Expert Witness Corner: A Fire Investigator?s Qualifications

Whether an attorney instructs a fire investigator to carry out work or is facing one across the courtroom it is essential that the lawyer satisfy himself or herself that the expert is properly qualified.

It is a young science and has evolved greatly of the last several years. Due to advances in the science of fire investigation certifying bodies and the courts are paying close attention to who qualifies and how. Investigations are conducted for various reasons ranging from those conducted by public fire departments to identify origin and cause, and whether or not any criminal activity was involved; to those privately financed by insurance companies and individuals to attempt to assign blame and recover loss. This article will discuss the range of education, training, experience, and certifications involved.

Education and Certifications

Formal education various greatly. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1033 “Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator” is a standard for minimum requirements. The NFPA 1033 dictates in general that at a minimum, the investigator must be at least 18 years old and possess a high school diploma or equivalent. In general most will have various educations beyond this minimum. Formal education often varies from an associate’s degree in fire science to bachelors, masters, or doctoral degrees in engineering or other technical sciences.

There are numerous certifications available to demonstrate the minimum levels of competence. The two most recognized associations in the United States that certify are the National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI) and the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI). NAFI offers three certifications that act as entry-level certification and documentation of education and experience. These certifications can be obtained upon completing various amounts on-scene training and completing varying amounts of training, often obtainable by attending various directed conferences. Upon meeting the applicant requirements, all of these certifications require passing a comprehensive written examination.

NAFI offers three different certifications; these are the Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI), the Certified Fire Investigation Instructor (CFII), and the Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator (CVFI).

The IAAI offers two certifications which are the Fire Investigation Technician (IAAI-FIT) and the Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI). The IAAI-FIT is this association’s entry-level certification and requires a minimum of 18 months of general experience and a minimum of 44 hours of tested training. There is then a comprehensive examination. The IAAI-CFI has a much more rigorous application process that must be completed and approved before an applicant may sit for the certification examination. The requirements of the IAAI-CFI include a minimum of 4 years of full time experience, certain testimony experience or training requirements, education and training, and various other requirements that are set up on a point system. The applicant must complete the application meeting all the points requirements and include verification of every item listed.

Other agency specific certifications exist, but the most recognized may be the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Certified Fire Investigator (ATF-CFI). This in-house certification applies scientific and engineering technology training in a 2-year training program. The ATF special agent must undergo a minimum of 6 weeks of classroom training and gain hands on experience of at least 100 fire scenes under the direct mentorship of an ATF-CFI.

Public Sector Fire Investigation

The public sector F.I is usually one employed by the government, such as fire department, state fire marshal’s office, etc. The range of education, training, experience, and certifications varies greatly in this category. Fire department investigators are often fire fighters that have moved into the fire investigations unit. They often receive in house training that is passed down from colleagues. Their background often includes an associate’s degree in fire science related to fire fighting with some training. Often, fire department fire investigators will work in this position for many years however the department’s budget is often limited when it comes to sending employees to outside training and conferences which is a requirement for independently recognized F.I certifications. The lack of funding for outside training can lead to not only a lack of certifications, but also a lack of awareness of the advances in the science. Fire departments will often send at least their lead investigators to the Fire Academy and to locally sponsored conferences.

Often, fire marshal F.I’s have transferred from a different position. The F.M’s office often has a less restrictive budget with respect to providing training. F.M.I’s often have or are on path to acquire various certifications.

The next level comes from federal agencies such as the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). ATF investigators go through a rigorous two-year training program to obtain the ATF’s Certified Fire Investigator Certification (ATF-CFI).

Private Sector Fire Investigation.

Private sector investigators are those that do not conduct work for government agencies, but are hired by insurance companies, attorneys, or other individuals to determine the origin and cause of fires. They range from ex-public sector fire investigators to engineers, chemists, and other technically degreed individuals whose careers have led them into fire investigation. They normally have more flexible budgets for attending conferences, seminars, and other forms of continuing education, which tends to become a job requirement in order to comply with the recertification requirements of the various certifications they may hold.

Attorneys should therefore always bear in mind when they are trying to find an expert witness that the person they eventually use must have impeccable credentials and qualifications that cannot be challenged by their opponent.

Cale Robertson began his career as an engineer, obtaining a bachelors of science and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and holds all of the key qualifications discussed above. You can view his Profile and find an expert witness at X-Pro, the innovative expert witness directory.

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