Secure Grant Funding

It’s that time of year again! Time to work on your Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) applications, and once again, we’ll all hear that frequently asked question: How can my department get a grant?

The AFG has been a staple for fire service funding since its inception in 2001, and to date it has been the most successful funding program in the history of the fire service. This year, it is anticipated that approximately $420 million will be awarded through this program.

Unfortunately, after 10 years of success, there are still fire and EMS agencies that have not received an award. Why? Misinformation, poorly written grant narratives, community apathy, lack of understanding of the program—any one of these problems can inhibit your department’s ability to secure grant funding. With this in mind, let’s look at the basics of the AFG program and how you can work to secure the funding your department needs.

Following Direction
I’m sure that you’ve heard this before, but I cannot emphasize this enough: To be successful in AFG, you must read the directions. The directions to AFG come in several forms, each as important as the next. The good news is that the rules change very little each year, so you can review the previous year’s information to prepare yourself for the upcoming grant.

Start by reading the guidance document, which outlines the funding priorities and gives you a better idea of what grant to submit for. Prior to applying, determine your funding priorities and tailor your department’s needs to the grant process. For example, you may want a new engine, but have yet to address the basic safety and training needs of your department. FEMA will pass over your vehicle grant, as you have not met the first priority of the program.

Also review the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section to assist in completing your grant. Finally, remember that you can also apply for multiple projects. Typically, you can apply for up to three projects—one each in the fire vehicle grant category, one in fire operations and safety, and a regional grant project.

Let’s now take a look at a sample grant package.

Grant Package #1
Firefighter operations and safety are always top priorities, and submitting for the following items as a package is usually a good way to get a winning grant the first time out:

  • Structural PPE (one set for each member of the department): Full structural turnouts, including pants/coat, boots, gloves, hood, helmet, and flashlight. Be sure to specify that all items meet NFPA and OSHA requirements.
  • SCBA: Order an NFPA-compliant SCBA for each seating position on your department’s apparatus. The grant guidance typically specifies that with each SCBA harness assembly, you will also receive one mask and two spare cylinders.
  • SCBA/Compressor/Cascade/Fill Station: Specify a system to fill the new cylinders you’re getting. Replace an older, inadequate unit.
  • SCBA Fit Tester: Now is the time to get one to conduct annual fit testing.
  • Thermal Imaging Camera: This tool fits well with this type of grant from a firefighter safety standpoint.
  • PPE Washer/Extractor: What better way to show the decision-makers at FEMA that you care about maintaining your gear than with a washer/extractor? Yes, an extractor is different than a washing machine; do your homework—a little research on this subject will go a long way toward winning a grant.
  • Training: One of the major goals of AFG is to achieve Firefighter I & II certification. This is where you can get funds for training videos, textbooks, certification fees, audio visual, TV, projectors and outside instructor cost. No burn tower in your area? You can rent a mobile burn trailer to conduct your live-fire training.
  • Computer: As you are required to report to NFIRS, this is the way to get a laptop, printer and software. This computer can also be used for both simulation training and maintaining training records.

So that’s your first grant package. It covers the AFG priorities in one package and helps you address you primary needs: firefighter safety, PPE/SCBA, maintenance and training. For a 20-person volunteer department, this package should be right around $200,000. Before submitting your grant, though, work with vendors to develop your list of needs and to get prices. Don’t wait until the last minute to get quotes.

Do you also need a new fire engine? Submit for the package above AND a vehicle. Again, tie the grants together in the narrative for the best chance of success.

Multi-Year Applications
The following will provide guidance on the order in which you should apply for various projects over a multi-year period:

  • Fire Operations & Safety: As noted above, you’ll want to focus your first grant package on PPE, SCBA and training.
  • Fitness: Once you’ve secured your PPE and training funding the previous year, your Year 2 application should focus on wellness and physical fitness. A wellness grant provides for immunizations, physical fitness equipment, weight trainers and nutritionists. It demonstrates your commitment to firefighter safety.
  • Fire Vehicle Grant: This may be the most difficult grant to win, but it’s doable. Typically, you can apply for a vehicle grant at the same time as the first two grants. Plus, you can apply for this grant with another grant in the operations category. Your best chance for winning involves an application that speaks to replacing an unsafe, non-NFPA-compliant apparatus. If you have a newer fleet, your chances diminish greatly. Try justifying a multi-purpose apparatus, such as a pumper-tender, rescue-pumper, quint, etc. Always include driver/operator training in the grant, and be aware of performance bonds and sales tax issues. Also ask for funding for the minimum equipment inventory as specified by NFPA and ISO. Read the guidance documents for this area carefully.

The following grants can be applied for once your basic needs, such as PPE, wellness and apparatus, are met:

  • Firefighter Training: Here is your chance to get your personnel certified to the Firefighter I & II level, or accomplish other training needs for your community. For example, do you have a petroleum pipeline, refinery or petroleum bulk storage facility in your jurisdiction? This is the perfect opportunity to ask for funding to send key personnel to training programs that are specific to your area. This type of training meets not only Firefighter I & II requirements, but also hazmat and CBRNE training requirements. You can submit for tuition, travel expenses, housing and fuel. Work with your regional training center on grants of this type. You can also request training facilities or a regional mobile fire trainer in this category.
  • Facility Modifications: Vehicle exhaust systems, emergency generators, and sprinkler and alarm systems are all good ideas for this grant. Each enhances not only your safety to personnel, but also the overall safety of your community by protecting your facilities.
  • Firefighting Equipment: This is a good follow-up grant after several years of successful grant awards. Do you have a target hazard that needs high water flows? Consider LDH, foam equipment or any other equipment you need that you did not receive in previous grants. Don’t forget to include dollars in this category to train your personnel how to use the equipment.
  • Regional Projects: What about a regional grant? One of the best opportunities in this area would be a county-wide communications grant that benefits multiple agencies. With upcoming deadlines for narrow banding, this may be a great choice for your area.

Let’s now address some general tips related to the AFG application, narrative and follow-up questionnaire.

The Grant Application
Fill out the grant application completely and accurately. The more accurate and complete, the better chance you have. Keep in mind that the first reviewer on your application is the FEMA computer system, and it can reject the application if you don’t fill it out correctly.

The Grant Narrative
This is where you need to really sell your project, even by tugging at the heart strings a little. Make the reviewers see how desperately your department needs what you’re asking for. In our current economic client, it should be easy to justify your funding needs. Spell out how you have exhausted your efforts, and how this grant will benefit your community and meet the funding goals of the project. Try to tie in training with each category, and explain how you have either addressed other priorities or applied for an additional grant to meet them. Follow the questions in the grant narrative section to hone your narrative writing skills.

This is also the place to note that you have either applied for or have already met the priorities for funding and are moving on to the next priority. Excluding this simple note, which can be as little as one sentence in your narrative, can keep a department from being funded, so make it easier on the evaluators by keeping them informed about your department’s progress.

The Questionnaire
After your grant is submitted, you enter into a long waiting period. Hopefully, you won’t get a rejection letter, but instead, you may get a questionnaire from a FEMA staff member. This will be your first glimmer of hope, showing that FEMA is interested in your grant and wants additional information. Respond to this e-mail as soon as possible. In the communications from FEMA, you may see that FEMA only pays a specific amount for items, such as helmets, gloves, SCBA, etc. This is based on average costs around the country. You can make this work with your vendors; simply explain to them how much funding you received.

Document Everything
Start keeping a BIG three-ring binder with copies of all e-mail correspondence, a printed copy of your grant application, and all quotes or correspondence with vendors. You can be audited by FEMA on this grant, and planning ahead will save you from having to play catch up later on.

Final Thoughts
Ask your neighboring departments for help and advice related to your grant. Some of the most successful AFG applications have involved groups of departments working together to reach common goals. Keep in mind that you can contact vendors for assistance with narratives, but be cautious in this area, as you will be required to follow federal purchasing guidelines. Also, don’t forget about NIMS compliance and National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) requirements.

Good luck in this year’s grant process!