SIU program opens up firefighting career options

Two days of live fire and general skills training is part of the Badd Axe Ladies firefighter training program through the Carbondale Fire Department and Southern Illinois University. The program is designed to introduce young women to careers in firefighting and EMS.

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The Badd Axe Ladies firefighter training program is opening up new career options for young women.

“When I introduce my students to these careers, it’s not that they aren’t aware of it — it is that they don’t think of it as a career field, until I introduce it that way,” said Jenna Jamieson, the Southern Illinois University undergraduate public health program director and instructor.

“They know there are firefighters. They know there are EMS providers and paramedics. But they don’t think of it as a public health career.”

Jamieson and two female firefighters from the Carbondale Fire Department are working to change that.

“I have mostly female students in my public health programs. I wanted them to see the value of and to understand that, in public health, you have different career avenues,” Jamieson said.

She started working with the Carbondale Fire Department on a job-shadowing program for high school students when she was a high school teacher.

“I continued the partnership because I felt like it was really important for students to see the value in public service. We have such a shortage of public service workers, such as firefighters and EMS workers,” she said.

“I thought this would be a great way for my public health students to see some of the agencies they would be working with.”

Two Carbondale firefighters, Abby Burnham and Courtney Looft, created the Badd Axe Ladies in 2022, as a way to introduce young women to careers in firefighting and emergency medical services.

“Abby and Courtney worked with me when I taught at the high school. They came to me and asked if I would be willing to work with them on a women-only job-shadowing program,” Jamieson said.

While Burnham and Looft bring the working knowledge, Jamieson works on recruitment and marketing for the Badd Axe Ladies program.

In March, the program celebrated its second year of work, and this year, it expanded to bring in more women.

“Last year, we did it and it was just SIU students and students from Carbondale High School. This year, it was students from SIU, John A. Logan College, Carbondale High School and other high schools in Jackson County and that serve Jackson County. We had eight women participate,” Jamieson said.

The Badd Axe Ladies firefighter training program brings together firefighters from the Carbondale Fire Department with female students from Southern Illinois University, John A. Logan College and surrounding high schools.

The program combines learning about the daily routines of firefighters and EMS workers, along with firefighter safety and live fire training.

Participants spend a day at a fire station, doing ride-alongs and learning what the daily routine and daily work looks like for firefighters and EMS providers.

The other part of the program is general skills and live fire training at the Carbondale Fire Department’s training complex.

This year, the live fire and general skills training was expanded to two days from one last year.

“They go out to that facility and they go into areas with live fire and they learn how to put fires out, they learn firefighter safety, as well as stop the bleed training and first aid,” Jamieson said.

Since the Badd Axe Ladies is designed for young women, part of the instruction includes the challenges of working as women in careers that still are largely male dominated.

“Abby and Courtney do a really nice job of talking about the importance of having female and male firefighters,” Jamieson said.

“The students get a really good perspective from them that you can do what you want to do, and if firefighting and EMS is what you want to do, then don’t let anything hold you back.”

She said that one of the biggest surprises for the students is firefighting gear. In the Badd Axe Ladies program, students not only wear full firefighting gear, but also learn how to move and fight fires in it.

“The gear is much heavier than they anticipate. They learn how firefighting works and they learn how to move when they are in a building that’s on fire and how to effectively and safely maneuver yourself around in a fire in all that gear,” Jamieson said.

“That is a big challenge for them, the first time they do it. They are trying to breathe and understand the breathing techniques. They are trying to move in the ways that allow them to stay safe.”

One of the other challenges is that most full-time fire departments in Illinois require applicants to be 21 years old to apply to be a firefighter. The age limit to apply to be an Emergency Medical Technician is usually 18.

For the college students who participate in the Badd Axe Ladies program, the wait usually is shorter than for the high school students who may want to make firefighting a career.

“I think that’s one thing that has to be considered when you are thinking about public service careers. Yes, it’s great to get them interested young — but we have to think about local needs and how we are going to keep their interest until they are old enough to even apply,” Jamieson said.

“That’s a challenge for us and for the girls, too. Some of the girls are really interested at 16, but they have five years to go before they can even apply.”

Jamieson praised Burnham and Looft and the cooperation the program has had with the Carbondale Fire Department.

“On the weekends, they have to pull away two or three extra firefighters, besides Abby and Courtney. They try to pair one firefighter per student so each student has one-on-one training,” she said.

“That is pretty impressive and incredible to me to have them provide that many people. They have to be fully staffed, in addition to doing the live fire training. That speaks so highly of the fire department and their commitment to this.”

Jamieson said she would be happy to see the Badd Axe Ladies program adapted and repeated throughout the state and the country.

“This program doesn’t have to be unique to southern Illinois or this area. I think the program could be replicated and it really could be something that is tailored to a community,” she said.

For more information on the Badd Axe Ladies program, contact Jamieson at

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor