It was a cold, overcast, misty Wednesday afternoon in the city of Apopka, but at City Hall, things got dark.
There has been a developing story the past couple of weeks involving the Apopka Fire Department - a familiar place for controversy as of late. AFD Lieutenant Alex Klepper resigned from the safety committee on December 10th - citing interference from City Attorney Michael Rodriguez and Fire Chief Sean Wylam. His claim was that they told the committee to stand down on an investigation into the accident at Fire Station #1 that took the life of Firefighter Austin Duran. AFD Firefighter Pablo Echevarria became the second member of the committee to resign on December 14th - citing similar reasons.
Then on Wednesday, at the entryway of City Hall, at a press conference called 24 hours before and a week after the second resignation letter was received, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson lit the fuse that set a smoldering, developing issue into a five-alarm blaze.
Nelson defended his actions and the AFD administration, as is his right when criticisms are aired.
"Immediately after the accident, the State Fire Marshal was notified of the incident.," Nelson said. "They began the investigation rather than OSHA because the city is a government body. On Monday, August 22nd, at our request, not required... I really want to repeat that - not required. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health NIOSH began its independent investigation of the accident."
He also touted improvements his administration has made while in office.
"We're in the process of hiring 18 additional firefighters allowing us to man each apparatus with three firefighters, along with the two firefighters on the squad truck. The city's dedication to public safety has always been a priority. 64% of our general budget goes toward public safety. And we are higher than the cities of Winter Park, Maitland, Winter Garden, Ocoee, Kissimmee, Lake Mary, and Sanford - 64% of our revenue goes toward our public safety. And that shows the importance it is to the City of Apopka."
Nelson also told the press that Apopka added a training chief and a life safety chief in the last budget, but he didn't mention those 18 firefighters weren't in the original budget. That was added at the urging of the city commissioners at the final budget hearing. But still, it's his prerogative to promote the City's accomplishments even if he wasn't fully on board.
But where things got ugly was when Nelson called out the two firefighters that resigned from the safety committee.
"At the October safety committee meeting under the leadership of District Chief Jerold Maynard, we began a more robust look at policies and procedures," Nelson said. "At that meeting, the FWC had already been contacted about a training program for trailer safety, which was available to all departments, including fire, police, public services, and parks and recreation, all of which have trailers in use. Firefighter Pablo Echevarria was not in attendance at that meeting, and since the accident has missed three of the five safety committee meetings and resigned on December 14th, 2022, because, I quote, 'it was going to be added tasks that would take more of my time away from family.'"
That's a remarkable choice of statements made by Echevarria to sum up his reason for leaving the committee. And although Echevarria references his family as a reason he weighed in joining the committee, in his resignation letter, he has a completely different set of circumstances for resigning.
"Due to a conflict in schedule, I was not able to attend the last meeting," Echevarria writes."But I heard through other members of the committee that a letter was read from Chief Wylam explaining that, as a committee, we were not going to be allowed to participate in a critique of Austin’s Incident... that an ad-hoc committee had been formed and that the safety committee was not going to be allowed to be a part of it. I asked Chief Maynard in an email if the group had received a copy of the email. He replied, “The letter was read and documented in the minutes.” I was informed that a copy of the letter was not provided to the safety committee members. The letter was mentioned in the minutes but was not written in its totality in the minutes of the meeting. This is concerning.
I already felt uneasy and was troubled about the unannounced meeting with the city attorney, where he had suggested that it may not be a good idea to have a critique by the safety committee due to the potential cost to the city with the pending litigation filed by Austin’s Family.
Now even more troubling to me is how the rest of the story has unfolded, and this ad-hoc committee has now been formed. The fact that two organizations and a legal team have absolutely no idea how we function as a fire department and are going to critique a LODD of one of our own. With the exclusion of the safety committee that was formed in the name of Austin. Just does not seem right.
I am a man of integrity and honesty. I will tell you my thoughts and share my ideas even when I know others may not agree with me, but I will always be honest. I can’t be a part of something that compromises my values, my morals and just feels wrong. I have lost sleep over this and have asked God to please help me find peace with my feelings and to help me “Do the right thing.” Unfortunately, this does not feel like the right thing. My heart is telling me that it is time to separate myself from this and move on.
I pray that as a group, you can do the work necessary with no restrictions and roadblocks so that others may live and go home."
So, a little more than family obligations influenced his decision.
In the matter of Klepper, things didn't get much better.
"On December 10th, Lieutenant Alex Klepper resigned from the safety committee rather than stay on to make positive changes for that committee," Nelson said. "Of Klepper's 22 recommendations... here are the facts. Facts are stubborn things folks... they never change. [Of the 22 recommendations] 18 have been completed, and the rest are in the process of completion."
But according to Klepper's resignation letter, it wasn't about the recommendations.
"My frustration came to a head when Division Chief Maynard related to the committee on 11/01/22, that the Safety Committee was not allowed to continue the Post Incident Critique of Austin’s accident per Chief Wylam, and that was based on the advice of counsel, because of a possible pending lawsuit," Klepper writes. "The committee then sent a request that Chief Wylam respond to them in writing as to why they were not allowed to perform a post-incident
critique, as that is part of their responsibilities. I and others feel this stems
from when the City Attorney, unannounced, came to a safety committee meeting relaying that our committee performing a Post Incident Critique could possibly cost the city money in a lawsuit. Now jump ahead to our next meeting, 12/6/2022 where Division Chief Maynard came in and read a statement from Chief Wylam saying he instituted an “Ad Hoc” review board consisting of NIOSH, Gannon Emergency Services and an Unnamed City Legal Team. Fire administration has already said the completed fire marshals report is not accurate, so if this “Ad Hoc” has three parts, why not four? Why not include the people who know the most about the department and situation? What really bothers me is that we have been told two stories: one about potential legal complications and monetary loss,
forcing the need to step away, and a second saying that there already is an “Ad Hoc” investigation ongoing, so we are not needed. Why two stories? What don’t they want us to see or find? I am at a loss if the fire chief does not want the safety committee to critique and review the most important incident in the history of the Apopka Fire Department, then disband it."
Yes, facts can be stubborn.
Matters didn't get better 90 minutes later at the City Council meeting, when during public comments, Michael Duran, the father of Austin Duran, delivered scathing remarks to Nelson and the AFD leadership.
"I came here tonight with a different idea of how to address you guys and to express my disappointment with what's going on with our fire department," Duran said. "I wanted to touch on things as far as culture, getting to the root of what really needs to be changed. And responsibility, and accountability. And transparency are key factors. The fact that we had two senior firefighters resign from the Austin Duran Safety Initiative should be alarming to all of us. I wanted to kind of work on that and talk about that and see if we can, as our family in the family inside the fire department can persuade you guys to look into what is actually going on. And not what was just talked about. But instead of doing that, I wanted to address the mayor and his press release. And I won't speak for the rest of my family. But I'm sure they would agree that I was highly offended by your statements and the bragging rights that it appears that you were taking to boast about hiring a training chief and health and safety chief, and 18 firefighters. The city would not have done that unless this incident with Austin happened. We're not going away. I assure you that. I promise you. We're not going anywhere until we get somebody to take responsibility and accountability. We are here to stay. So let's do it."
After Duran's comments, Commissioner Kyle Becker asked the question that is swirling around this issue for weeks - why was the safety committee told to stand down?
"So, I'm going to take this opportunity to get an answer for a question that was not answered during the press release.," Becker said. "Was the fire safety committee instructed to cease their post-incident critique investigation? Yes or no?"
"I didn't tell anybody," Nelson said.
"So there's stuff going around in the public realm," said Becker. "And we don't need to name names on this. But certain members of the fire department made a very clear representation that there was guidance from the fire chief and or the city attorney to stand down on the post-incident critique. Is that false? Or is that true?"
Nelson deferred the question to Rodriguez.
"On behalf of the city attorney's office, I'm not going to elaborate as to any type of legal discussions that I have with staff concerning what is a legal matter, especially in relation to the filing of a Notice of Action by the Duran estate against the City of Apopka," said Rodriguez. "I do not direct the safety committee to do anything. I have told this council before that as city attorney, I do not have the authority, nor shall I ever exercise the authority to direct staff to do anything. My role, my position is to counsel the department on legal matters. And that's what was done. The department came to me and asked for legal counsel. And I provided legal counsel. And I advised the department that, in the end, it is the department's chief and his authority under the safety committee to decide one way or another. But any assertions that the city attorney directed anybody to do something is patently false."
That left Fire Chief Sean Wylam to account for an answer.
"After consulting with our attorney, I came to the conclusion that it's best at this time to postpone post-incident critique," said Wylam. "It's not that it's not going to happen at some point. Just based on the legal matter that's ahead of us, I thought that was best for the department."
Another mystery of this case is what happened to the written order that District Chief Maynard read aloud to the safety committee to stand down.
"I'm just curious, do you have the order?" Becker asked. "A written record of you telling the safety committee that they should stop this?"
"No, I don't have it," said Wylam.
"So, how was that communicated?" Becker asked.
"Through the chair of the safety committee," Wylam said.
"Okay, but that was a directive from you to the chair of the safety committee," Becker said. "And, from my understanding, it was written and then read aloud. So I'm assuming they didn't cite it from memory through conversation. Do you have a written record of what you wanted your safety committee person to communicate?"
"I'll see if I can find it," said Wylam.
Editor's Note: The Apopka Voice requested Wylam's order on December 16th but has not received them as of the publication of this article.
Before public comments proceeded, Commissioner Nick Nesta gave his own post-incident critique of the press conference and the events related to the AFD safety committee.
"I'm tired of being embarrassed as a City from what we're dealing with... the issues we're dealing with at the press conference today. And the fact that we're getting this after the press did is embarrassing. How you talked about Austin Duran during that press conference, I feel was disgusting. And the fact is... to kind of piggyback on Commissioner Becker, the fact that we're putting money, any sum of money above lives, it blows my mind. We are here as a council, as a committee, and as a city to promote the health and safety of our people, staff, residents, and visitors. To be putting a lawsuit litigation, pending litigation, above an investigation that could save anybody, anything at any time, anywhere in the future... it's disgusting. It makes me sick to be up here. It's embarrassing to be called a commissioner, when we have to represent that we can't do an investigation into this because there's pending litigation. It's disgusting. And that's all I can say about it. This can't continue. As a board, as a commission, as a council. This needs to change. We have to figure out how to move on from this and actually lead and not just be reactive to what's going on."
As if the press conference, public comments, the commissioner's questions, and scathing remarks weren't enough, Nelson used part of his Mayor's report to further his points during his Meet the Press moment.
"A couple of other things. [I] just want to make sure you know, we, yes, we did have two firefighters that resigned. They, [I] just want to read you from... firefighter Echevarria was not in attendance at that meeting. And... has missed three of the five safety committee meetings, and resigned on December 14 2022, because I quote, 'it was going to be an added task that would take more of my time away from my family.'
Nelson also referenced former AFD Fire Chief Chuck Carnesale and District Chief Todd Bankston as being the last to use the sand trailer.
"So I wonder... the last two verified uses of that trailer were Chief [Chuck] Carnesale and District Chief [Todd] Bengston. So we want to ask them why they didn't ask to take the trailer out of service?"
Carnesale reached out to The Apopka Voice to respond.
"I’ve been made aware of Mayor Nelson’s comment about me at last night's council meeting," Carnesale said. "I’m not quite sure what his point was or why he would feel it necessary to mention myself or one of my district chiefs. The sand trailer was used for nearly 30 years under five different fire chiefs. What’s also clear is this: I’ve been retired for the last three years, and this unfortunate accident happened under a different administration's watch. I feel for the Duran family and hope the City will do the right thing and allow a thorough, unimpeded investigation along with a timely post-incident critique by the fire department safety committee, as they do for every other incident. The Duran family must have complete and truthful answers and proper closure in order to move on (if that’s even possible) from this horrific accident. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Duran family and my AFD family, who continue to grieve the loss of Austin."
Wednesday was a bad day for Apopka and its administration. But that barely scratches the surface.
When you hold a press conference to attack two firefighters because their opinion runs counter to yours, you've had a bad day.
When you misquote them so blatantly that it takes away the actual meaning of their resignation letters, you've had a bad day.
When you outrage the family of a fallen firefighter to the point that they describe your words as 'highly offensive,' you've had a bad day.
When a commissioner is embarrassed to be on the City Council and disgusted at the actions of its mayor, you've had a bad day.
When a former fire chief comes out of retirement to push back on your remarks - you've had a bad day.
Any one of those incidents would be rough, but put them together in the span of five hours, and it borders on catastrophic. And unfortunately, it goes well beyond optics and misspeaks. Public safety and the health of firefighters are at stake.
City Attorney Michael Rodriguez gave good legal advice if the aim is to protect the City during litigation. But there are bigger issues on the table than a lawsuit. City administration and AFD leadership should show the courage that first responders display every day and allow the AFD Safety Committee to complete its post-incident critique of the accident that took Firefighter Austin Duran's life.
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