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City Council backs a consultant for the Apopka Fire Department, but is that enough?


Like many of you, I watched the March 15th Apopka City Council meeting in its entirety. Knowing I would write about it, I transcribed the quotes (all 13,000 words) from the Gannon report presentation and then listened to parts of it again. I watched as Fire Chief Sean Wylam was pressed more and more by commissioners to explain his previous actions and future plans. I listened as public comments from residents called for his ouster.

In audio, video, and text, it was an excruciating experience.

I've watched closely as this Shakespearean tragedy has played out over the last eight months. Only this, unfortunately, is not fiction. 

I've made the case before that Central Florida media only comes around Apopka when there is bad news. But I'm not sure I've seen them encircle the city quite like this before. On a Google Alert for the AFD, there were FIVE separate media outlets publishing critical articles about the AFD.

  • WESH: "Report details health and safety concerns at Apopka Fire Department"
  • Fox 35: "New scrutiny for Apopka's Fire Chief over handling of firefighter's death"
  • Click Orlando: "New report recommends sweeping changes at Apopka Fire Department"
  • WFTV: "Apopka Fire Chief calls for adding deputy chief, training programs, but sees pushback"
  • Fire Engineering: "Chief's job in jeopardy after young firefighter's death"

A few weeks ago, the Orlando Sentinel wrote an editorial about the subject critical of both Nelson and Wylam.

To these outlets, it may be just a juicy story, but to Apopkans and to local media, it's becoming a chronic embarrassment.

During the Gannon presentation, Wylam did his best to make a case for his leadership in moving the AFD forward.

"Every organization has its blind spots, issues, and concerns and can benefit from an outside assessment from time to time," Wylam said. "That was the goal and objective of hiring Gannon. In its 44-page document, it covers every aspect of health and safety within our department."

That makes sense, except for the fact that upon receipt of the Gannon report, both he and the city administration tore it apart with 154 edits before releasing it as a public record to the commissioners and media weeks later.

"Accountability. There's a lot of talk about this word recently," said Wylam. "I want everyone to know that I understand that this happened in my tenure as fire chief. I do ...But make no mistake, I'm the chief, and the buck stops here. No more excuses... we're going to persevere and move forward ...It will take a lot of work. But with open minds and productive dialogue, and personal action plans, I know we will emerge ready to face the future and make the Apopka Fire Department the best it's ever been."

He also made the following recommendations:

  • A strategic plan to be announced on April 3rd
  • Adding an emergency signal for Fire Station 1 - which was later passed by the City Council
  • Naming a deputy fire chief

Commissioner Diane Velazquez was the first to question Wylam after his presentation. She urged him to look outside the department for assistance.

"Would it be beneficial to our fire department since the Gannon report provided the deficiencies and recommendations," she asked. So rather than you taking it on to create those changes or to institute changes, would it be beneficial for us, the city for the fire department, to bring in that outsider to help you strengthen your fire department and to ensure that it is brought up to the level that we are now expecting?

"In my opinion, I think our best option is to utilize the resources we have," Wylam said.

"When you say no, can you explain to me why? Velazquez asked again.  "We went out to look for an organization to help us figure out how to make our department better. They created, they went, and they did their investigation again and came back with this report. Now you're saying we would not benefit from them coming in and helping to strengthen our fire department, and it's just contradicting. We asked them to come to evaluate us. And now we say we don't need them."

"That's something that we asked for," Wylam said. "And we want to use our current staff. We do have very qualified people, highly qualified people in positions now, and people who want to make a difference. You know, I think I think it's discouraging if we don't encourage that, for the morale. I think what you need to do is let us manage the change. And as much as we all want, we all want to move forward. I think that's the biggest thing. I feel the pulse of counsel or the pulse of my guys and gals and feel the pulse of the public. We all want to move forward."

"I wish you could feel my pulse right now," said Commissioner Kyle Becker. "I'm just pumping like crazy."

Becker was disappointed with Wylam's account of the report and questioned if Wylam could still be effective as fire chief.

"You know, we had a conversation, the pre-meeting before the last city council meeting, and I kind of gave my blueprint to you. Now, again, this is just one person on how I think you could have come into this room and knocked this presentation out of the park. But unless I wrote down every single thing that you just told me that you were doing, I mean, we're just looking at blank words on the page on a PowerPoint slide... But I don't see how combined with an 85% vote of no confidence, how you can remain in a position with, again, a lack of a strategic plan. Again, future tense on that, just 85% of confidence with the men and women in your department. And then a very underwhelming presentation, I must say."

Commissioner Alexander Smith has remained, for the most part, quiet on the subject. But even he was disappointed with Wylam's presentation.

"I know we all want the best for our city and for our firefighters," Smith said. "And I think you did yourself a little unjust injustice tonight because of the presentation that you gave to me. I don't know about the rest of the commissioners, but the presentation you gave me was an outstanding presentation as to how you plan to move forward. And it was a lot more than the few bullets that you've shown us here tonight. And maybe should have taken the time to put all of those things in the presentation tonight. I know it would have been a long meeting. But it would have been well worth it. So they can actually see your heart and what you plan to do."

Smith also urged Wylam to accept outside help.

"I would strongly suggest that we take advantage of the offer that Gannon gave us in reference to coming on board and assisting us in doing this, and I don't have any doubt that you're capable of doing that. But it wouldn't hurt to have somebody that was there also to lend that extra expertise and guide you in that direction. We need to make sure that they understand their role that you still are Chief and there is an advisory capacity, but I feel that that would be a great benefit to our department and will also help to rebuild the morale of our firefighters."

Commissioner Nick Nesta was also underwhelmed at Wylam's account of the Gannon report.

"This was lackluster, and I just want to start with some questions and comments," he said, reading quotes from AFD firefighters in the Gannon report. "The biggest one was when I read this report. This specific comment highlighted 'there was conflict and disharmony before the accident.' There's another one that goes into saying, 'I go to the station, have to think you have to take a deep breath before I go in now because it's become depressing, and just a paycheck.'

Nesta returned to the idea of a "Change Manager" for the AFD and how Wylam could not play that role.

"Going back with that in mind, going back to what a change manager needs to be. You can't be everything. And somebody needs to be in here to tell you that you're wrong. And so having somebody that is dedicated to communicating effectively is key to this. And I don't feel that you're the person that can communicate effectively with those people. I read in your press release that you're going to work on communication, which is fine. That's great. But I do think we need somebody dedicated to telling you, hey, you're doing that wrong. Hey, let's communicate a little bit different with this station. They seem to work in this fashion."

Nesta also pointed out that Wylam may not be as mobile as a fire chief should be.

"I think that's another thing. I mean, have you been to all the fire stations within the last two months?" Nesta asked.

No," said Wylam.

"Do you see where I'm coming from? Nesta asked. "I'm not trying to beat you up. But these are deficiencies that, again, a change manager is in there. When I go to the fire stations, I'm able to talk to the firefighters, and they start breaking down different things that they find deficiencies, and because I built confidence with them, I built communication and trust that the same thing you could be doing the last few months since 2019. So again, those are the areas where we need change. And I know that you feel you're the person to do it, but you're not doing it. So that's where we're having a breakdown. You cannot be the Change Manager. I think it's a third party that comes in and helps you with that. The fact you haven't been to the fire stations, again, they need to help you with that."

Nelson, who is still standing by Wylam, asked him to go over his list of accomplishments.

"We've talked about the accomplishments that you'd made, as relates to Gannon on the report. Do you have that list? Nelson asked Wylam.

As Wylam looked for the list, Nelson continued.

"We have certain things we've worked on this year as far as safety-related things," Nelson asked.

"Yes," Wylam said.

"You know, while you're finding that, one of the things that he's working on is his style of communication, and we've got somebody he's working with. We've had him under contract... I'm going to say it's been 18 months. Bob Spencer is helping him."

Then Nelson looked back at Wylam.

"Can you give me the accomplishments? Did you find some of the things this year?" 

"Can I just say this? Velazquez asked. "It's almost like you're saying these are your accomplishments. What really is the issue here? There was a fireman's life we lost. And so we were saying, How can we improve safety? And I'll commend you on your accomplishments. But that's not the issue right now. The issue that we're trying to say is what will help you be stronger as a fire department, build your morale, and build the most important thing that has been lost - trust? And so I think you giving us the accomplishments still doesn't change the one thing that we don't have that you don't have - trust. So all I'm asking is, would you consider hiring the very organization that you went to, to hire to help you find the deficiencies in the fire department?"

While the Gannon report may have been the most talked about subject in Apopka this year, this was the first time the author made an appearance in Apopka. Chris Gannon, the CEO of Gannon Emergency Solutions, took to the podium to explain his report.

"I've heard my name mentioned an awful lot tonight and in the previous six months leading up to this point," Gannon said with a British accent. "So I'm glad to have the opportunity actually to introduce myself. This morning, the first thing I did when I got into Apopka is I went to Austin Duran's gravesite. And I would encourage everybody to do that if you haven't already because it puts this whole thing into perspective. The reason we're fighting, the reason we're disputing and debating, is because of that young man's life. There's an awful lot being said, but we've got to all focus on the rationale behind this. as everybody has said, and everyone recognizes is to change and improve the culture in the fire department so that this doesn't happen to anyone else or anyone else's family."

Gannon went on to explain why he believes his company can help the AFD.

"A lot has been said publicly or privately since the Ganon report was published. I'm even quoting my own name. And I really appreciate it can be difficult to accept criticism or get it. Chief Wylam, I understand it's not nice to read a critical report. It's a tough pill to swallow. But the reason that these reviews are done is to provoke a reaction. It's the whole point of the exercise... not to sugarcoat everything and produce a vanilla report. That doesn't help anybody. You asked us to look under every single stone, and we did our very best to do that. And it's tough. I get it. It's an expose'. And what I expect is a reaction, a positive reaction, not a fight or trying to twist this into an "us versus them" situation. We're all in this together. It's a collaborative effort. we've debated the findings extensively. But it's what comes next that really matters. The process to identify the disconnect between staff and management. And the majority of members expressed that the department would benefit from some external experience with no personal affiliation to the city of Apopka. We are regularly hired to implement recommendations. I'm here today. I am willing, able, and ready to do that for this city. The staff of every rank, and I mean every rank, have said they liked the idea of change management. And it seems very clear that it would satisfy all sides and allow us to move forward collectively. This isn't about usurping people or taking over. It's an opportunity for some professional collaboration and sharing of global experience that will help reform and improve this department. I don't know what else can be said. I think everybody wants to change. I think the fire department needs to change. And we need to work together to implement that change. It's not for me to recommend any management changes. It'll be unprofessional and incorrect to do that, but I'm here, and I'm ready to help. If you accept that help, I'll dedicate everything I've got to this city in this fire department."

At the meeting's end, and after an extensive debate, the Council voted unanimously to start the procurement process to hire Gannon Emergency Services as a consultant to the AFD. Yes, it's a step in the right direction, but is it enough?

I know it must feel like it's only your political opponents who are calling for you to make a change at the Apopka Fire Department but look a little further, Mayor Nelson. It's the vast majority of the AFD rank-and-file firefighters. It's your city commissioners. It's outside media. It's Apopka residents both on social media and in public comments.

Yes, Chief Wylam has a strategic plan he will announce on April 3rd, he has a list of accomplishments, and you are helping him with his communication skills. But unfortunately, the issue at the AFD goes far beyond those deficiencies. He's lost the trust of the firefighters and the residents of Apopka. The drumbeat keeps getting louder.

For the sake of the city, Mayor Nelson, make a change. No one wants to experience a meeting like that again.

Apopka, Apopka Fire Department, Apopka City Council, Opinion, Gannon Emergency Solutions