Arson Investigators: Find the Source of the Fire… and You Find Your Man

Sifting through the warm ashes of recently burned-out buildings or vehicles doesn’t feel like the most glamorous PI gig you can get while you’re in the middle of it, but it might be one of the most important. In the United States, intentionally set fires cause around $700 million in damage every year.

Insurance companies are the ones writing the checks on most of those losses and they’re not happy getting taken to the cleaners on intentionally set fires. It’s worth a pretty penny for them to get to the bottom of arson jobs, and a specialized subset of private investigators are just the mugs to help them do it.

Arson isn’t just another routine case of insurance fraud, though. It’s deadly—according to the Insurance Information Institute, 157 civilians were killed in arson fires in 2014… and that number doesn’t include firefighter line of duty deaths in arson fires, which they have to fight like any other. More than half of all arson fires are set in occupied structures, increasing the danger.

So identifying arson fires and tracking down the arsonist is no laughing matter. Private fire investigators take their jobs seriously and go to every length to pinpoint the cause and determine whether fires were accidental or intentional.

Private Fire Investigators Follow The Smoke to The Source

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, PIs like to say when a case starts to break. That’s literally true in fire investigations. Every fire tells a tale to the experienced private fire investigator.

A fire looks like chaos to the untrained eye, but PIs know that the fire follows the laws of physics like anything else, and that the chemical reaction of heat, organic material, and oxygen creates predictable outcomes based on the materials and quantities involved.

Arson investigators have the science of fire down cold. When an arson PI finds a scene where the owner claims a fluorescent light (maximum temperature 80 degrees) has ignited a piece of paper (ignition point 218 degrees), it’s clearly time to do more digging.

Although all fires leave unique traces and burn in different ways, arson PIs use a systematic approach to investigations.

Usually, it starts with the 911 call. A lot of fire bugs like to watch the circus after they set a fire. It’s not unheard of for them to be the one to call it in. Even if the caller is innocent, initial reports of where the first smoke or flames were seen, at what time, and how they were burning, can provide valuable evidence of where the fire started and whether or not accelerants were used.

It always surprises laymen just how much evidence is left in a destroyed building, but that’s the next stop for the PI. Scorch marks, how floors have collapsed, chemical traces left in the ashes… all can offer important clues about where and how the fire started. Sometimes it’s the evidence that’s not there that is most telling… did the owner inexplicably remove important papers from the business the week before the fire? The PI is going to want to know why.

But having fun out at the scene comes to an end soon enough. Evidence collected there goes out to the lab, and the PI heads to the filing cabinet to pull information on any insurance policies, coverage records, and ownership information. Background checks on owners and close associates are conducted if warranted. This can include not only running names through databases but getting out and pounding the pavement to talk to witnesses, friends, and neighbors.

The PI is looking for motive as much as concrete evidence at this point.

When the lab data comes back is when the PI will start trying on stories. Having a solid idea where and how the fire started, the record can be compared to the schedule of potential arsonists. Do they have alibis? Did they have access to the property and the methods used? The PI might canvas local gas stations, sweet talk access to video surveillance records. The owner was filling up five gallon gas cans at 3 a.m. down the street from the property the night the fire started? He’s got some explaining to do.

Private Fire Investigators Work Closely With Law Enforcement

PIs fill in a lot of gaps in arson investigation. As a property crimes, arson investigations are among the first to get cut when budgets get tight. The city of Flint, for example, has only one full-time arson investigator. According to FBI statistics, only 21 percent of arson cases are cleared.

Although arson is a criminal matter and police and fire departments have the primary responsibility to investigate it and file charges, insurers have the greatest incentive to dig deep into causes of fires.

While PIs investigating arson cases don’t have the subpoena or arrest powers that police or fire investigators have, there are certain constraints faced by official law enforcement that PIs don’t have to worry about. PIs can talk to witnesses or suspects without worrying about Constitutional protections about self-incrimination or right to counsel, and can often enter scenes and obtain evidence without laborious court procedures due to insurance policy language.

Better yet, information gathered by PIs in such ways can be turned over to law enforcement completely legally, ensuring that justice is served if evidence of a crime is obtained through private investigation.

Fire investigations can pay dividends even when the blaze was not set intentionally. Insurance companies are on the hook for a payout if a fire turns out to be legit, too. Insurance involves liability, and even if a fire wasn’t intentional, there are often competing claims potentially involving different companies or questions of coverage. A definitive cause has to be established to answer those questions.

Insurance companies also care about the big picture. Almost every fire costs the industry money. Most industry standards for fire safety and protection in America today were driven by insurance company requirements developed in the wake of fire investigations that uncovered dangerous practices or products.

How to Become a Private Fire Investigator

Many private fire investigators have a background in firefighting. Some have been arson investigators in public service before hanging out their own shingle. In either case, a familiarity with fire scenes and contacts in local fire and police departments pay big dividends for PIs in arson investigation.

A degree in fire science is always a good idea for arson investigators from any professional background. Failing that, any science degree with heavy helpings of chemistry and physics will prove useful.

The field is overrun with professional certifications, including those from:

The gold standard, however, are those that meet the NFPA 1033 Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator. Almost all positions in private arson investigation require a certification conforming to those standards, so be sure your certification program follows NFPA guidelines.

Most PIs in arson investigation work for insurance companies, often directly. Around two percent are either self-employed or work for private companies. Most of the jobs performed even by independents are insurance work, but private arson investigators may also find gigs working in criminal defense or for private individuals looking for answers about fires that do not involve an insurance claim.

Work as an arson investigator isn’t the most conventional kind of private investigation but it is among the most respected and stable roles a PI can take on, and the work can be both challenging and rewarding.

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