Fire Inspectors and Investigators Jobs / Careers

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School Subjects:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry

Personal Skills:

  • Leadership/management
  • Tech/Scientific

Work Environment:

  • Indoors and outdoors
  • Multiple locations

Min. Education Level:

  • Some postsecondary training

SalaryRange:

  • F$25,000 to $45,000 to $100,000+

Certification or Licensing:

  • Recommended

Outlook:

  • Little change or more slowly than the average (fire inspectors)
  • About as fast as the average (fire investigators)

Overview

Fire inspectors perform examinations to enforce fire prevention laws, ordinances, and codes; promote the development and use of effective fire prevention methods; and provide instruction to the fire department and the general public regarding fire codes and prevention. They are employed by local fire departments and private companies, including factories, sawmills, chemical plants, and universities. Fire investigators analyze the cause, origin, and circumstances of fires involving loss of life and considerable property dam age; interrogate witnesses and prepare investigation reports; and arrest and seek prosecution of arsonists. They are employed by local fire departments, state fire marshal’s offices, and private companies.

History

Fire kills more Americans than all natural disasters combined. Approximately 5,000 people die as a result of’ fire and another 25,500 are injured each year, according to the National Fire Data Center of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). Pinpointing how fires start is an important part of efforts to try to prevent them. Fire inspectors use their knowledge of fire science, building codes, and fire-suppression methods to help eliminate this deadly problem.

Arson is the second leading cause of death in the United States and is the leading cause of property damage due to fires. The USFA estimates that property damage from arson totals more than $3 billion per year. Determining if a fire was caused by an accident or an arsonist can help put criminals behind bars. However, catching an arsonist is very complicated. According to the USFA, only 15 percent of all arson cases are closed by an arrest. There are three types of fire investigation: fire, arson, and explosion.

The Job

Most fire departments are responsible for fire prevention activities. Fire inspectors inspect buildings and their storage contents for trash, rubbish, and other materials that can ignite easily. They look for worn-out or exposed wiring and for other fire hazards. Inspectors review building and fire-suppression plans to ensure the construction of safe and code-conforming buildings and fire-suppression systems and alarms. They pay close attention to public buildings, such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, theaters, and hotels, which they inspect regularly Fire inspectors also ensure that the facility’s fire protection equipment and systems are functioning properly While inspecting buildings, they might make recommendations on how fire-safety equipment could be used better and provide information regarding the storage of flammable materials, electrical hazards, and other common causes of fires.

Inspectors maintain a variety of reports and records related to fire inspections, code requirements, permits, and training. They also instruct employers, civic groups, schoolchildren, and others on extinguishing small fires, escaping burning buildings, operating fire extinguishers, and establishing evacuation plans.

Fire investigators, or fire marshals, look for evidence pointing to the causes of fires. Once fires are extinguished, especially if they are of suspicious origin or caused death or injury investigators look for evidence of arson (fires that are deliberately set) for insurance money or other reasons. Investigators determine whether the fire was incendiary (arson) or accidental, and then try to figure out what caused it and how to prevent it. This information is very important to the lire protection community, according to Jon C. Jones, a fire protection consultant in Lumenburg, Massachusetts. An article he wrote in Fire Chief Magazine (July 1998), states that “if it [ fire] was incendiary the investigator collects information that can be used to prosecute the responsible parties. If the fire was accidental, the investigation should focus on the cause and how it can be prevented in the future.” Fire investigators also determine the fuel and heat sources that cause the fires. They might submit reports to a district attorney testify in court, or arrest suspected arsonists (if they have police authority).

Fire investigators also interrogate witnesses, obtain statements and other necessary documentation, and preserve and examine physical and circumstantial evidence. They tour fire scenes and examine debris to collect evidence. Investigators prepare comprehensive reports, provide detailed accounts of investigative procedures, and present findings. They apprehend and arrest arson suspects, as well as seek confinement and control of men tally disturbed fire setters and juveniles who set fires. Inspectors also prepare damage estimates for reporting and insurance purposes and compile statistics related to fires and investigations.

Requirements

High School

Earning a high school diploma is the first step to becoming a fire inspector or investigator. Take classes in physics, biology and mathematics. Speech and English courses will help you polish your communication skills.

Postsecondary Training

There are two ways to become a fire inspector. Some fire departments have policies that only those who have served as firefighters can work in the fire prevention bureau. Other departments want people who are trained primarily for fire prevention. Either way all students who want to join the fire department, either as an inspector or a firefighter, should take two- or four- year college courses, such s fire service, fire protection system equipment, and fire protection. Specialized fire prevention classes required for inspectors, such as hazardous materials and processes, flammable liquids, and high- piled stock, can be found through the colleges or the state lire marshal office.

Fire investigators must have knowledge of fire science, chemistry, engineering, and investigative techniques. However, a fire-related diploma is not always necessary. An engineering certificate with fire service experience is sufficient in many cases, depending on the job description and whether the position is in the private (corporate) or public (fire department) sector.

“A law enforcement background is helpful. However, not all investigators will have or need the power of arrest,” notes Robert Duval, a fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Investigations Department in Quincy Massachusetts. “Many work in the private sector for insurance companies and other interests. In many municipalities and states, the fire marshal’s office handles fire investigations, and most investigators are sworn law enforcement officers.”

Certification or Licensing

Most fire departments look for employees who have been educated in fire science. But, you do not have to be certified before being hired. Sometimes, an associate’s degree is all that is needed. Most people take the majority of their classes while they are working as fire inspectors.

Local regulations may differ, but generally, fire inspectors obtain certification as a Fire Prevention Officer Levels 1 and 2 (sometimes 3) from the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Some states also require Fire Prevention Officer Levels 1 and 2. There are a series of classes for each level. The Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc. also offers examination and certification services for Fire Prevention Inspector 1 and 2. In addition, inspectors can receive a certificate as a fire inspector from the International Fire Code Institute. The Uniform Fire Code, as well as the Uniform Building Code, provides code requirements on building construction, fire prevention regulations, and system maintenance.

The main certification process for fire investigators is Certified Fire Investigator, which is administered by the International Association of Arson Investigators. There is no straight path to becoming a fire investigator, and it is not an entry-level job. Most of the investigators that come from fire departments start out in the fire prevention bureau. Others come from police departments. Fire investigation is a multidisciplinary field, which requires skills in many areas, including fire fighting, law enforcement, mechanical engineering, mathematics, and chemical engineering.

Other Requirements

Go lire inspectors enjoy working with people,” says Rochelle Maurer, a lire prevention officer for the Torrance Fire Department in Torrance, California. “They need to be flexible and sensitive to the business owners’ needs, but they also need to strictly enforce the fire and building codes when public safety is involved. In a sense, inspectors are salespeople. In many cases, business owners will be spending money to be in compliance with the fire and building codes. Inspectors must have the ability to sell the idea of fire prevention and compliance.”

“Fire investigators should be well organized in the field as well as in the office. If you are not well organized in the field, you might not get the information you seek, and if your notes and diagrams are a mess, then the report-writing portion of the job will take longer,” says Duval.

Investigators should be in good physical condition to adapt to extreme weather or scene conditions and should be able to withstand long hours in unfavorable conditions. Most of all, Duval points out, investigators must have a great deal of integrity Without this, they will not be credible witnesses in court.

Employers

Fire inspectors and investigators are employed by local fire departments, individual state fire marshal offices, insurance companies, and private industry. Others work independently as consultants.

Starting Out

Along with the educational requirements previously stated, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) requires three years of experience as a firefighter. Some local departments have fire explorer programs for 14- to 18- year-olds, which provide classroom and hands-on training from firefighters in fire operations and prevention. Many go on to become fire inspectors or firefighters.

The IAFF requires investigators to have at least three years of varied fire fighting assignments. Books on famous fires that illustrate how these fires were investigated can be obtained through the NFPA or local libraries.

Advancement

Fire inspectors can he promoted to officers or heads of’ fire prevention bureaus, fire marshals, or chief building officials. Fire inspection workers in factories can become plant fire marshals and corporate or plant risk man agers. Fire investigators can rise in rank within the department. Many become lieutenants, captains, and fire marshals within their jurisdictions.

Earnings

Inspector salaries depend on two things: if they work in the public or private sector and how large those departments or companies are. Typical salaries range from $30,000 to $45,000 to $75,000 and can increase with experience and years with the organization.

Fire investigators’ salaries range from $25,000 to $45,000 in fire departments and $30,000 to $50,000 in the private sector. As in all occupations, the experts demand higher salaries, so private sector investigators’ salaries can go much higher (to the $100,000+ range) if they are used as national expert witnesses.

Work Environment

Fire inspectors usually spend a few hours in the morning in their offices or at the fire department. From there, they spend most of the day out in the field. There is no set timetable for investigators. You could spend days at a time in the field conducting scene surveys and interviewing involved parties and then spend the next several days or weeks in the office preparing the reports.

Outlook

The outlook for fire inspectors is about the same as for firefighters. Employment should grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, For fire investigators, the outlook is good, since there will always he fires to investigate. This field is constantly being advanced by new technology and remains one of the most interesting aspects of’ the fire service.

For More Information

For information on fire prevention careers, contact:

National Fire Protection Association

1 Batterymarch Park

Quincy, MA 02269-9 101

Tel: 617-770-3000

Email: library@nfpa.org

Web: http://www.nfpa.org

For a list of two- and four-year colleges that offer fire science, contact:

U.S. Fire Academy

U.S. Fire Administration

16825 South Seton Avenue

Emmitsburg, MD 21727

Tel: 301-447-1000

Web: http://www.usfa.fema.gov


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