Now that the 2011 application period for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) is over, how do you feel? Did your department apply? Was it crazy? Were you prepared? Many things we do in the fire service require preparation and training. Your grant application process should be no different. Before next year’s grant application period rolls around, it’s a good idea to spend time “training” your mind so you’re prepared well in advance.
Failure to Plan = a Plan to Fail
Many departments hold massive brainstorming sessions and pull all-nighters in the days leading up to the grant application deadline. (This year, it was like a gift when they announced week-long extensions in the deadline.) Grant writers, who write scores of grants for numerous departments, can spend countless hours proofreading and rewriting applications, and talking with their clients. I write grants for both departments I work for, and I’ve occasionally branched out to other neighboring departments. I’ve been very successful in my writing, but I’m constantly plagued by fire chiefs who haven’t prepared for their grants.
Failure to plan is ultimately a plan to fail, and it repeats every single year. It’s just like budgeting for Christmas, a holiday that comes every year, but as consumers, we often don’t prepare properly. So we’re suddenly surprised—year after year—when the Christmas season is upon us. Collectively, the fire service needs to break this cycle. I’m not talking about starting to write your grants when they announce that the grant application period is open, I’m talking about starting your grant narratives right now.
This isn’t an article to help you write a better grant; this is an article about preparation and what to do for next year. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, was once asked what he was preparing for the organization, and his response was, “Why, any old thing.” As firefighters, we need to be much more focused than that.
Of course, there are departments that are very prepared and ready every year when AFG rolls around, and I applaud their efforts. However, I believe the majority of us waits until the last second to decide what we want—but what we want and what we need can be two different things, and awards aren’t given out based on wants.
The Major Steps
One of the first major steps you can take when preparing for the grant-writing process is to spend a good amount of time analyzing your department’s needs, and more specifically, separating the needs from the wants and ensuring you can justify your needs.
At the same time, perform a risk analysis of your department. What are your greatest risks? How many target hazards are in your district? Look at your department and community as a whole. What would make you a stronger fire department and what would make your community a safer place? If you’re not sure how to perform a risk analysis and needs assessment, you may want to check out the CFAI website (www.cfainet.org/). Personally, I learned a huge amount of information by listening to Brian Vickers, a consultant and a public safety grant writer. I also attended a weekend seminar from another consultant, Kurt Bradley, who I believe now works for Firstrespondergrants.com.
Everything for AFG specifically can be found online through Google, FEMA or firegrantshelp.com. When I first started out, however, I tried to make things as simple as possible, so I went to a very basic source, “Grant Writing for Dummies”, ISBN 0-7645-5307-0, which goes into a little more detail about how to tell a story with your grant writing rather than simply begging for money. Another reference I’ve used in the past is “How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters,” ISBN 0-7879-5652-X.
You may also have other resources at your disposal, depending on where you live. In my community, there are two fire department assistance functions of the State: a County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) and a Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS). Your state may have similar services that you can contact regarding how to perform an internal risk analysis.
If you’re interested in a third-party risk assessment, look online for resources. They can provide a picture of your department in ways you may never have thought about.
Lastly, determine your department’s goals, both short- and long-term. These actions will help separate the applicants into two categories: departments that are simply in the process to get some free money and those that are genuinely in need of assistance. To determine your department’s goals, focus on your ultimate mission: What is your department trying to accomplish overall?
These activities are not just for the chief. Every active member, retired member and even board members or your City Council must have a part in these tasks. To ensure everyone’s involvement, hold a work session and invite all members, past and present. The chief can guide the discussion, but overall, your community needs should drive the entire process. Then, once you determine your needs, find the NFPA codes that support your needs because the narrative should address those standards in detail.
To be fully prepared, organized and ready to write a winning application in 2012, you’ll need the following items:
- If your department doesn’t have a computerized records management system (RMS), get one. An RMS allows you to track your call volume and other data without using pen and paper. (I won’t recommend one over the other because they all have their positives and negatives.) Grant-writing guidelines require you to perform an analysis on your department’s activities for the past three years, but if you don’t have that much data, you need to start keeping records now. Your RMS is at the heart of your grant-writing process, because it will be able to sort through the mass of information you gather throughout the year. If you need to know how many times you used SCBA on a fire, it will be able to identify all the working fires you’ve responded to in the past few years. If you need to know the time of day for your most active call volume, it will be able to report that. Some of you may already use an RMS, but now is the time to take advantage of all the things it can do for you.
- If you don’t report to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), you need to start now, because one of the questions in the grant-writing process asks if you report to NFIRS. I’m not a grant expert or grant-writing consultant, but I’ve seen the trends over the years, and with electronic scoring being so prevalent, I can only imagine that if your department does not report to NFIRS, you won’t get any more than a minimal computer score. Your RMS can be used to create a NFIRS report and upload it to the NFIRS system. For help in doing this, contact your individual state fire reporting entity or visit www.nfirs.fema.gov and follow the instructions.
- All of your personnel must adhere to Homeland Security Presidential Directive #5 (HSPD-5). The efforts to begin NIMS compliancy started in 2003 so by now, all of your departmental personnel should have attended IS-100, 200, 700 and 800 classes online. In addition, all officers must have attended IS-300 and IS-400 in a classroom setting—and this goes for volunteer departments, too. Within each municipality, there are specialized NIMS classes for departments; city employees should also be taking these courses. When you state on your application that you are 100% NIMS compliant, this is what it means.
- You need to make every effort to attend a grant guidance meeting prior to the opening of the grant period. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) work hard at locating these informational sessions so that they’re close to everyone—within a two hour drive time. Even if you attended a session the year before, you should take advantage of these opportunities every year, because there are changes every year. For example, a new question was added this year: “Do you have a seasonal increase in your population?” Another example: The entire process changed in 2011. Instead of being limited to one specific need, you could apply for needs in five different categories—equipment, training, PPE, wellness/fitness and facility modification.
Other Key Considerations
Even if you’re not applying for a vehicle grant, you must assess your vehicle inventory. Identify your apparatus by function, seating positions, SCBA assignments, gallons, pump capacity in gpm, VIN, make, model, chassis, manufacturer and even their limitations. This information doesn’t always get recorded in an equipment application, but as an example, if you’re applying for SCBA, you must know your seated positions.
When analyzing your call volume for the past three years, break down your calls according to NFIRS codes. Identify how many wildland fires you’ve responded to and the acreage burned. Record how many times you received and provided mutual aid. Look at ALL of your responses throughout the year and consider how your needs are affected by them. And inventory everything! Find what resources you have and how much you have of each one. Also, determine what needs to be retired, what’s broken and what’s still useable.
Make a list of all the financial problems you have, and be ready to critically report why you cannot financially bear the cost of the specific project you are proposing (tax increases, decrease in donations, etc. Note these in percentages.) Spend some time with the department’s accountant, and report your expenses in the grant. If you’ve been able to save money for the grant match, tell them how you did that.
Scrutinize your training and create a plan for all of your active, frontline firefighters to reach the FF2 level. Calculate what percentage of your firefighters are trained at the FF1 and FF2 levels as well as the percentage of firefighters who will need specialized training. For example, 30 percent of my department’s active members have FF1 certifications, 15 percent have FF2 certifications and 3 percent hold confined space rescue certifications. The goal of the fire service is to have 100% of fire department members at FF2 level.
Do not apply for any program that doesn’t offer some type of training. In other words, don’t apply for a vehicle grant without emergency vehicle driver training (EVDT) attached to it. Do not apply for rope equipment without including a request for training to move your firefighters up to the NFPA 1670 level. The U.S. Fire Administration wants all departments (career or volunteer) to adopt the goal of moving all firefighters up to the FF2 level. This is an ambitious goal for volunteer departments, but ultimately, if you prepare ahead of time and have a defined goal, your grant writing becomes easier, which, if you’re rewarded a grant, makes achieving your goal easier.
Are You Ready?
This is a lot of work, but grants aren’t given to everyone. They’re given to those who understand the system and can make a plan and be proactive. Now is the time to be prepared—the Fire Prevention grant period will come up soon, closely followed by the SAFER grant period and within a year, we’ll be right back to Operations/Safety and Vehicles.
All of your grant applications will become easier if you prepare your department properly and have completed a risk analysis and a needs assessment. Start now, before crunch time, and be ready for the next application period. With all this information in hand, you might even be ready for the next time they suddenly open a Station Construction Grant … you just never know.