FAQs about Arson Investigators

by Gerald Hurst, Ph.D.

Q. What is the difference between a state arson investigator or fire marshal and an insurance fire investigator?

A. State investigators and fire marshals are usually certified by the State.

Insurance investigators get their certifications mostly from the IAAI (International Association of Arson Investigators)
The IAAI is heavily influenced by insurance companies. This partly accounts for the IAAI's official stance that fire investigation is an art rather than a science and should therefore not be subject to the Daubert standards. Daubert allows a judge to keep junk science out of the courtroom. I consider certification by the IAAI as just another paper to hang on the wall.

Q. To whom do these investigators report?

A. State investigators and fire marshals often report to the state insurance commissioner. Insurance commissioners are subject to heavy lobbying by the insurance industry and work hand-in-glove with them.

Insurance investigators usually work for independent investigation companies which are hired by the insurance companies to keep the illusion that they are using unbiased people. However, an investigator may get 90% of his business from a single company. He keeps this volume business by giving the insurance company what it wants: to avoid paying for fire damage. The net result is that insurance investigators tend to find much more arson than really exists.

Q. Who teaches and trains fire investigators?

A. Often it is the same guys who work mainly for insurance companies. Thus the insurance industry ends up influencing both the attitudes and beliefs of state and insurance company fire investigators.

Q. Are there common errors that fire investigators repeat over and over?

A. Four examples of garbage fire forensics that occur in so many cases are:

1. I can tell by looking at the burn pattern on the floor that an accelerant was poured there.
2. The fire burned too hot (or too smoky or too fast) not to be accelerated
3. We eliminated all electrical causes (in the totally burned building).
4. The defendant behaved unnaturally during or after the fire.
(There are a lot more, of course.)

Q. What role do insurance company investigators play in false arson cases?

A. Insurance company investigators play a key role in a high percentage of bogus arson cases. I have had a number of cases in which state fire investigators ruled a fire accidental only to change the finding to arson following a visit by an insurance investigator. The prosecution usually denies having been influenced by the insurance company.

In some states, the state fire marshals NEVER dig out and investigate a serious fire, even if it results in one or more deaths. They simply wait for the insurance company to do the job and base their decision on whether to prosecute on what the insurance investigators tell them. This allows the state to run their entire arson program with only a handful of marshals.

Terrifying, isn't it?

Truth in Justice