The Apopka Professional Firefighters Association, at its February 7th meeting, voted overwhelmingly that they have no confidence in Apopka Fire Chief Sean Wylam. The 90-member union, comprised of members from the Apopka Fire Department, sent a resounding message with 73 firefighters voting in favor of the no-confidence measure, while 13 voted against, and four abstaining.
Despite the vote, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson stayed with Wylam as the leader of the AFD.
Two months later, at its April 5th meeting, the Apopka City Council followed suit with a 3-2 no-confidence motion.
"I hope you take that to heart, the will of this Council," Commissioner Kyle Becker said to Nelson. But the day after that vote, Nelson continued to stand by his man.
In an interview with WESH-2 News on Thursday, Nelson said he would stick with Wylam, despite the two votes.
"I think he's done a good job," Nelson said. "I mean, you know, it was an accident," he said. "We haven't had a lot of turnover. We’re putting in those things that maybe we were lacking, and he knows that continuous improvement is what he has to do to get the vote of confidence of the firefighters here in Apopka."
Nelson also told WESH-2 News that the cause of the accident that took the life of AFD Firefighter Austin Duran was an accident with a piece of equipment that four other fire chiefs utilized.
"We're talking about one [sand] trailer, okay, one sand trailer that went through four fire chiefs, was never, ever taken out of service," Nelson said. "So if it was so dangerous, why didn't somebody say, 'Hey, fire chief, why don't you take it out of place?'"
On June 30th, 2022, AFD Firefighter/EMT Austin Duran suffered massive injuries when a sand trailer weighing approximately 4,500 pounds fell on him while he attempted to attach it to a hitch on a squad truck and transport it from Fire Station #1 to Fire Station #5. He died on July 15th, 2022.
It's a talking point Nelson has used before despite former fire chief Chuck Carnesale ordering the sand trailer to be stored in a garage in 2017 after District Chief Todd Bengston recommended taking it out of use.
"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?" Nelson said.
Carnesale reached out to The Apopka Voice after the meeting 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."
Bengston spoke at the December 21st meeting during public comments.
"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 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 I were not the last verified users of that sand trailer. Austin and another rookie firefighter were."