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Editor's Note
by Rick Markley, editor-in-chief

Grants and greed: Joyrides on a $1M fireboat

The $1 million boat is a great lesson in the importance of separating need from want when it's time to apply for grants

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

Can you picture it, that iconic scene of teenage brothers at the dinner table? Each loads his plates full and eats as fast as he can; if he doesn't, someone else at the table will eat the remaining food.

It's grab what you can before it's all gone. Watch your fingers.

That's the first image that popped in my head as I read about the Pennsylvania volunteer fire department that was shut down in part over a $1 million boat it owned. The boat came by way of a federal anti-terror grant but was rigged with firefighting equipment, including a sonar system that was never installed.

There were reports that the boat did little more than go for joy rides and had even gotten into a bang up or two. The department has been reinstated and plans to dispose of the boat, dubbed 'the bear on the Delaware,' are under way.

Shooting fish in a barrel
It would be too easy to sit back and take pot shots at a volunteer department that struggles to find enough members to respond, yet tools around the Delaware River in million-dollar vessel. Can you imagine the great suntans they and their spouses get while tracking down enemy combatants?

And it would be too easy to take pot shots at the feds who approved a $1 million grant for this boat. Can you imagine a room full of chimpanzees stuffed into business suits and green-shade visors running amok with a rubber 'approved' stamp and ink pad?

But pot shots don't solve problems. And I suspect their value as a preventive measure — a shaming agent similar to publishing the names and addresses of 'Johns' popped in prostitution stints — is not that great either.

Clearly, FEMA needs to take a hard look at the types of grants it is approving. In the grand scheme of it, a million bucks may not seem like a lot, but it is. It's a lot because that money could have put two brand new fire trucks on the street or several firefighters on the job.

FEMA needs to sort out this problem; the American people don't need another reason to be cynical about their federal government.

Doing our part
But regardless of what happens in D.C., the real burden of fixing this problem falls to the fire service, and it falls to each individual fire department.

Unlike the ravenous pack of brothers viciously stabbing at the last morsels of meat, our dinner table is much larger. It is so large, in fact, that we cannot see all of the fire department seated at it, or how emaciated they may be.

Yet like the table set for those hungry brothers, our food bowls, or pool of grant money, is finite. For this reason, we must self-police.

The notion of 30,000-plus fire departments taking only the grant money they need to ensure there is enough left to supply the other departments may seem Utopian.

But when done right, self-policing is more effective and desirable than external regulations — say, in the form of a more burdensome grant process that leaves many needy departments without resources.

Self-policing means each fire department must separate needs from wants and consider the good of the whole when submitting grant applications. Department leaders need to be willing to forgo a desired 100-foot aerial or that $1 million anti-terrorist boat.

At the end of the day, it is an issue of ethics. Can we, as individual fire departments, behave ethically so that the entire fire service can be safer and more effective? That's where the rubber meets the road; that's where talk of brotherhood is differentiated from actions of brotherhood.

Rather than take pot shots at a small volunteer department or a large bureaucracy, we need to examine our own behavior and adjust accordingly.

Where the gluttonous brothers can engage in sibling rivalry at the dinner table, our brotherhood needs to keep its appetite in check.

We are, after all, our brothers' keeper.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Robert O'Connor Robert O'Connor Wednesday, September 12, 2012 8:13:03 PM Word: Amen
Mike Johnston Mike Johnston Thursday, September 13, 2012 4:53:47 AM Good luck with that theory. The process is a laughing matter and we all know it.
Don Clarke Don Clarke Friday, September 14, 2012 5:28:36 PM Please don't slander all the volunteer FFs because of one incident -We try out best - This is outrageous behavior both on the. part of the FD who got the grant and for FEMA who clearly did not do their job - I wonder if politics was involved?
Roy Gumpel Roy Gumpel Friday, September 14, 2012 6:55:59 PM Don in high school... read what the man wrote again. I don't hear him slandering all FF's.
John Novak John Novak Friday, September 14, 2012 10:46:16 PM The AFG's need to be shut down and the money returned to the taxpayers. The big career fire departments whose cities have professional grant writers on staff get the lion's share. They could utilize their tax dollars more effectively by purchasing a less expensive piece of apparatus. The VFD's who cannot afford the professional grant writers get passed by year after year when they are asking for essential equipment such as scba or turnout gear. Why don't the big career depts purchase their scba second hand and their turnouts off of ebay? If it is good for the goose, it should be good for the gander.
Elroy M. King Jr. Elroy M. King Jr. Friday, September 14, 2012 11:22:45 PM Itís funny that you hate on the big city departments when this was about a volunteer department that bought a million dollar fire boat.
Bill Galloway Bill Galloway Sunday, September 16, 2012 4:12:06 AM Have any of you ever participated in the process?
Bryan W. Waagner Bryan W. Waagner Sunday, September 16, 2012 1:55:16 PM Elroy you beat me to it but we are not a big city fire department nor did we have a professional grant writer on staff when we were successful in obtaining two grants for new SCBAs and bailout systems. Its about learning, growing, demonstrating a need and following the rules of the grant. FYI the readers that screen the grants do not know exactly who they awarding grants to as the application is assigned a number after FEMA gets it. They read it and evaluate it blind.
Matt Sebastionelli Matt Sebastionelli Monday, September 17, 2012 11:04:45 AM This editorial seems slightly under researched and slightly over-bolstered by knee-jerk feelings. Has there been any research and writing about the grant review process? Mr. Markley, perhaps you as the FR1 Editor can delegate this to someone. I for one would love to read about the reviewing process. If you're pressed for persons to assign this to, feel free to contact me and perhaps I can assist.
Mike Golden Mike Golden Monday, September 17, 2012 11:37:38 AM Matt. I can comment more in a less public forum but a cpl quick points- This particular FD has no need, reason or training to operate a boat like this. The town officials tried intervening to stop the grant but were ignored by the grant committee. The FD was shutdown for a while by the town for many of the same reasons they shouldn't have the boat, not because of the boat. It may be an isolated example but the grant program could probably use an overhaul
Glennon Mayer Glennon Mayer Monday, September 17, 2012 11:50:27 AM mean while other department can't get a dime for new turn out gear or air packs.
Frank Beauvais Frank Beauvais Monday, September 17, 2012 8:07:56 PM I hate to see articles like this as they can be so divisive. Huge boat, small dept.....Some red flags should have been raised. I have participated both in grant committees and AFG review. The volunteers who spend the time reveiwing all of the applications take the process very seriously. The peer review portion I participated in was a lengthy and pretty demanding. I am from an 80 member dept and I saw grants from similar depts and everything else you can think of. Well written, useful requests were given just due. If you haven't volunteered to assist with the process it is kinda lame to take pot shots from the sidelines. FTM-PTB
Matt Sebastionelli Matt Sebastionelli Thursday, September 20, 2012 5:08:08 PM Hey brother sorry for not catching this reply sooner. Not questioning the validity of the need for the boat, so much as what seems to be the absence of for the lack of better phrasing, "journalistic integrity". What *is* the grant review process ? This editorial takes a strong opposing position yet doesn't paint the entire picture. One commenter stated it is a randomly assigned numbers based program with no way of knowing who the recipient is. I would love to figure out just how the process is truly done. Thank you for the bit of back fill in to the situation and when I can get up north of Philly it'd be great to grab a beer, catch up and get filled in on the details.
James Dallas Williams James Dallas Williams Wednesday, November 28, 2012 4:34:47 PM I agree that prefessional grant-writers should go but.... my volunteer fire department is getting a brand new ambulance and brush patrol, and a newish engine. And furthermore, I doubt anybody would feel comfortable buying PPE off eBay. Feel free to correct me if i'm wrong.

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