sample of jobs that were available to fire investigators in April 2012:

  • An insurance investigations company advertised for a part-time fire investigator in Wisconsin. Candidates should have 5-10 years of experience and those with either Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI) or Certified Fire Investigator (CFI) certification are preferred. Duties include documenting scenes through video and photo and drawing conclusions about the cause of fires.
  • An engineering company is looking for a certified fire investigator for a New Orleans location. Candidates need to be certified through the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) and should hold a private investigator license. They should be willing to travel about 50% of the time and be able to climb structures and crawl into tight spaces when needed for investigations.
  • A staffing agency posted for an electrical forensics engineer/fire investigator for a company in South Carolina. Candidates should have a PE (Professional Engineer certification) and either a CFI or CFEI, with experience working on cases related to high voltage electrical fires. Forensic experience and an advanced degree are highly desirable. Base pay is listed at $70,000-$100,000.

How Can I Stand out?

Job competition for fire investigators can be tough since there are a limited number of positions, but experience related to criminal investigation and fire education should give you an advantage. Certificates and postsecondary degrees are available in topics such as fire science, fire and arson investigation and criminalistics. Because an advanced degree is typically not a requirement, obtaining one, such as a master's degree in fire science, may help give you an advantage with employers.

Get Certified

There are a variety of certifications available for fire investigators, some of which might be required by your employer. The IAAI offers a variety of training programs and certifications, such as the CFI program. Applicants must be approved to take the exam based on previous education and experience. Through the National Association of Fire Investigators, it's possible to become certified as a Fire and Explosion Investigator, a Fire Investigation Instructor or a Vehicle Fire Investigator. All certifications require some combination of a credentials review, attending a course and completing an exam. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers two levels of fire inspector certifications, both of which require completing an exam.

Other Careers

If you've read over the process of becoming a fire investigator and you've decided that it's not for you, there are a variety of other related jobs that could be a better fit for your career. As a firefighter, you would protect people and property from fires and provide emergency treatment at the site of accidents. A high school diploma is the minimum requirement, though some departments prefer to hire firefighters with at least some postsecondary education. According to the BLS, employment growth is expected to be the same as for fire investigators (9% from 2010-2020), and firefighters made around $48,000 annually in May 2011.

Alternately, you could consider a career as a private investigator. Your duties may range from performing computer investigations to searching for missing persons. While there are no formal education requirements, most private investigators have completed at least some postsecondary work. Educational background requirements may vary, however, depending on what type of investigation you specialize in. Private investigators made an average of around $49,000 in May 2011, according to BLS statistics, and job growth was expected to be faster than average, at 21% from 2010-2020.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MPA - Fire and Emergency Services
      • MS in Homeland Security and Emergency Management
      • MSCJ: Leadership & Executive Management
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Fire and Emergency Management
      • Bachelor: Fire Science
      • BSCJ: Homeland Security
      • BSCJ: Law Enforcement
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science in Fire Science
      • Associate: Fire Science
      • AAS in Public Safety and Security
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • B.S. Criminal Justice
      • B.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
    Associate's
      • A.S. Criminal Justice
      • A.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
    Certificate
      • Undergraduate Certificate - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Leadership: Disaster Preparedness & Executive Fire Leadership
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Public Safety and Emergency Management
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice - Intelligence & Crime Analysis Track
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Colorado Technical University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctorate: Management - Homeland Security
      • Doctor - Management - Criminal Justice
    Master's
      • Master of Science in Homeland Security - Emergency Management and Public Health
      • Master: Management - Homeland Security
      • M.S. - Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • BS - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    High School Diploma
      • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
      • HS Diploma
  • Online Programs Available
    7. American InterContinental University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor or Science - Criminal Justice: Forensic Science
      • Bachelor or Science - Criminal Justice: Law Enforcement
      • Bachelor or Science - Criminal Justice: Homeland Security and Crisis Management
      • Bachelor or Science - Criminal Justice: Corrections and Case Management
      • Bachelor or Science - Criminal Justice: Generalist
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Project Management and Public Safety Leadership
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Colorado State University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Admin
    Bachelor's
      • BS - Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Criminal Justice

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • MPA - Fire and Emergency Services
  • Bachelor: Fire and Emergency Management
  • Associate of Science in Fire Science

Which subject are you interested in?

Indiana Wesleyan University

  • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice
  • B.S. Criminal Justice
  • A.S. Criminal Justice
  • Undergraduate Certificate - Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education?

Grand Canyon University

  • MS in Leadership: Disaster Preparedness & Executive Fire Leadership
  • Bachelor: Public Safety and Emergency Management

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Criminal Justice - Intelligence & Crime Analysis Track

What is your highest level of education completed?

Colorado Technical University

  • Doctorate: Management - Homeland Security
  • Master of Science in Homeland Security - Emergency Management and Public Health
  • BS - Criminal Justice

Are you a US citizen?

Penn Foster High School

  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
  • HS Diploma

What is your age?

American InterContinental University

  • Bachelor or Science - Criminal Justice: Forensic Science
  • Bachelor or Science - Criminal Justice: Law Enforcement
  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice

Are you a US citizen?

Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Project Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership

What is your highest level of education?