By Wayne L. Eder
Published Thursday, June 16, 2011
Editor’s Note: The following article focuses on securing grant funding for fire apparatus. Check out Eder’s first grant feature, “Secure Grant Funding: How & when to apply for various grant packages,” which focuses on a variety of grant packages for everything from PPE to training tools.
The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) application period for 2011 will open any day now, likely creating a flurry of activity as fire personnel scramble to prepare their grant applications. Fire apparatus grants in particular are a big deal. Engines, ladders, water tenders, rescues and hazmat vehicles are big-ticket items, and the competition for these grants is fierce. Unfortunately, most vehicle grants are dismissed in the initial phases because the grant writers failed to stick to the basics or asked for an unrealistic sum to purchase their “dream rig.” With this in mind, following are a few tips on how to get a new vehicle for your department using grant funds.
Read the Directions
I discussed the idea of reading the directions in my first grant article as well, which should underscore how important it is. But you’d be surprised how few people actually read the application directions. For me, when the new AFG guidance documents come out each year, I print off and read the entire document, highlighting and taking notes about important passages. All grants have clear objectives. Determine the objectives for the current year, and determine if your department’s needs meet the current year’s funding priorities. Fire vehicle grant awards make up only a small portion of the overall AFG grant. In 2010, this equated to 25%—or roughly $97.5 million of a $390 million program. This comes out to about 100 vehicle awards nationwide each year. So you can see how competitive it is, which underscores the fact that not following grant guidance documents will result in a major setback right out of the gate. Also read the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section prior to writing your grant, and be sure to fill out all sections completely and accurately.
The narrative is the single most important part of the AFG grant application (after filling out the application in its entirety). Start writing your grant narrative before the grant application period even opens. Use a word processing program so you can cut and paste your material into the grant form when you’re ready.
Key Point: Make the evaluators feel your need. Also clarify your objectives and why you cannot fund this purchase through other means.
Successful narratives take into consideration the guidance documents and FAQs as well as the specific requirements found in the narrative section. The narrative asks you to address specific topics that can only be accessed once other areas of the grant are complete. Here are some recent topics: 1) your project’s description and budget; 2) your organization’s financial need; 3) the cost benefit to FEMA for your project; 4) how the activities requested in your application will help your organization’s daily operations; and 5) how the grant will protect life and property. I will typically use each of these topics in my narrative and expand on this information (and information from the guidance documents) to create a comprehensive narrative.
In addition to NFPA standards, other valuable resources to quote in your narrative include the various statistics and publications put out by the USFA. For example, in my winning pumper/tender grant narratives, I have quoted the USFA publication Safe Operation of Fire Tankers. The federal government has put a lot of time and effort into these studies, which are available to you for free, so why not use them to your advantage? Call the USFA Publications Center at 800/561-3356 for more information about accessing publications.
Be as clear and concise as possible in the narrative, and clarify everything to the peer-review panel while trying to maintain some semblance of brevity. This is the most difficult portion of the grant, but it is the portion that sells your project, so spend time writing a great narrative.
Key Point: Don’t forget to address all specific financial issues in the narrative, including purchase price, cost of performance bond, loose equipment, and tax and training costs.
One of the most important and valuable aspects of the AFG grant program is funding for PPE and Firefighter I and II training. If you haven’t addressed these issues in your department, do so before applying for a vehicle grant, and note them in your grant application for a vehicle. If you have not addressed these issues separately, apply for them in the current grant year. Remember that you can typically apply for more than one grant area; however, you should note in BOTH narratives that you are applying for PPE and apparatus to assist the reviewers in the peer review process. Firefighter safety is the primary goal of the AFG program, and demonstrating that your department has properly trained and equipped its personnel goes a long way in getting vehicle grants. Further, don’t forget to apply for the physical fitness and wellness grants, and show that your department is keeping your firefighters healthy!
I’ve reviewed many grant narratives for fire apparatus and often find that the narrative isn’t effectively “selling” the grant to the reviewer. Make sure you’re thoroughly explaining your needs, even if that means tugging at the heart strings a bit.
Also, one big issue is that grant writers can be unrealistic in their needs. If you’re asking for a second ladder truck or a 10th pumper to serve as a reserve unit for your department, you probably won’t get the grant. Typically, AFG grants are most successful when an aging, non-NFPA-compliant unit is being replaced and removed from service. The grant usually requires that a unit be removed from service and certification that the replaced unit will never be used for emergency response. This limits your choices as some departments think they can sell a unit to another department to fund the matching requirements. Be very cautious in this area, as a violation in a federal grant could impact future funding for your agency.
Key Point: Open cab, non-NFPA-compliant apparatus are prime targets for replacement by an AFG grant. These include vehicles equipped with open rear jump seats. Apparatus that was previously used for something else (i.e., a fuel tender) and modified for fire use is also a strong candidate for replacement.
You’re also required to provide the age and number of seating positions of various apparatus. If your fleet’s average age is less than 5–10 years old, your chance of getting a grant decreases significantly. I’ve written grants where the average fleet age was in excess of 35 years. These are the departments that are more likely to receive a grant.
The apparatus grants that don’t make it typically don’t address driver operator training. One of the goals of the AFG is to train personnel to national or state training standards, so make sure to request funding to certify all drivers to the latest edition of NFPA 1002: Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications. You can request funds for textbooks, lesson plans, videos, certification and instructor fees, and even travel/tuition to attend outside courses. Ensure that this training meets NFPA (or equivalent) standards, and is certified/accredited by IFSAC or PROBOARD, or your state fire marshal.
Apparatus prices have gone up in recent years, and costs will continue to increase. Some departments claim that they cannot live without an $800,000 10-person apparatus with custom cab. Is that realistic? All of the successful AFG apparatus awards that I’ve written have been in the $210,000–$250,000 range. These awards included three pumper/tenders and one Type I engine. All included commercial chassis and 1,500-gpm pumps with firefighting foam systems.
Start doing your research early. Find a competitive, commercial chassis or even an economical custom chassis for your apparatus. Include NFPA-required equipment in the cost to demonstrate that the unit going in service is properly equipped. There’s nothing more embarrassing than opening the compartment on a beautiful new rig and seeing one rusty old hydrant wrench lying inside. You can request all NFPA equipment, including hose, nozzles/fittings, hand tools, salvage covers and everything else you need to put the vehicle in service. Don’t forget brackets to mount everything, as they will keep the apparatus from getting damaged.
Key Point: Used or refurbished apparatus are eligible for a grant provided that they meet NFPA standards and Department of Transportation (DOT) requirements.
Consider a multi-purpose unit. As you have read, three of my grant awards were for pumper/tenders with 1,500-gpm pumps and 3,500-gallon tanks. These units went to rural, non-hydranted communities. We were able to demonstrate the need for water and pump capacity. If you’re buying a pumper/tender, get a large pump to assist in large-flow fires and to assist with your ISO rating down the road. Also, do you run a lot of EMS calls? If so, “rescue/pumper” may be the apparatus term to use in the application. Check the grant guidance documents to see which vehicle is a priority for your type of community.
Key Point: Apparatus must be NFPA- and DOT-compliant. Make a note that your vehicle will meet existing standards in your grant narrative.
Address how you will maintain and insure this vehicle in the grant narrative. This doesn’t need to be in depth, but it should be mentioned. The AFG program is looking for organizations that are committed to protecting the federal investment in your community.
Don’t forget to calculate sales tax, license fees and your share of the matching funds for the grant. I know of at least one department that forgot to add sales tax and was forced to take out a loan to cover this expense. Further, a new addition in recent years was the requirement for an advance payment bond. This requirement was added to again protect the federal investment and must be adhered to in the bid process.
One of the least understood areas of the AFG grant is administrative fees. Your organization is permitted to request that a percentage of the grant go toward administrative fees. Check the guidance documents on this subject. Remember: You’ll be required to submit reports and other documentation during the course of the grant, and you may be able to recoup some of your department’s efforts through the administrative fees. (You can charge off some of the expenses of managing the grant.) Also remember your NIMS and NFIRS requirements, and address these topics in your grant narrative.
Do not forget to ask your federal senators and members of Congress for letters of support for your grant applications, and remind them how important the entire fire grant program is to the fire service. Too often we forget to thank our elected officials for their support, and when it comes time to renew this funding, they have no firsthand knowledge of how these grants help their constituents. It’s up to you to remind them and say thank you!
For more information about apparatus grants, visit these sites:
If you want additional advice on your narrative, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck on your quest for a new vehicle!
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