Defying the Odds: Cindy Chang, Special Agent - Certified Fire Investigator

Have you ever started to pursue your dream job, only to find that your path leads into uncharted territory? Not everyone is up to the task. Meet Cynthia “Cindy” Chang, Special Agent/Certified Fire Investigator (SA/CFI), whose perseverance and risk-taking persona helped her to create innovative opportunities in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. She defied the odds to make history as the first female Asian American SA/CFI and member of ATF’s National Response Team.


SA-CFI Cindy Chang removes a damaged roof from the Sunbelt Spa crime scene in TexasBreaking Down Barriers

Chang grew up in the 1980s as the only daughter of a Chinese immigrant father and a Russian-Polish mother just outside Pittsburgh in the town of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. She recalled her parents teaching her core values such as ethics, honoring one’s cultural traditions and a strong work ethic. Chang’s father, a nuclear engineer, always pushed her to excel and often gave her difficult math problems to help build her analytical skills. Little did she know these early lessons would set the foundation for future successes.

Chang’s parents also instilled in her the tradition of filial piety, which includes accepting parental input regarding her future and honoring their sacrifices. Her parents wanted her to enter a scientific, medical or legal profession, but Chang had other plans. As a teen, she explored a wide range of intellectual interests, taking local junior college courses and traveling abroad to further her studies in science and nature. It was no surprise to her family when she graduated magna cum laude from the local high school.

As she prepared for college, Chang thought about the different types of jobs that would allow her to leverage her love of puzzles, critical analysis, biology and forensics. In 1995, she enrolled as a psychology major at Wellesley College, just outside Boston. During this time, she researched careers in fire science and made the connection between her degree and one of ATF’s main missions: fire and arson investigation. However, she soon realized the institution didn’t offer degrees in forensics or criminal justice, the primary programs needed for an entry-level federal agent job. She learned about ATF’s mission while researching jobs that would allow her to combine her love of forensics and natural sciences.

SA-CFI Cindy Chang prepares to investigate a recent fire incident Undeterred by this obstacle, Chang proposed a new hybrid independent study program to the dean that combined forensics, psychology and sociology courses. Her hard work paid off when she won the support of her academic mentors and overcame institutional barriers to complete her groundbreaking undergraduate curriculum.

As she continued her studies, she researched jobs that combined her love of forensics and natural sciences. To build up her experience in the field, Chang pursued challenging internships at a local medium security state prison, the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., and the Criminal Profiling/Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

Strategic Alignment

After graduating from Wellesley, Chang moved to the West Coast in fall 1999 to pursue a Master of Science in Forensic Science degree at the University of New Haven’s campus in Sacramento, California. At this point in her journey, Chang realized that she needed more than a college education to compete with other candidates who had prior police or military experience.

She discovered new careers in fire science and made the connection between her advanced degree and one of ATF’s main missions: fire and arson investigation. She pushed hard to join ATF’s student programs and served as an intern at the ATF Sacramento Field Office while attending grad school. Her strategy paid off and in 2001, Chang was hired as an ATF special agent.

SA-CFI Cindy Chang deploys with the NRT to investigate the Truly Blessed Truck Fire in OhioStretch Assignments

After completing special agent boot camp, Chang was assigned to the San Francisco Field Division. She remained stationed there for almost 19 years before transferring to the Portland, Oregon Field Office in 2020. Throughout this time, she worked on more than 400 investigations, mostly focused on arson and explosives. She continued to take risks and seek out new assignments to enhance her policing skills.

In 2006, Chang volunteered for a 90-day detail with the interagency Regime Crime Liaison Office/Major Crimes Task Force, located in the main palace of former President Saddam Hussein inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq. Along with interagency partners from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Chang was responsible for teaching investigative techniques to vetted Iraqi police officers. Although the assignment took her far outside her comfort zone, she persevered to get the job done.

Chang’s former colleague Kenneth Kwak, ATF’s Chief of Field Operations, was impressed by her bold professional development tactics. He said Chang is a “hard-charging agent” who is known for quickly adapting to new work experiences.

Leveling Up

As she gained experience in the field, Chang kept an eye on the various career specializations available to seasoned special agents, particularly in the fire investigation field. During her initial interview with ATF, she had shared her goal to not only join ATF’s elite National Response Team (NRT), but also become a Certified Fire Investigator (CFI). Her quest of becoming a CFI was not an easy one, but she was up for the challenge.

Retired CFI Al Taylor first met Chang during her NRT interview and collaborated with her on multiple deployments once she joined the team in 2008. Taylor recalls working with Chang on her first case in Troy, Alabama, and described her as “just phenomenal” due to her ability get the job done right the first time. According to Taylor, “from the very get-go, she did great despite being new. As a brand-new member of the NRT working on her first or second call out, she always hit the ground running.”

In 2014, Chang applied for a CFI opening and was accepted into the intense, two-year training program. The credentialing program required her to investigate at least 100 fires and compile more than 80 fire origin and cause reports, all while completing graduate-level fire science classes through Oklahoma State University (OSU) and continuing to carry out her special agent responsibilities.

Chang successfully graduated from the CFI program in 2016. Her hard work did not go unnoticed, as she went on to join the International Response Team during her CFI program while still serving part-time on the NRT.

SA-CFI Cindy Chang Deployed with the NRT to investigate the Belmont Avenue Warehouse Fire in Indiana Tackling Tough Cases

Chang deployed on multiple arson and explosives investigations over the next five years. She investigated the rash of 10 San Francisco Bay Area construction site fires in California that took place from 2016 to 2019 within a small, densely populated residential area. She also investigated the deadly 2016 Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people.

In complex cases like these, Chang reviews hundreds of leads, identifies and traces various types of evidence and conducts numerous witness interviews. She approaches each investigation by taking the time to look at every detail and follow up on any information that could generate a lead or connection to other cases.

As a veteran special agent/CFI, Chang continued to seek out leadership assignments, such as representing ATF on the 2020 Portland Riots interagency task force. This team of law enforcement partners was responsible for identifying suspects who used incendiary and/or explosive devices during the civil unrest incidents that rocked the city.

Chang’s accomplishments are no surprise to Walter Shaw, Chief of ATF’s National Response Team. He described her as “a valued member of the NRT and an important division asset responsible for working on multiple fire investigations while building strong relationships with state and local partners.”

Throughout her education and career, Cindy Chang forged new and unique pathways to success, achieving a multitude of career milestones. Her innovative journey into the world of forensics and law enforcement fulfilled her parents’ wishes for a successful career, while providing a history-making opportunity to follow her passion and make a difference in the community.

Last Reviewed March 1, 2024