Amari Bailey was in sixth grade when she decided she wanted to grow up to be a firefighter.

The Burlington High School senior accomplished that goal this past December, when she was hired on at the West Burlington Fire Department.

“Ever since I was in sixth grade, I just stuck with it the entire time,” Bailey said.

She recalls first telling her parents of her aspirations while watching an episode of “Chicago Fire.” She was further inspired by her neighbors, who were firefighters, and her desire to help people.

“I like helping people,” Bailey said. “I have always had a servant’s heart.”

In elementary school, rather than asking for Christmas gifts for herself, she asked for toys to give to a fellow student in need. She’s made Hope Totes to donate to the Burlington Area Homeless Shelter, and held a dog food drive for the Des Moines County Humane Society. Rather than spending birthday money on herself, she purchased more than 100 stuffed animals for a hospital pediatric unit.

“That way, when kids come in they have something to comfort them,” Bailey said.

Bailey has always been good at finding ways to help, but firefighting holds a unique appeal.

“The adrenaline gets me pumping,” she said with a grin.

Bailey has wasted no time pursuing her career path. In 2020, at the age of 14, she joined the WBFD’s Junior Firefighter program, which prohibits youths from going into any dangerous situations but allows them to shadow firefighters and go with them on fire calls after completing several hours of training.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘You’re a girl; you can’t do it.’ I tell them, just wait and see.

Amari Bailey

“Since I was a junior, I wasn’t necessarily allowed to go into anything, but I was allowed to watch,” Bailey said. “A lot of the trainings I have done, the stories that they tell, you really think about it and think, ‘That could be me.’ ”

Bailey was hooked, and soon after, she joined the Burlington Fire Department’s Explorer program as well. The Explorer program is similar to WBFD’s Junior Firefighter program, but with more stringent scheduling requirements.

She was a natural.

“At a training drill, firefighters were conducting live-fire training in our burn tower,” former WBFD Chief Shaun Ryan wrote in a letter of recommendation for Bailey’s application to the Iowa Hero Academy, a camp that gives young women aged 16-18 the opportunity to explore careers in firefighting, policing and the military that Bailey hopes to attend this summer.

Ryan, who was incident command for the drill, asked Bailey if she would like to try. She didn’t hesitate.

“I transferred command to Amari and she operated it flawlessly,” Ryan wrote. “That moment, she was in charge of two interior attack teams and three additional safety teams awaiting outside the structure. When I say ‘flawlessly,’ I mean she was able to explain where and what each team

was doing, plus the member of each team throughout the drill.”

Ryan also noted Bailey’s ability to stay calm and level-headed in tense situations, her participation in swimming and track, and her good grades.

At BHS, she took classes that would help prepare her for a future as a paramedic, such as Introduction to Patient Care, Common Procedures in Health Care, and Health Care Occupations. She’s also a member of Health Occupations Students of America, and last year placed fifth in the state in HOSA’s CPR and First Aid categories.

Amidst all that long-term preparation, she got CPR- and lifeguard-certified and, at about the age of 15, began working as a lifeguard at the West Burlington pool.

“I’ve always been rescue-ready,” she said, estimating she’s saved more than 10 lives thus far.

She’s been back there every summer, becoming head lifeguard and organizing its swim lesson program and helping to manage pool operations.

This past November, she attained lifeguard instructor and CPR instructor certifications through the American Red Cross, which now allow her to teach certification classes.

She will take Intro to Public Safety at BHS next trimester and currently is enrolled in several classes at Southeastern Community College, where she plans to continue her education after graduating high school to complete her paramedic training.

Given that Bailey passes these classes, she will not have to pay for them as part of the concurrent enrollment between SCC and the Burlington School District.

“By the time I graduate high school, I’ll have half of my first year of college done,” she said.

Bailey said she is grateful to her parents, Antonio and Stephanie Bailey, for always believing in and supporting her. She recalled fondly how her mom and dad told her they were proud of her when she showed them that she had traded in her green Junior Firefighter helmet for a yellow probationary firefighter helmet.

“When I told them this is what I wanted to do, they didn’t shoot me down like other people. They told me, ‘If this is what you want to do, we’ll support you,’” Bailey said.

But not everyone has been as receptive to the idea of Bailey taking on a historically male profession.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘You’re a girl; you can’t do it,’” Bailey said. “I tell them, ‘Just wait and see.’”

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