No elected official is immune to criticism. It goes with the territory. Sometimes you need to shrug it off and keep moving forward.
But other times, you need to listen.
Apopka lost a firefighter this summer. Austin Duran died of injuries he suffered in a June 30th accident at the Apopka Fire Department Station 1.
At a budget hearing in July, Commissioner Nick Nesta pressed Fire Chief Seam Wylam about utilizing a safety committee already in place.
"We have a safety committee... how often do they meet?" Nesta asked Wylam.
"Quarterly," said Wylam.
"When was the last time they met?"
"Last quarter. I can't tell you the exact day I can look it up for you."
"Do you know what that conversation was about when they did meet?"
"We review a lot of the accidents," Wylam said. "And incident reports that are reported and discuss those things needed to make recommendations."
"So they met last quarter, but we just had a pretty significant accident recently," Nesta said. "They still haven't met for that? Do they have a date yet for that?"
"They didn't meet since the accident," Wylam said.
"That's concerning, right? It's a safety committee," Nesta said. "They should be meeting often, especially when there's an accident. The fact that they haven't met yet is really concerning. That's still putting our firefighters at risk. Something needs to be implemented differently. Yes, it may have been an accident, but more accidents can happen. So is there anything that we can do to implement some type of additional safety committee that actually meets consistently as it was designed to do?"
"Right now, it's still under investigation in the State Fire Marshal's office, so we can't meet," Wylam said. "But it's not going to get kicked down the road. It's one of my top priorities.
Two months later, Wil Sanchez, the AFD's Division Chief of EMS, announced a revamped committee at another budget hearing.
"We've had four meetings," Sanchez said. "We have another meeting set for next week. We've been meeting more frequently than we've ever done. Our purpose behind this is, during these meetings, we're trying to do a safety assessment. And we're trying to look at practices within our department that have some flaws; we're reviewing some policies, we're kind of taking a step back."
It seemed as though the AFD and City Council were on the same page... until they weren't.
On November 1st, the safety committee's work on the June 30th incident was ended by Wylam, who cited legal advice from City Attorney Michael Rodriguez as the reason. This action triggered two committee resignations.
On December 21st, Mayor Bryan Nelson held a press conference at the entryway of City Hall. He wanted to clarify why the two firefighters resigned from the Apopka Fire Department safety committee after Fire Chief Sean Wylam told them to stand down from a post-incident critique of the June 30th accident that took the life of AFD Firefighter Austin Duran. Nelson told the City's side of events and announced alternative investigations taking the place of the post-incident critique.
He made a statement, took questions, and departed.
But judging by public comments at the City Council meeting later that evening, the press conference failed to quiet those with questions. Then, two weeks later, at the January 4th City Council meeting, Nelson and Wylam were besieged with emotion, anger, and criticisms.
And more questions.
It's a growing trend that only seems to be getting worse. But is Nelson's silence in the face of these questions, emotion, anger, and criticisms making matters worse?
Todd Bengston is a retired district chief with the AFD. He decided to speak out in public comments because Nelson referenced him in the press conference as being the last verified person to use the sand trailer that caused the critical injuries to Duran.
"Someone once said facts are stubborn things, folks; they never change," Bengston said, quoting a phrase Nelson said in the press conference. "So let's look at some facts on a couple of items. [The mayor] said, 'the last two verified users of that [sand] trailer were Chief Carnesale and District Chief Bengston. So you ought to ask them why they didn't ask to take that trailer out of service.'
Bengston acknowledged having experience with the sand trailer but wanted to put his use into the proper context that he believed Nelson left out of his statement during the press conference.
"Why is the mayor trying to deflect responsibility toward private citizens who were at home at the time of this accident? Sure, I used that trailer. That was my job. And I was scared to death when using it. In the 35 years of my employment, I've used it multiple times, as many others have. And I witnessed it flip multiple times. I did the best I could with what I was given... also if the City or the Fire Administration is truly interested in my account of that same trailer, Why have they not questioned me? Why have they not reached out? I would have explained the whole history of it to them. I was here from the beginning. I would have told him I also asked Chief Carnesale years back if we could stop using it because of the danger, and he said yes. I would have told them that it was emptied of sand and put across the street in mothballs in the Butler building. [Mayor] Nelson implying that my involvement and using a piece of equipment years ago in the performance of my job contributed to Austin's death is disgusting. One last fact... Chief Carnesale and myself were not the last verified users of that sand trailer. Austin and another rookie firefighter were."
Public comments are a forum that allows citizens an opportunity to speak before the Council about their concerns. It does not guarantee that the Council will interact with the speaker. But when a retired firefighter calls out a member to that degree, it deserves a response.
Nelson remained silent.
Sydney Guerard, who was Austin Duran's girlfriend, has never spoken before the City Council, but her grief over the accident drove her to the podium to ask the Council to make the changes necessary to keep other firefighters safe. She fought back tears as she delivered her message.
"I have come here today to implore you to take the necessary, appropriate steps to ensure that an event such as the one that occurred on June 30th, which cost the life of the person I was supposed to spend forever with, never occurs again. While I realized being a firefighter is a dangerous job, Austin did not lose his life due to a heroic act such as running into a burning building to save the life of a little girl or boy. He lost his life due to a piece of equipment that had slipped through the cracks regarding safety practices. I stand here today and beg that the necessary changes be made... so this senseless tragedy becomes a lesson in organizational improvements, not mistakes being swept under the rug."
"Next up?" Nelson asked.
"Thank you, Miss Sydney, for sharing your sentiments," said Commissioner Diane Velazquez before the next speaker arrived at the podium. "I know that took a lot. And I just want to offer you my condolences. You are the one person we have not met [among Austin's family]. Thank you for coming today."
Austin's father, Michael Duran, is familiar with the podium during public comments. But his anger at the actions of the City and AFD leadership seemed to hit new heights.
"I have asked for answers, facts, complete facts, accountability, and responsibility," Duran said. "I would like to set the record straight. We have lost two extremely experienced firefighters from the Austin Duran safety committee. The mayor held a press conference on December 21st to explain a timeline of events. It felt to me that it was held to minimize the death of my son and criticize two highly experienced and trained firefighters who dared to speak out because they cared. And we wonder why there is a gap between the Fire Administration and the men and women that work in the stations. It was made loud and very clear that if you stand up and speak your mind, you will be minimized and criticized. Please allow the committee named after my son to investigate and allow my family to return to some sort of life that was taken from us that began on June 30th."
After Duran's comments, Commissioner Kyle Becker returned to a line of questions he addressed at the previous City Council meeting.
"I share the same sentiment [as Duran]," Becker said. "After the last meeting, I asked the question, 'was there explicit instruction to stop that safety committee?' The first response was answered in the affirmative. But when I asked if there was written instruction, there was no answer. When pressed further, it turned into a yes answer. I made a public records request on December 22nd. The day after the meeting. And I finally got that records request satisfied yesterday—a paper copy is written, date stamped as received January 3rd in the clerk's office.
Becker read the statement into the record:
'Good afternoon, understanding the need for an urgent and independent review of Austin Duran's LODD [line of duty death], and in accordance with SOG 620 0.0 3.00. I have created and have been working with an ad hoc review board that will be solely responsible for this investigation due to the sensitivity and the need to conduct a thorough investigation. The review board consists of subject matter experts and includes the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, as we've consistently referred to as NIOSH, Gannon Emergency Services, and legal representation.'
"[There was] no signing of that letter.," Becker said. "It's purely on a Word document with that text only... not signed by Chief Wylam or any other individual. When I pressed the question last meeting, we were referred to an ad hoc committee separate from the safety committee. So my question today is, when are we going to get a formal report of findings from our own internal Safety Committee, which was my desire last meeting, this ad hoc committee from NIOSH, from Gannon, from legal representation? When are we going to, as a City Council, have a formal presentation made to us and feel that we've got comfort that we're doing right by the families that were involved in this tragedy, as well as the other people in this room that still serve today? When? I want a date... when should we expect it? Or else we're going to sit in these chambers and hear from aggrieved family and union representative representatives. These people rely on the City's leadership to ensure they're safe in their working conditions. So when should we expect that?"
Ultimately, it was Wylam that would answer Becker's questions.
"The biggest thing I want to separate out is the difference between an investigation and a post-incident critique," said Wylam. "Answers for the investigation are to come. We've had one answer already with the State Fire Marshals report that came out. We've been told by NIOSH it's going to be anywhere from six to eight months. Gannon Services, that we're utilizing - anywhere from one to two months from now. Everything that we've learned thus far, we're making changes. We are making a lot of positive changes. So it's hard to know the exact timeline with things like NIOSH because it takes time."
But Becker wanted to understand the sudden transition to urgency.
"I'm perplexed. When the notice that I just read starts with 'understanding the need for an urgent and independent review,' why were those instructions given not at the time of formation of the safety committee but much later, as reflected in the minutes?"
"Well, as I understand," Wylam said and then paused. "We are all hurting. I think that's the biggest thing that I get... how emotional this is for everybody involved. The Duran family, to all of our firefighters, and to me personally. It is emotionally taxing. And I am trying to balance everything with getting us the right answers and getting us to move forward in the right way in the right direction. But these things take time. I don't want to just check a box. I'm also trying to balance the emotional side of things. I don't want to come up here and fill you with... whatever. A formal investigation has taken place. First with the Fire Marshall, second with NIOSH. Third from Gannon. We've all read the letter that came out yesterday, people are torn in two. I have half the department who wants this to happen, half the department doesn't want it to happen. I am trying to do everything I can, in balance everything to get us the right answers to move forward in the right direction. And quite frankly, I'm tired of being torn apart. I want, no... I'm facing you guys right now [facing the firefighters in attendance] All the outside noise... we need to come together. We want to talk about culture and changing culture. We have to come together. We have to come together and work together with this and getting these things done and getting the answers. We're working side by side with some of these recommendations."
"I mean, the optics are terrible," Becker said. "You wait several months to stand down the safety committee that were doing that [post-incident critique], and it was under the advisement under your interpretation, not the attorney saying it explicitly, but under your interpretation to make sure that we save ourselves from litigation. And so, again, why are we not letting our own people investigate our own policies and procedures? Your own department is saying they want to investigate."
"Not all of them," Wylam said.
"A good number," Becker said. "The fire department is unionized, they have a union group. It speaks for the group, that's its membership. So if the union and I see union personnel in here tonight, I'm not sure if they're speaking or not, but if they do, from where I sit, I have to assume that they represent the members of that particular union. And in my case, that would be the majority of the people in your department. So again, I just don't have any sense of, okay, Gannon is gonna be one to two months. NIOSH is gonna be six to eight months. History as a guide, we're gonna get to these places, and it's gonna be another couple of weeks. We're not providing any sort of relief to anybody. We're going to hear the same commentary every single City Council meeting."
But Wylam insisted the issue was moving forward.
"If things were stagnant, and we were not making changes, I can see a big issue, obviously, but there are positive things that are happening," he said. "We've started, and those positive changes take time. We're hammered for a lot of different things on social media... on all kinds of different stuff."
"...And rightfully so," Becker said. "Because look at it again... Mr. Bengston is not wrong. Mr. Duran is not wrong. So the optics... all things when you take things in totality, it doesn't to me ring true that we're operating in good faith. We're spin doctoring and picking and choosing language to use when we represent this thing to the public. And I'll just have it noted for the record, I mean, you were given an opportunity to speak during that press conference, and you chose not to. You're the leader of this department.
As Wylam walked away from the podium, it was an opportunity for Nelson to defend his Chief or to clarify his statements at the press conference about the two firefighters... instead, he was ready to move on.
"Thank you, Chief," Nelson said, turning to City Clerk Susan Bone. "Anybody else, Susan?"
Alex Klepper is a Lieutenant with the AFD and the Apopka Professional Firefighters Association President. He was one of the two safety committee members to resign after they were told to stand down on the Duran investigation. He, too, took offense at Nelson's assertions during the press conference.
"Recently, two of our members, one of them who happens to be myself resigned from a voluntary committee due to what they perceived to be disingenuous leadership and intentional misdirection," Klepper said during public comments. "In the wake of these resignations, instead of the fire chiefs or mayor following up with these employees, the decision was made to call a press conference to disparage both these firefighters, cherry pick four to five words from letters to make them look foolish or as if they did not care, and then take credit for changes forced upon this administration. Mayor, in a certain sense, I feel bad for you. As you stated, you were given a script to read to the press, with the aim of publicly embarrassing our firefighters written by our own fire chief, which is just so wrong and sad, but you're taking the heat."
Klepper then explained the importance of the safety committee's work on this tragic incident and how its conclusion would improve the safety conditions of the AFD.
"The committee was ready to investigate and put our own eyes on Austin's injury and subsequent death, we must try to determine the why... you can not cure an illness by treating the symptoms. Driving a trailer through 1,000 cones and putting Austin's names on thing does not fix the root problem. The plan was to put this together with all other findings and give this to every single new firefighter that ever crosses our threshold for them to read and learn from so we never end up here again. The plan received a unanimous vote. Then again, we were failed. All of this has happened... surprise attorney meetings, disappearing letters, unsigned directives, reinterpreted policies and a shell game of who's taking responsibility. That is why we left... you cannot have a safety committee, quietly control it from the outside, and not take responsibility for your decisions."
Once again, Nelson had an opportunity to directly interact with the person he called out for leaving the safety committee or to refute Klepper's withering rebuttal. Instead, he stayed silent, again preferring to move on.
"Thank you," said Nelson. Can we go back to the presentation Best Foot Forward - with Emily Hannah?"
And with that, public comments ended, and the Best Foot Forward presentation began. But had Nelson put his best foot forward, or somewhere else?
Leading a city is a difficult job. Leaders will no doubt hear criticism from political rivals and those that don't agree with their ideology, but when this many people are saying the same thing, week after week, it may be time to do more than ignore them, attack them, or stay silent and move on to a safer subject.
It's time to take action Mayor Nelson. Allow the safety committee to perform the post-incident critique of the June 30th accident, and dialogue with these firefighters and family members that continue to speak-out during public comments.
It's the only way this fire department will ever come together, and this city will ever heal.