By Stephen Hudak
A consultant’s review of the Apopka Fire Department, conducted in the wake of last summer’s on-duty death of firefighter Austin Duran, alleges firefighter health and safety programs have been neglected for years, according to a 45-page draft of the report.
Its authors, Gannon Emergency Solutions, commissioned by the city last year, suggested the 131-employee department “needs a reset.”
The document praised positive, recent changes in the Fire Department’s organizational hierarchy including adding a training chief and a life-safety chief, both new posts, but it also “identified deeper foundation deficiencies” that fuel concern as the city grows.
With a population of about 56,000 people, Apopka is Orange County’s second-largest city.
The draft, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel through a public records request, includes electronically inserted comments in the margins by Fire Chief Sean Wylam and City Attorney Michael Rodriguez, who disputed many of Gannon’s observations, conclusions and language.
“We didn’t edit anything out,” Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson said. “We just put in [comments] where they were wrong.”
Nelson, elected to a second, four-year term last March, said he was disappointed in the review. He said it appeared intended to persuade the city to award Gannon a three-year contract at $150,000 a year to help fix the problems they said they found in the department.
The report’s authors were out of the country on business Wednesday and unavailable for comment. They are expected to give a formal presentation on their findings at a future Apopka City Council meeting, the mayor said.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, Michael Duran, the fallen firefighter’s father, offered his view of the city’s response.
“No surprise,” he said. “The city continues … to push back and refuse to accept accountability.”
As required by law, the Duran family has notified the city it intends to sue over Austin’s death.
Austin Duran, 25, died July 15 from injuries suffered in an on-duty accident at a fire station when a trailer filled with sand tipped over and crushed him. Neither he nor a co-worker helping him had been trained on how to move the trailer.
Fire Lt. Alex Klepper, head of the Apopka firefighters union, assailed city leaders’ criticism of the consultants they handpicked.
“This company has gone from experts to enemy No. 1 for exposing the reality that the rest of us live in,” he said.
Under a section titled “Unacceptable and Requires Urgent Attention,” the consultants referenced the tragic lack of training.
“There is a prevailing and widespread culture of assumption and taking things for granted,” they wrote. “It was assumed that Austin Duran and his colleague knew how to hitch the trailer and it was taken for granted that they were capable of doing so. Better guidelines, training and supervision eliminate assumption and are critically important in such a young and inexperienced organization.”
Consultants noted many firefighters spoke with them anonymously, fearing retribution from department administration.
Administrators clapped back in a note attributed to ”fire staff” in the report’s margin.
“Again, these are serious accusations that AFD takes seriously, and ones we would NEVER ignore. We have never received a complaint regarding this statement,” it read. “Even with rumors of such, we developed a mentorship program to encourage everyone to say something if they see something.”
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The consultants cited “major issues” with the department’s attention to health and safety, including a lack of accountability.
The report alleges the health and safety issue went beyond the Fire Department and faulted the absence of “a dedicated and experienced safety professional to ensure compliance with basic safety requirements citywide.” They recommended hiring a “change manager.”
Fire officials brushed off the guidance. “Infers that [fire] staff is incapable of driving change,” they wrote.
The consultants pointed out that firefighting is a dangerous occupation.
“It is accepted that a firefighter’s role will expose them to danger and unpredictable situations responding to emergencies in the field, but not at a fire station where workplace safety should be exemplary,” they noted. “City leaders, fire department staff, the Duran family and the community all want to see a thorough review of the circumstances and a progressive reaction to the findings. The outcomes of this report and the legacy should be a strategic plan and a process of change that puts in place measures to prevent something like this from happening again.”
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