Arson investigators are specialized fire investigators called in to find the cause and the perpetrator in cases where officials suspect arson. After a fire investigation determines the blaze may have been deliberately set, arson investigators collect evidence and conduct a more thorough investigation that can lead to arrest and potentially prosecution. While the terms "fire investigator" and "arson investigator" are often used interchangeably to describe the same profession, they are different occupations. Both may be trained in fire science and investigation; however, arson investigators require a more in-depth understanding of fire science to perform their more complex jobs, and they also need a working knowledge of law enforcement investigative techniques and legal procedures.
Fire inspectors routinely check buildings for fire safety issues, hazards and code violations to prevent potential fires, but both fire investigators and arson investigators do their work in the aftermath of a fire. Fire investigators, fire inspectors and arson investigators can cross train and become certified to perform the others' duties, and are an important component overall in the field of criminal justice careers.
Arson Investigator Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides salary information for fire investigators and inspectors but does not break it out specifically for arson investigators. As of May 2013 the average annual salary for fire investigators and inspectors in the U.S. was $58,100, with the top 10 percent earning $88,260 or more annually.
While the vast majority of fire investigators work for local government agencies — as many as 92 percent, according to the Department of Labor's O*Net OnLine — the top-paying employers are generally found in private industry. The BLS reports that salaries in aerospace product and parts manufacturing averaged $71,540 as of May 2013, and for those investigators who were employed by insurance carriers, the average annual salary was $66,150. Investigators employed by local governments by comparison averaged $59,640 per year.
Of course, location can play an important role in determining salary. The BLS reports that the highest numbers of fire investigators are employed in New Jersey, California and New York. Per the same data, the following states paid the highest average annual wages for their fire investigators as of May 2013:
- Washington: $81,160
- California: $79,050
- Oregon: $78,280
- Massachusetts: $69,330
- Colorado: $66,300
Of the list of top 10 best-paying metropolitan areas for fire investigators, eight are in California, where the cost of living can be quite high, and one is Boston, Mass., another high-cost metro area. San Francisco and Los Angeles occupied the first and second highest-paying spots on the list: San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif. fire investigators average an annual salary of $106,130, while those in Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, Calif., earn $96,210 per year. Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach-Deerfield Beach, Fla., investigators may fare better with an average salary of $72,400 annually, no state income tax and a lower cost of living.
How to Become an Arson Investigator
Arson investigators are highly trained in fire science, and they usually have a background in law enforcement or firefighting. Training as a firefighter or police officer can also offer invaluable experience. Additionally, many arson investigators hold bachelor's degrees in an area such as fire science or criminal justice. Programs are available at many colleges and universities, both online and on-campus. Organizations like the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) also offer certification courses for professionals who want formal training in additional areas of specialization. These certifications and courses include:
- Certified Fire Investigator
- Certified Instructor
- Evidence Collection Technician
- Fire Investigation Technician
- Expert Witness Testimony Course