Getting Funded: It's All About Risk

With the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program application period now closed, it will be fascinating to see the number of applications filed this year.

Considering everybody was allowed to apply for a vehicle this time around, the statistics should make interesting reading. 

Quite a few of my clients were surprised to see that the DHS requested considerably more detailed call volume statistics from them than in years past. For this program, they requested an applicant's last three years worth of call volume, with the calls broken down into minute detail.

They wanted to know total acreage burned in wildfires, ALS versus BLS runs and even the breakdown on your motor vehicle accident responses regarding if extrication was involved or not. This apparently caught many departments by surprise. Many discovered that suddenly detailed record keeping was being force fed down their throats if they expected Uncle Sam to foot the bill. This should not have been surprising to anyone.

It only takes a cursory glance at almost any daily newspaper in the United States right now to see Congress or some watchdog group demanding more and more accountability for the taxpayer's dollar, which in case you didn't know is where your grant money comes from. Why, even an article last week highlighted a major metropolitan fire department returning a large sum of DHS money that was allegedly not used in the manner specified. Public scrutiny and accountability has never been higher.

Downhill slide
This is not a never ending pot of money at the end of the rainbow, folks. The AFG program has been steadily losing its intended funding amounts since it was first started in 2001. It is currently standing at less than half of what the original appropriated amount of $1 billion dollars yearly was supposed to be. The reasons for this are many and complicated, but suffice it to say that this downhill slide has probably not ended yet and AFG is only funded till 2010. Congress will have to re-appropriate funding for this program again at that time.

Subsequently, competition for these dollars has become more intense, to say the least. That is why you are seeing the DHS require more and more detail from you in trying to properly assess your true need. Congress is demanding that the money be apportioned more according to the "risk" factors involved.

The only way to properly assess this risk is to examine the appropriate data as it relates to your agency. Obviously we cannot expect the reviewers of this program or the DHS to come and personally inspect every department that is applying for this funding. These new requests for more detailed statistical information are part of the way that they determine this risk.

Part of the equation in determining it is to examine your calls for service. It only makes common sense that those agencies running more calls are obviously facing more risk of something happening. The call volume is an indicator of both the actual risk you are facing and the potential risk that you might face.

As an example, let's examine an apples to apples comparison between two departments going for wildland turnout gear. Assume that both departments are rural, have 20 volunteers, their budgets are the same and both have no wildland turnout gear at all. Department A is showing that 76 percent of its first due area is wildland and that it worked 27 wildland-type calls this year, with more than 2,500 acres burned. Department B is showing it has 25 percent of its first due area as wildland and it worked six wildland fires, burning only 10 acres.

Greater risk
It is not hard to distinguish from just those three pieces of data which department has the greater "risk" of working more wildland-type fires, higher potential for an injury occurring to their personnel, or more property losses occurring. Assuming for a moment that you could only fund one of those two departments, who would you fund? Where is the biggest "bang for the buck" obtained by providing those 20 sets of wildland turnout gear?

Also included in establishing this risk is listing and defining your "critical infrastructure" responsibilities. I saw many applications this year with narrative statements that did not include an actual list of the critical infrastructure in their first due or mutual aid areas. It stands to reason that if it is a DHS grant program — and DHS exists to protect the critical infrastructure of the United States —  then they are going to give priority to those departments protecting the greatest amount of critical infrastructure.

The failure to list critical infrastructure responsibilities is a major mistake in the narrative statement of the AFG Program. Likewise, forgetting to check the box in the application questions that asks whether you do protect any of these things is also a big mistake that costs you a few needed points in scoring.

I have many chiefs telling me each year that they don't have any critical infrastructure in their areas. But I have yet to find a single department I have worked with on these applications that I could not find some of these concerns in their areas of responsibility by merely asking a few questions. Seek them out before you have to start writing that grant application next time so that you can answer these questions and gain all the points that you can. This is a program where an award can be decided by as little as 25 percent of a point. If the funding line is set at a score of 83, and your grant scores 82.75, you will get the dreaded "Dear John" letter.

Keeping proper and very accurate records in your department might seem to be a real bother when you have been working a structure fire for the past four hours at 2 a.m., but the old line about "the job's not done till the paperwork is filed" is truer now than ever before. Take the time to keep accurate records; it will pay off in the long run when competing for these limited dollars. It can, and frequently does, make the winning difference.

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