John W. Madden
Alaska Emergency Management Director | NEMA President
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
John W. Madden has taken “a long and winding road” to get to Alaska, but the path has always followed the stream of public service.
Madden, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, joined the U.S. Army at age 17 during the Vietnam War mainly because it was the best way for him to get a college education. When he finished his tour, Madden returned to Washington, D.C., where the main employer was the federal government.
“When I moved into federal civil service, that was a matter of convenience,” said Madden. “Once I was inside the civil service, I saw so many people who had transformed it from having a job into having a career and a career into a calling.
“I just admired those people I met early on and stayed with public service deliberately.”
Madden began his career as a clerk/typist for the U.S. Navy and worked his way up through the ranks—gaining a bachelor’s degree through night classes at the University of New York as well as experience with many different subjects that have built a depth of knowledge invaluable in his current job.
He worked with the Army and Navy and the department of energy in Washington, D.C.
The son of a career soldier, Madden moved extensively before he was 10 and knew there was more to the nation than Washington, D.C. So he went as far away from Washington as he could go but still maintain a career. That took him to Alaska and the National Weather Service and then the Federal Aviation Administration. His last job in the federal government was with the Transportation Security Administration, which he helped set up in Alaska.
He knows about meteorology, transportation and the military partners critical to homeland security and emergency management.
“All of those things seem disparate on paper but actually come together and coalesce to help me be better prepared for this job,” Madden said.
While his different jobs didn’t align well inside the federal civil service system, it provided the ultimate background for the capstone of his career—serving as director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“In my profession—and for my counterparts across the nation—we must be the ultimate generalists,” he said. “We need to know something about everything and everything about something.”
It was a moment of serendipity that brought Madden into state government. He was set to retire from the TSA and was offered the job of deputy director of the emergency management agency by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. He served a year in that role before incoming Gov. Sarah Palin offered him the director’s position.
“Working for the state, there is such an opportunity to go from idea to action much more swiftly than I ever could in federal service,” Madden said.
In fact, that’s one of the things he likes best about his job.
“It’s the closest I have ever been to the direct delivery of a public service to the public that needs it,” he said.
But it requires a degree of flexibility to be able to handle all things in a disaster. Take technology, which has come a long way and continues to enhance service. Even with the latest, greatest gadget, however, technology has its benefits only through management.
“Technology, because it’s ever evolving, still requires us to manage it rather than be addicted to it,” Madden said. “The latest thing may not be the right thing unless you choose it. The thing from the past may not be the worst thing unless you determine it.
“Managing the technology is the challenge because it can be your ally and, in its absence, it can be your enemy.”
Emergency managers, Madden said, need to make plans using technology but question whether it will be available under all conditions. Cell phones are invaluable, but conditions may disrupt service when it’s needed most. Computer systems are valuable, but if you can’t get into your building, you can’t access them.
“Technology is not useful if it is not accessible,” Madden said. “With technology, the more important it becomes to you, the more critical it becomes for you to protect it and to plan for its loss.”
That will become even more important as technology evolves.
“If it’s vital, plan for redundancy, have a backup plan for resilience,” Madden said.
Another challenge the field of emergency management faces is the turnover rate of leadership, Madden said. That’s because governors appoint most of the agency directors and when new governors are elected, they often will appoint a new emergency management director.
That’s where the National Emergency Management Association, an affiliate of The Council of State Governments, comes into play.
“This is not an easy profession to master,” said Madden, who is serving as the 2013 NEMA president. “It takes a lot of effort to convert experience in other fields into mastery of emergency management.”
NEMA offers guides, courses and training to those new directors. The networking opportunities, Madden said, allows state leaders to help each other.
“NEMA and CSG are the greatest factor in the effectiveness of those new directors so they can handle the emergency early on in their appointment or whenever it happens, because the experience you need for this job, no one can accrue it by themselves,” he said. “We are effective only by drawing from the experience of others.”
Others also provide an inspiration, he said.
Madden gave a keynote address in May to the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters. His theme: “People, whether they’re in government or volunteers, who go forward toward the smell of the smoke and the cries of the suffering.”
That inspires him every day.
“You cannot be a pessimist in this job,” he said. “You must look for the best in people, the best in the disciplines and that they are in it for the public good.”
The job keeps him busy, but Madden enjoys the outdoors and all that Alaska has to offer.
When he moved there in 1982, he spent the first two years getting to know the state and doing things like building his own boat and paddling down the Yukon for 500 miles, ocean kayaking and taking mountaineering expeditions.
He met his wife Kerry at a Christmas party. After they married, he had the chance to visit Antarctica on a kayak expedition and was gone for a month. He’s traversed Prince William Sound and got his pilot’s license.
When the demands of the job took over, he found a less time-consuming adventure path. These days, he grabs time when he can and rides his motorcycle.
All the while, he’s provided inspiration for his son Spencer, who’s following his father’s model of working and going to school at Alaska Pacific University.