By Wells Dusenbury
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — A Delray Beach firefighter walked into an apartment, looked at a man’s body, determined he was dead and walked out, records show. But when workers tasked with removing the body came an hour and 19 minutes later, they were in for a shock: The man was still alive.
It was a seemingly routine call that led to consequences: The city fired the firefighter, Brandon Hagans, after an investigation found he didn’t properly check the man on June 8 and then allegedly lied about it multiple times afterward. His supervisor also received a 48-hour suspension.
Hagans, 29, had failed to perform any type of medical test on the man and only looked at the body for six seconds from the bathroom doorway before leaving, according to a 30-page incident report by Delray Beach Fire Rescue.
Reached by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Tuesday, Hagans did not dispute the findings of the report, admitting he had made a mistake, but he believes he deserves a second chance.
The 83-year-old man was taken to Delray Medical Center. He died more than two weeks later, on June 25, according to the medical examiner, which didn’t have a cause of death listed.
The city didn’t provide information about the man’s health, citing medical privacy laws. Records show the man’s well-being had been a cause for concern before the June 8 incident: During his visit to the apartment, Hagans remarked that they had “checked on this guy not long ago,” indicating they previously did a wellness check on the man.
In addition to firing Hagans, the city sent a letter to the Florida Department of Health recommending Hagans’ medical certification be suspended indefinitely. But that might not be the end of the saga: Delray Beach could be forced to rehire Hagans and bring him back to active duty.
The local firefighter’s union, Professional Firefighters of Delray Beach, Local 1842, IAFF, Inc. is fighting the decision, saying the city overstepped its bounds in firing Hagans, proclaiming it an “unjust termination” and requesting the matter go to arbitration, where it will be taken out of the city’s hands.
Delray Beach City Attorney Lynn Gelin was astonished by the union fighting the decision.
“If I can’t think of a better reason to fire somebody, this is it. What [he] did to that family. [He] lied, went back and falsified reports.”
“How the hell could this happen?”
The incident began just after midnight when Delray Beach Police received a call from a nurse at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in West Palm Beach, saying the elderly man had missed several meetings, according to the report. A police officer arrived at the apartment complex, which was not identified in the report, to perform a welfare check and went into the unit after it was unlocked by a maintenance man.
Upon entering the building, the maintenance man discovered the body in the bathtub at 12:28 a.m., the report said. The officer didn’t check inside the bathroom, but said the man “didn’t look like he was breathing.”
Police called fire rescue at 1:04 a.m. to come and confirm the man had died.
Six minutes later, Hagans arrived and was directed by his supervisor, Capt. Matthew Turnbach, to check the body, records show.
Hagans brought a cardiac monitor from the engine, but on his way to the apartment was told by the officer that “you’re not going to need that,” according to body camera footage. Hagans replied, “Yeah, but I have to print the [cardiac test].”
Upon entering the apartment, Hagans placed the cardiac machine on the ground, walked to the bathroom doorway and observed the man, who was in the bathtub, according to the report.
After looking at the body for six seconds, Hagans then walked out of the apartment and called his captain, saying the man was dead, the records show.
An hour and 19 minutes later, two body-removal agents arrived to take the man to a funeral home, but quickly “found the person breathing and responsive to touch and verbal stimulus.”
One of the agents ran downstairs to flag down the police officer, who was sitting in his car. “He’s breathing, he’s still alive!” the agent told the officer, who then called dispatch, requesting fire rescue, the report said.
“How the hell could this happen?” a Delray Beach Fire lieutenant immediately proclaimed upon arriving at the apartment, according to the report. Shortly after, the man then was taken to Delray Medical Center.
Hagans later wrote in his report that he completed the cardiac test and that he had “touched the patient when he assessed for signs of death.”
Following the incident, Delray Beach Fire Rescue began an investigation, which included interviews with 11 people associated with the event and an analysis of body-camera footage from the police officer who accompanied Hagans and Hagans’ filed report with the department.
During his sworn testimony, Hagans said he touched the body three times, but after being shown body-camera footage from the scene, Hagans “admitted during his sworn testimony that he did not check for a pulse, did not check for respirations, did not check pupillary response, and did not check for rigor mortis,” the report said.
In addition to Hagans being terminated, Turnbach was given a 48-hour suspension without pay since he was the supervisor on the scene and that he has “the responsibility to manage the personnel under his command and to ensure proper procedures and protocols are followed,” according to the report.
‘Hoping to get a second chance’
Following Hagans’ dismissal, the union filed a grievance against the city asking for the firefighter to be reinstated to his position. A panel of arbiters will hear the case in the near future.
“I’m just hoping to get a second chance,” Hagans told the Sun Sentinel. “I’m a young employee; I’ve been there five years with a good track record.
“I think I was just a little antsy and nervous during the investigation because I’ve never been a part of something so serious. I kind of got choked by my words and didn’t know how to answer.”
“I was young. It was my first mistake.”
Representatives of the union couldn’t be reached for comment, and Turnbach also couldn’t be reached for comment. Attempts by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel to reach the 83-year-old man’s family were unsuccessful.
Gelin, however, feels the union is going too far in asking for Hagans to be reinstated, saying it would send a bad message to city employees.
“This takes it to a whole new level,” Gelin said. “[The union] is now encouraging [their] fellow firefighters and paramedics that “it’s OK to lie; we still have your back.’ That’s what they’re saying with this.”
“Instead of saying to their membership, ‘Everybody makes mistakes, but you don’t lie about it. You own it.’”