Q&A with Fridley's New Fire Chief, Maddison Zikmund, CAPS '18

Maddison Zikmund started January 4, 2021, as the new fire chief and deputy director of public safety for Fridley Fire Department. In this Q&A, he shares about his experience in the fire service and how his degree in organizational leadership from Bethel has equipped him to serve his community well.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

March 29, 2021 | 1:15 p.m.

Bethel alumnus Maddison Zikmund

Maddison Zikmund, fire chief and deputy director of public safety for Fridley Fire Department

Maddison Zikmund CAPS’18 says he was born into the fire service: his father was a fire chief, making Zikmund the second in his family to hold the title. As Fridley’s new fire chief and deputy director of public safety, he leads a staff of 40 at the city’s new Civic Campus, which houses the fire department—in addition to the police, public works, and city hall offices. In this Q&A, he reflects on the experiences that have brought him to this point.

How did you end up in the fire service?

My father was a fire chief, and we lost our house to a fire when I was in high school. Almost immediately after that event, I went through my initial training called Opportunities in Emergency Care (OEC) at Spring Lake Park High School. I was trained as a first responder, and in conjunction, I was able to get the basic certification in firefighting. At first, I didn’t have any intention of becoming a career firefighter. I was actually on track to go to medical school to be an orthopedic surgeon, so I did OEC to build my resume. I imagined that maybe someday I would volunteer for the fire service on the side.

While I was studying biochemistry in Duluth, Minnesota, I did some volunteer firefighting work there. But my first real exposure to the fire service was when I was hired at Spring Lake Park, Blaine, Mounds View Fire Department (SBM) in 2012 as recruitment and retention coordinator—and that’s also when I started my journey at Bethel.

What made you choose Bethel?

When I moved back to Blaine to work for SBM, I was eight credits shy of my biochemistry degree. At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor, but a college degree was important to me. I looked around at many different schools, but I was really impressed by the format of the organizational leadership program in Bethel’s College of Adult & Professional Studies. Additionally, some of the other schools wouldn’t have given me the transfer credits from my undergrad degree or from my fire service education—but Bethel would. And the leadership degree stood out as something that I thought would be beneficial down the road. It was a combination of those things that ultimately led me to Bethel.

"Learning with other adults and getting feedback based on their real-world experience was incredibly valuable. Everyone was able to contribute to the learning process."

— Maddison Zikmund

What was it like to start the organizational leadership program?

I was a little intimidated as a 22-year-old. My first night, I showed up for class, and there were a lot of 40 to 50-year-olds who were professionals in their field. But by the end of the first night, I was hooked. Learning with other adults and getting feedback based on their real-world experience was incredibly valuable. Everyone was able to contribute to the learning process.

What was one of your greatest takeaways from your time at Bethel?

Understanding the concept of worldview and the importance of having different perspectives was very valuable. Generally speaking, as a leader, the worldview mindset helps with having an open mind, with critical thinking skills, and with not having a one-size-fits-all leadership style.

In the fire service specifically, it helps a lot with our citizens, and giving me the ability to understand different perspectives. Fridley, Spring Lake Park, and Mounds View are very diverse communities. I was well-traveled as a child. I had good exposure to different cultures and feel like I had pretty high cultural competency, but the worldview component brought that into full perspective.

How else did the organizational leadership program equip you for your job?  

The diversity and caliber of instructors at Bethel was really impressive: the mix of their experience but also their instruction capability. Professors weren’t just decorated CEOs; they were leaders and executives with real world experience, who also happened to be really good teachers. I even had an instructor that was in public safety. That was really great to learn from someone who had that perfect, firsthand experience in my line of work, but I learned just as much from the ones who weren’t in my workplace as I did from him.

Maddison Zikmund being sworn in as fire chief

Maddison Zikmund being sworn in as fire chief with the Fridley City Council.

What’s something most people don’t know about working in fire service?

There’s a preconceived notion that a lot of our job as full-time firefighters is solely responding to fire calls or emergencies—and that’s actually a really small percentage of the job. A lot of what we’re doing is in the background: fire prevention, community outreach and education, inspection, fire marshalling, permits, and making sure buildings are safe for people to occupy. Really any fire call we experience is viewed somewhat as a failure. We can prevent so many of these things from happening, whether it’s by engineering standards or people’s behavior. Unpreventable disasters still happen, but a lot of times the emergencies we respond to are preventable.

What does a typical week look like for you?

That’s what I love about the fire service. Every day or week is different. Fire chiefs end up wearing a lot of hats, especially here in Minnesota. Compared to other states, we have historically lower numbers of firefighters per capita, and so that puts a bigger burden on firefighters and chiefs to balance everything that’s being asked of us. So, my week varies from responding to large incidents when necessary to managing staff, which is kind of my number one priority—empowering everyone underneath me and making sure they have the tools and resources to do their job.

I really try to engage with the community as much as possible, too. Almost every fire chief is involved with related outside organizations. For instance, I’m a board member of the American Red Cross, and I’m involved with the OEC program. We’re trying to build connections and be part of the fabric of the community. We’re not just the service that you call on your worst day.

What is the most challenging thing about your line of work?

I’m young, so it hasn’t quite had its effect on me yet, but for most of my peers, it’s the emotional toll that the job can have. It’s finally starting to be safe for people to talk about and acknowledge it. It’s one thing to see a tragic death, but another to see it on a regular basis. That stands true for police officers or medical professionals, too. We take that very seriously, and most cities now are prioritizing mental health and taking steps to make sure all of our staff are resilient, and that when tragedy does strike there are processes and systems in place to support them.

How do you get through the hard days?

We also get the complete opposite end of the spectrum, too. We get to save lives on occasion, but even when we’re not doing that, we get to better people’s days. That, fortunately, happens more often than the tragedy happens, so that makes it all worthwhile.

Another motivator for me is knowing that for a lot of these men and women, this is their passion. I started out in this line of work recruiting those individuals, and now in my role, I’m able to lead them to be whatever they want to be in the fire service. There are 100 different career paths in the fire service, and I get to steer people in different directions and find ways to utilize their strengths.


"If I had to identify myself in two words, they would be servant leader. I’m here to serve those that I’m leading and empower them and better them..."

— Maddison Zikmund

What do you believe your calling is in life?

I feel like my calling has been to serve others and help others realize their calling. For most of our paid-on-call and volunteer fire fighters, this is where they find their why and their meaning. It’s not that they’re unhappy in their other job. Even if they’re happy, it’s pretty tough to match the kind of reward that comes with helping somebody through public service.

If I had to identify myself in two words, they would be servant leader. I’m here to serve those that I’m leading and empower them and better them, and I do that not only through my full-time job, but through half a dozen philanthropic organizations that are all serving our population.

What does life look like outside of work?

I’m married, and we have two little boys. They’re young, so that occupies a lot of our time. Outside of that, we enjoy spending time outdoors, whether that’s camping, or at the cabin, or playing sports. Traveling is still really important to me, but not just for the relaxation and to get away. It was important to me as a child, and understanding cultures is also important to me. I place a lot of emphasis on that, to be honest, especially in our current world. It’s important to develop a worldview of understanding what others are going through—and what else is out there besides our own little box.

Bethel alumnus Maddison Zikmund

Maddison Zikmund’s wife, Dani, pins his badge at his official swearing in with the Fridley City Council.

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