New scrutiny for Apopka’s Fire Chief over handling of firefighter's death
APOPKA, Fla. - Apopka’s Fire Chief could soon be out of a job. At least two of the City’s Council members suggested he step down or be fired.
"In my mind, there’s only one course of action, and that’s new leadership," said Councilman Kyle Becker.
That all happened at a City Council meeting Wednesday that began tearful and ended fiery. The City was discussing changes to the Fire Department following the death of 25-year-old firefighter Austin Duran.
Duran was announced as the Apopka Fire Department’s Firefighter of the Year Wednesday. That was a bittersweet sentiment for Duran’s family.
"I’m struggling to be an only child. I’m struggling with my past, my future, and myself. I’m struggling with the loss of my brother, Duran’s sister, Sierra, said during Wednesday’s council meeting. "I want everyone that’s listening to understand the weight of what was lost and can never be regained."
The City of Apopka and the Fire Department accepted findings in a report commissioned from Gannon Emergency Solutions. When Gannon’s original report went to the Fire Department, its lawyers listed line after line of arguments and disagreements, largely over semantics.
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For instance, the response brought up an issue with the word "dysfunctional" when Gannon wrote,
"The department is dysfunctional in many key areas and needs urgent operational and administrative reform to improve both member safety and workplace culture."
"I’m really disappointed in the way they handled it," said Austin’s mother, Gayle. "I would’ve thought they’d have taken it and embraced it and said, ‘You know what, we do need to make some changes.’"
Gannon included a summary of major issues at AFD, listing:
- A history of inadequate safety, health, and wellness programs
- Young Department
- Incomplete Organizational Structure
- Lack of Strategic Planning
- Lack of Accountability
"The fact that they found a lot wrong is a good thing and gives them the information they need to make the changes they need to make," added Gayle Duran.
The company also made five key recommendations, including increasing safety training and getting more funding for health and safety improvements.
"Make no mistake, I am the Chief and the buck stops here," Chief Sean J. Wylam told the City Council after a presentation on the Gannon report and proposed changes - a presentation which the Council described as "disappointing" and "lackluster."
Gannon also recommended appointing a Change Manager, which the Chief proposed handling himself. The Council shot that idea down.
"You can’t be everything, and somebody needs to be in here to tell you that you’re wrong," said Councilman Nick Nesta.
The Fire Department has made some changes. It hired 18 more firefighters and two assistant chiefs, but there’s still a looming question for Mike Duran, Austin’s father.
"There is a problem with this department," he said. "Gannon Emergency Solutions were able to find those issues. Now, we have to fix them, and we don’t have the confidence in the Fire Chief to do it."
At the last Council meeting, 85% of Apopka’s firefighters joined a vote of no confidence in the Chief, asking him to step down.
"I think what everybody wants is just somebody to say, ‘Dammit, I took accountability, we’re going to get this stuff fixed,’" said Councilman Kyle Becker.
These past eight months, the Duran family was able to turn their sadness and anger into action, demanding improvements at AFD. When those changes do finally happen, Gayle Duran says,
"We can sit back and grieve and do all the things we’re supposed to do – as a normal family would do."
Apopka’s Fire Chief says he’ll be sending a new Strategic Plan on April 3rd, then holding an external stakeholder meeting.