Fire Act Grants: Failure to Plan is a Plan for Failure

As evidenced by the e-mail that I receive weekly here at CHIEF Grants, many of you are still singing the "Dear John" rejection letter blues for the Fire Act Grants. It's getting to be an old refrain for you, isn't it?

It is also quite evident that many of you are beginning to recognize the true state of the U.S. economy and how that is going to affect us in the fire service. Fuel prices are chewing up what available budget you have. And if you're a volunteer department, numbers may well be dropping off as members have to decide if they have gas to go to a fire or go to work. In addition, legislative action is limiting what you can ask for and the budget axe keeps swinging heavily in your direction.

It is becoming increasingly necessary to use any and all means at hand to stem the bleeding of your financial resources. Grants are one of the only ways that you can try to keep up with the constant demands and technological advances being made upon public safety agencies. Obtaining updated and technologically advanced equipment is expensive and your budgets are still not growing at a rate which will keep up with the demands of this growth and the technological advances being made. We are all being asked to do more with less, and we must learn to work smarter, not harder.

Our government boards and officials need to be re-educated in the world of controlled "growth management" and "proper financial planning" for these needs. Grants certainly are something they should be planning on using, but they also need to understand that the topography of the grant's landscape has changed considerably during the last 20 years. The terrain has gotten to be very steep and has many slippery slopes. Our governing boards are basing their decisions on information that is no longer accurate in the "new age" grants philosophy.

We should be planning our grant strategies for the next several years, right now. This is not the time to be sitting and bellyaching that "the other guy got the grant and you did not." Buck up here folks — don't get mad, get funded! If you fail to properly plan now, then you can plan to fail tomorrow. Launching a grant project, with only the usual 30 days window of opportunity, is a prescription for a rejection notice. It demands proper planning and preparation.

All of this starts with proper planning and doing the homework. You and your boards need to understand a couple of basic facts and start accepting them. Adopt these into your planning or you will be left behind and find yourselves singing the " Dear John Blues" again at this time next year.

So what are some of these facts that we need to drive home to our "powers that be". Let's do the short list of the basics here:

  • "Bricks and mortar" grants for new buildings and station houses are few and far between.
  • "Vehicles" grants are almost equally as hard to get as well 
  • " Manpower and staffing" grants are the hardest of all to get

There are reasons for this being the way that it is. We may not like them, but they are valid reasons. Quite frankly, it is "their" money and if you want their money you have to play by their rules! DHS takes the general philosophy that if a community has determined a need for public safety, then the community needs to be supplying those basics for that agency to function. Those basic needs are a building to work out of, vehicles to answer the calls for service and the manpower/equipment to do the job.

Grants will fund many other things, but many of our governing boards are still thinking in terms of the way they were 20 years ago where you held out your hand and Uncle Sam just gave you a check. That simply does not exist anymore. In general, grant funding will replace the things that are obsolete or are wearing out in 10 years or so. However, they will support procurement of things that protect your members from being hurt and are bringing liability issues to bear on your budgets, etc.

They are also giving away training money more freely to assure that the $150K of SCBA equipment new $250K engine they give you is being operated and used by people properly trained to operate or use the equipment. It's called "accountability." The advent of the Internet has led to a more informed "John Q. Public" and gone forever are the days of not holding Congress to some standards of accountability. If the tax money is going to be used to fund you with a grant, John Q. Public is insisting that your people be properly trained to use it safely.

Understanding these parameters, and planning within those guidelines and the program priorities that these funding sources are trying to fulfill, is the key to success in obtaining grant funding for your agency.

In our overall planning for the coming year we should also be doing the "homework" that every grant will require us to have readily available at our fingertips. If you have this basic information available at all times, it will save you from having to hunt it down or wait for someone to supply it for you when you are facing the tight deadlines that these grants programs all have. Some of the things we need to be accomplishing right now are:

  • Gathering information on your area demographics; census data, economic indicators data. The last census is now eight years old and new census data will not be available till probably 2012. We need to be counting every person in our jurisdiction so that a grant application can spread out that "cost benefit" to as many as possible. The better we can get that cost benefit the higher the chance you have of giving Congress and the Peer Reviewers the bang for the buck that they are seeking.
  • Complete and accurate statistical data; run calls or calls for service statistics, which are broken down into the various categories for at least the last three years. In this day and age of computer databases and computerized NFIRS reporting (which is a requirement to get a Federal grant award anyway) this should be a no brainer for many of us. Yet I continually hear that agencies do not or are not tracking the work they actually perform. Call data is used to figure what is known as the "frequency of use" formula. The old adage that the "job is not done till the paperwork is filed" could not be truer than right here on this point. 
  • A complete copy of your budget and the budget from the past three years. Stability and financial need are based upon this. A clear understanding of exactly what money comes in and what it gets spent on is crucial in the decision making process to establish true financial need.
  • Doing a thorough and proper needs assessment of your agency identifying how old and in what condition various equipment is in. Have a list of your fleet of vehicles with year of manufacture and mileage and maintenance figures for them.
  • Do a formal risk assessment of your city on what exposures you are charged with protecting and what critical infrastructure is within your scope of responsibility.
  • Establish contact with your State Administering Agency for grants and Homeland Security Directors and understand where your agency fits into their overall plans. What are your assigned responsibilities in a critical incident? What equipment do you need to be able to accomplish that assigned task? 
  • Getting compliant with NIMS (National Incident Management System). This has been a MANDATORY requirement since Oct. 1, 2006 in order to be eligible to apply for DHS grant funding. Why would you intentionally sabotage a grant application by not complying with this requirement? 
  • Get better educated in the grants system. Quit stumbling around in the dark hoping to open the right door. You can't be expected to be making proper decisions and be successful in applying for these grants without a real understanding of the requirements of the programs. You have to have the proper tools to do the job! The mere fact that you may have been successful with one or two grants does not an expert make. The landscape and rules change yearly and it is these subtle changes that can affect your application negatively if you miss them or do not properly account for them in your application.

Start up on these tasks and get ready for the next two years but, start now. Don't procrastinate here folks. Learn to work smarter, not harder!

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