Fire Investigation:

Range of Education, Training, Experience, and Certifications of a Fire Investigator


By:  Cale Robertson, MSME, PE, CFI, CFEI, CFII, CVFI, ACTAR

  Robertson Engineering Investigations (REI)


Fire investigation 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 as a fire investigator.  Fire investigations are conducted for various reasons ranging from; the investigation conducted by public fire departments to identify a fire origin and cause, and whether or not any criminal activity was involved; to privately financed fire investigations 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 of fire investigators.

Fire Investigator Education and Certifications

Formal education of fire investigators various greatly.  The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1033 “Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator” is a standard for minimum requirements of a fire investigator.  The NFPA 1033 dictates in general that at a minimum, a fire investigator must be at least 18 years old and possess a high school diploma or equivalent.  In general most fire investigators will have various educations beyond this minimum.  Formal education of fire investigators 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 fire investigators to demonstrate the minimum levels of competence.  The two most recognized associations in the United States that certify fire investigators 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 by entry level fire investigators upon completing various amounts on-scene training and completing varying amounts of fire investigation 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 fire investigator 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 in fire investigation 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 fire investigation, 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 fire investigator is usually a fire investigator 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 other investigators.  Their background often includes an associate’s degree in fire science related to fire fighting with some training in fire investigation.  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 investigators to outside training and conferences which is a requirement for independently recognized fire investigation certifications.  The lack of funding for outside training can lead to not only a lack of certifications for their investigators, but also a lack of awareness of the advances in the science of fire investigation.  Fire departments will often send at least their lead fire investigators to the Fire Academy and to locally sponsored fire investigation conferences.

The fire marshal’s office normally has investigators from a similar background as fire department investigators.  Often, fire marshal fire investigators have transferred from a fire department investigator position.  The fire marshal’s office often has a less restrictive budget with respect to providing training for their investigators.  Fire marshal investigators often have or are on path to acquire various fire investigation certifications.  The next level of public sector investigator 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 investigators that do not conduct investigations for government agencies, but are hired by insurance companies, attorneys, or other individuals to determine the origin and cause of fires.  Private sector investigators range from ex-public sector fire investigators to engineers, chemists, and other technically degreed individuals whose careers have led them into fire investigation.  Private sector fire investigators 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.


About the Author

Cale Robertson began his career as an engineer, obtaining a bachelors of science and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.  He is a licensed professional engineer and has done fire investigation full time since 2004.  In 2008 Mr. Robertson started Robertson Engineering Investigations, a forensic engineering firm specializing in forensic engineering, fire investigation, and accident reconstruction.  Mr. Robertson holds the Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI), the Certified Fire Investigator Instructor (CFII), the Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator (CVFI), and the Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI) certifications related to fire investigation.  Mr. Robertson is also certified by the Association of Traffic Accident Reconstructionists (ACTAR) as a traffic accident reconstructionist, which is useful in investigating vehicle fires that have resulted after a crash.


Author Contact

Cale Robertson

(575) 644-9595



National Fire Protection Association:           

·                                                                                                                                                                                       NFPA 1033 Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator

·                                                                                                                                                                                       NFPA 921 Guide to Fire and Explosion Investigation

National Association of Fire Investigators:

International Association of Arson Investigators:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives: