The FBI defines arson as the willful or malicious burning of a dwelling, vehicle or other piece of personal property whether or not the arsonist has the intent to defraud. Intentionally set fires involving buildings, including residences, make up 45.5 percent of all arsons. Mobile property, such as vehicles, makes up 26 percent of arson cases, and other property, including crops, fences or timber make up 28.5 percent.
Arson isn’t an easy crime to solve. It’s a crime often committed at night when few witnesses are present. It’s also a crime that presents a lot of circumstantial evidence, but not always an arrest or conviction. Nationwide, only 18.96 percent of arson investigations produce an arrest. Jobs for arson investigators are competitive, often requiring a good deal of work experience. Earning a fire science degree (click here to learn more about fire science bachelor’s degree programs) gives candidates a competitive edge. An arson investigator not only puts criminals behind bars but also deters others from committing similar crimes, which can save millions of dollars in property damage and countless lives.
What Is Fire Science?
A fire science degree program studies the nature of fires and how they happen. Students study the causes of fires, how they spread and how they do damage. Depending on the degree program, students may focus more on fires related to dwellings and pieces of personal or business property. Alternatively, they may learn more about forest and wildland fires.
In addition to offering fire science courses, the best fire science degree programs teach students how to run a fire investigation. Graduates should be able to combine an understanding of law enforcement with a solid grasp of public sector management skills. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined that the average arson inspector has five years of experience as a firefighter or as an emergency services worker. Experienced firefighters, police offices, paramedics and other emergency personnel can become arson investigators with the help of a fire science degree.
A Day in the Life
Fires can happen at any time of the day or night, so an arson investigator may have to respond to a call at night, on weekends or on holidays. Investigations often begin while the fire is still burning. They start by interviewing property owners and neighbors to find out what they saw, heard and smelled before and during the fire. Then, they work to eliminate accidental causes, such as lightning strikes, faulty electrical components or unattended candles. In some cases, they use sophisticated tools like electronic fire accelerant detectors. They also work with specially trained dogs that can assist them as they find evidence.
Cooperation, communication and consistency are three keys to a high-quality arson investigation. An arson investigator has to obtain the support and trust of other emergency personnel including police officers as well as property owners, neighbors, insurance investigators and prosecuting attorneys. Communicating not only with suspects and witnesses, but with the media is also an important aspect of the arson investigator’s job. Additionally, consistent documentation and careful adherence to procedures produces evidence that can hold up when challenged in court.
As a member of law enforcement, an arson investigator provides a valuable community service by finding answers for victims of arson and helping them to recoup damages when possible. The title and responsibilities of an arson investigator depend on the size of the jurisdiction where he or she works. For example, an arson investigator may also have fire inspector duties including performing fire inspections for both public and private buildings, which means gaining in-depth knowledge of local fire codes. Arson investigators may also have to conduct public safety training before major community events and they may give fire safety presentations in public schools or at local libraries.
Arson investigators can work at various levels of government. Most work for local governments, but others work for state governments and for federal law enforcement agencies, like the FBI or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). In addition to requiring work experience and a degree, some agencies may require investigators to take certification and continuing education courses. Professional certification from the National Fire Protection Association, the International Association of Arson Investigators and the National Association of Fire Investigators can also enhance career prospects.
Investigation image by State Farm from Flickr’s Creative Commons
Press conference image by State Farm from Flickr’s Creative Commons