Readers question and respond to the controversies embroiling the Apopka Fire Department
From Staff Reports
For several months, the controversy embroiling the Apopka Fire Department has been the most talked about and reported-on topic in the community. On April 10th, The Apopka Voice published an article entitled "Nelson standing behind Wylam as Apopka Fire Chief", which was one of the most read stories of the week. Then, on April 17th, we republished the article as part of the "In case you missed it" stories, which rekindled a thread of social media comments on our Facebook page and news site about the AFD.
Here are several of the comments posted on our Facebook page and news site:
Who should be held accountable?
Although the issues at the AFD go well beyond the tragic accident that ultimately took the life of a young firefighter, it's the death of Austin Duran that frames nearly every discussion. Several readers questioned if Mayor Bryan Nelson, Fire Chief Sean Wylam, or others in the AFD chain of command are most at fault.
"What’s baffling to me and would ask why it’s never come up, is why has all the blame fallen on the Mayor? Apopka resident Demetrios Vergos posted. "I used to work in a manufacturing plant, and the structure of management was plant manager, department heads and underneath each department head were lead men, supervisors, and superintendents.
My reason for bringing that up is in the fire department they have a fire chief, and underneath the chief they have a chain of command that I’m assuming is comprised of lieutenants, and captains.
My question is who was in charge that day?
Despite the majority of firefighters employed by Apopka being against Wylam with a vote of no confidence... because according to them it was common knowledge that the sand trailer was dangerous and therefore it should have never been in operation.
Just curious as to why whoever was in charge that day and made the assignment orders gets off clean with no negligence due to dereliction of duties? If I was in charge that day and put that boy in harm's way I would have resigned immediately and I would have to live with that all my life because I didn’t do the job I was promoted to and paid for!"
Michael Duran, the father of Austin, believes that accountability rests with the leader of the AFD and the City of Apopka.
"The fact is, the sand trailer was taken out of use by the previous fire chief and his district chief around 2018. It was a known hazard to all. Even the city maintenance facility improperly installed a trailer jack in the rear of the trailer, towards the bottom back in 2005. Why? Because they attempted to stabilize it from tipping backwards.
The problem is, you place a firefighter literally in the kill zone. On June 30th, 2022, that firefighter was my son.
The reason for “bashing” the mayor and the fire chief is because neither of them have taken any actions towards the member in charge that day. Division Chief John Howe asked Wylam on June 29th if they could fill the trailer with sand. It was emptied due to not being in service. Howe would not need permission to ask Wylam to fill it if it was still in use. Wylam agreed. After Howe told other staff to grab it and get it filled, other chiefs pushed back and asked, 'What ??? Why ??' Howe responded 'if we have it, we are going to use it'
They filled it because they were ordered to.
The AFD's C shift, working that night was upset that their supervisor filled the trailer and a lieutenant told his young crew, 'do not touch that thing. It can kill you.'
My son was working A shift the next day, and the dangers of the trailer was never passed onto his shift, or him. After training at the training center, he and another rookie firefighter were ordered to move the sand trailer from station 1 to station 5. Neither Austin nor the other young firefighter had ever seen this trailer before that moment on June 30th.
Sean Wylam was the training chief before he became Fire Chief. In over three years, he never filled his vacant position. There was absolutely zero training on that sand trailer. Wylam and Howe knew that. That was their job. Had they done their job, my son would be working today, still as a firefighter.
No one to this day has been held accountable. The mayor continues to publicly minimize the death of my son as if it was just a door ding on a fire engine. .
Until someone is held accountable, I will continue to fight for my son. For the remaining firefighters that I know, life can end at any moment, even at the fire station. The mayor has the authority to make this right. But due to political gain, he refuses. This isn’t about “bashing” the mayor. It is about forcing him to make needed changes in the AFD. Sadly, Wylam isn’t capable to drive those life saving changes.
Who is truly at fault? It starts at the top."
The Apopka Professional Firefighters Association also posted a comment, reminding those asking questions of accountability that an investigation into the incident had commenced under the AFD Safety Commission, but was abruptly stopped.
"It seems like some of the commenters here are implying that an internal departmental investigation would have been appropriate and would have helped to obtain clarity regarding unanswered questions, decisions, policies, and procedures. Unfortunately, the Fire Chief and Mayor stopped the Safety Committee from doing just that in December."
Unsafe equipment still in use?
A lot has been written about the sand trailer. It's a piece of equipment the AFD utilized for many years, but ultimately made its way to a garage in 2018 because of extreme safety issues. But then in June 2022, it inexplicably re-emerged. How did that happen? A lot of readers asked similiar questions.
"With respect, why didn't Chief Carnesale and/or District Chief Bengston retire this trailer and ask the City for funds to replace it?" Jim Nesbit asked on The Apopka Voice news site. "They both state it was unsafe, one of them even "mothballed" it. I don't think the Mayor is attempting to lay blame on these guys. I think he's asking a good question. If this trailer was deemed universally unsafe, why was it still being used? And why was an inexperienced fireman sent to move it? The details count, at EVERY level. Direct supervisors, middle supervisors, union safety rules and regulations. Let's keep going. We are starting to see details emerge."
David Odom, a former employee of the City, was surprised the sand trailer was not permenantly removed from service at the time it was put in the garage.
"If this peace of equipment was deemed to be unsafe and dangerous at some point back obviously before this administration then why wasn't it destroyed!" asked Odom. "Anything considered dangerous in any department should immediately be made inoperable and dismantled so nobody is at any possible risk! And absolutely I mean destroyed."
"The shame of the whole thing is that the majority of the firefighters admitted that they had knowledge of the equipment being a hazard! Vergos said. "So in the name of God why would whoever was in charge of that fire hall that day take two rookies with very little experience and assign them that task? And furthermore as if that wasn’t bad enough why wouldn’t they be supervised while handling the equipment? Where were the higher ups that day that were in charge and passed out assignments?"
Duran responded to Odom in the thread about how City equipment can be surplussed, but not destroyed.
"A fire chief is not authorized to destroy city property," Duran said. "The tower at the training center has been a hazard for many years. Only after the AFD got a third-party company to evaluate the department, it is now, finally being “surplussed”. The sand trailer is now officially removed from the fire stations. All because we had to fight with the mayor. We had to fight, beg, for a training and safety chief and 18 firefighters. Twenty positions that was desperately needed. Somehow it was a battle."
"I worked for the City of Apopka for over 10 years and know it's not easy to dispose of any city property," Odom said in response. "However an unsafe and dangerous item shouldn't be surplussed it should be destroyed - period! I'm not taking sides... believe me I'm only saying there's plenty of blame that could go around. The city should make it permanent policy to destroy any equipment deemed dangerous!
Mayor and Fire Chief Bashing
Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and Fire Chief Sean Wylam have certainly experienced a great deal of criticism by residents, city commissioners, firefighters, the media and by the Gannon report. But is that criticism warranted?
"It's always been about agenda," said Apopka resident Barb Zakszewski. "People just hating on the mayor."
"It’s easy to blame the Mayor, and the Chief but the reason we have District Chiefs, Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains is because the Mayor and the Chief can’t be at every fire hall every minute of the day!" Vergos said.
Duran believes it was the only way to get needed changes at the AFD, and takes responsibility for their origins.
"It was me that started this fight after I laid my son to rest," he said. "It was me that attended almost every city hall meeting fighting for better training and safety. Again, this isn’t about “bashing” the mayor. Before July 15, 2022, I did not even know who the mayor was for Apopka. My fight, my goal was and still is, to bring foundation and culture changes to the AFD. There is factual and documented evidence of poor to no training. There was no training chief. No life chief. And only two firefighters on front engines. We now have 3. National standards is 4. My son was killed due to NO training for that trailer. My son was killed because of a hostile administration inside AFD (his own written words of being afraid to speak or ask administration due to how they would react). His own words of staff NOT helping him when he asked questions. Being afraid of retaliation (which still exists). This isn't political for me. This is about accountability and justice for my son. His death was absolutely 100% preventable."
Apopka Fire Department,
Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson,
Apopka Fire Chief Sean Wylam,