Fernway Elementary blaze sparks fire safety changes in Shaker Heights

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio - The City of Shaker Heights has enacted new regulations to strengthen safety standards for the type of construction work that sparked a fire at Fernway Elementary School In July.

Shaker Heights City Council approved regulations at its February 11 meeting that change the process contractor permitting, require training and strengthen penalties for violations.

Shaker Heights Fire Chief Patrick Sweeney said investigators determined the July 10 fire was caused by a worker using a torch or the failure of a tool used in a roofing project at Fernway.

"It's a beloved school so we certainly would be remiss if we didn't try to identify what happened here," Sweeney said. "We would much rather prevent a fire from occurring than actually responding to put a fire out, so it's critical that we found out what happened here."

To prevent similar fires, the city set out to strengthen standards for similar hot work projects involving welding, cutting, and roofing torches.

"If you're going to do this work in Shaker Heights, we want to make sure you know what you're doing and that you're going to follow the industry standards," Sweeney said.

City leaders revised the permitting process to include more combined involvement by the Building Department and Fire Department in hot work applications.

The city will also require contractor training to get a license for hot work projects based on a program being used in Boston. The Boston Fire Department teamed with the National Fire Protection Association to develop a certification program for contractor training after a 2014 fire killed two Boston firefighters.

Under the new requirements in Shaker Heights, at least one certified worker must be on site while hot work is being performed. The amount of insurance required for hot work contractors was also increased.

Shaker Heights stiffened penalties for violations to include suspension of work, fines, and a misdemeanor criminal charge.
"We're hoping that what we're doing here can prevent this from over reoccurring again," Sweeney said.

Sweeney said he hopes other local municipalities will follow suit and improve their regulations.

Students from Fernway were moved to other schools after the fire. Work is underway to rebuild the school. Renovations are expected to be completed in the spring of 2020. In November, the Board of Education approved $3 million to fund the project, in addition to $14.5 million from an insurance settlement.

Parents and the Shaker Schools Foundation launched the Fernway Forward campaign to raise additional money for renovations, including to improve and relocate the school playground.

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