Photo courtesy of Bokske.
By Kevin Mulrooney
Memorial Day is a good benchmark to start working on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) 2019 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program applications. The first step is creating an in-house grant committee to spread the workload. During the coming months a great deal of information will need to be gathered. The first questions you must ask regarding this issue are the following:
- What do we need?
- How much does it cost?
- How many of the items will we need?
- Is this an item for which a regional or joint application would be well suited?
Before you take any steps, certify in the body of the application that you are active in SAM and LOGIN.USA. FEMA can deny your application for just this simple missed detail, and they are not required to call you and remind you!
In the case of the regional application, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is required. This is a signed legal document established by FEMA following an approved application by Nassau County, New York, which contained data on nontransporting fire agencies such as membership, square miles, and fire calls. However, it did not supply those five departments with the proceeds of the award. Following an action by Grant-Guys in 2013 on their behalf, the MOU was established.
Your MOU is more than a document that says, “Yes, I’m in”; it’s a legally binding agreement. When preparing the MOU, it should include information not only about your membership in the application but the following questions:
- Who will retain the grant writer fee reimbursement?
- Is there a commission for the grant writer?
- Who will file the requests for payment?
- Who will submit the quarterly reports?
- Who will submit the SF425s?
- What if the host doesn’t agree with your purchased items?
- Will you purchase the same items?
- Who else are my regional partners?
- Who will perform the close-out reporting?
- Who will be responsible for audit costs?
- What if a partner leaves?
- What happens if FEMA cancels an award after you have purchased the equipment?
- How do I extricate myself from the MOU—and what if you want out?
A very keen question to consider is, “Do I have the legal authority to enter into your MOU?” In the case of a village, a fire department member probably does not. The contract is with the village and the federal government. The fire department is a function of the town. In the case of a district or fire company, each jurisdiction should review rules for joint decisions among commissioners. Fire companies can establish their rules, but they will need a written procurement policy to follow. A partner in a regional application is waiving its right to apply for that item in the same year. If any partner submits an individual application, both applications will be disqualified. If the award is already made and the multiple applications are discovered, the applications will be referred to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Office of the Inspector General.
The MOU should outline the following:
- Do we need to purchase the same items?
- How will the match be met—equally or proportionally?
- How do I opt out?
- Are we using the same vendor?
- What happens if FEMA cancels the award?
- Who will complete the SF-425?
- Who will retain the documents “for the next four years?” (Documents must be retained for 36 months past the end of the period of performance.)
- Who will submit the quarterly reports every 90 days?
- Who will close out the award?
- Who will keep the grant writer fee reimbursement?
- What is the procedure for reimbursement?
- What happens if one of the partners is in noncompliance with the program rule?
- What is the procedure if the host making the drawdowns does not approve of your purchase?
“There are three threshold issues,” according to Tom Devaney, a professional grant writer for the town of North Hempstead, New York. He also touched on the following questions:
- “Are you active in SAM? Being inactive is a non-starter.
- “Do you have an agreed upon inventory and procurement policy?”
- “Do you have agency buy-in?” In other words, do you have the internal approval needed to make the program successful for your agency and the entire region?
Devaney continued, “The period of performance is 12 months from the date of award. That means that all partners must meet with venders, establish RFPs [request for proposals], award contracts, order, and receive the items within 12 months. Amendments for time extensions are available with legitimate reasons, but FEMA has rightly tighten down on the amount of extensions and the reasons why. And a legitimate reason isn’t the 15 fire chiefs who can’t agree on anything.”
When picking the grant writer, the obvious question is “what is your success rate?” Perhaps some better questions are the following:
- What is your success rate with a radio grant?
- What is your success rate in this FEMA region?
- What is your success rate with regional applications?
It’s important to remember that the program guidance clearly states that the contents of the application are the responsibility of the applicant, not the grant writer. You will be held responsible for what you submit. You should require the right to review the application before it is submitted, not after. Once submitted, it can’t be changed. You also should be provided a printed hard copy of the application following submittal. You are responsible for its content, no one else. The application is subject to federal Freedom of Information Act rules, so what you enter must be able to stand up to scrutiny.
To access the Clarion Fire & Rescue Group’s Grant Ready grant information portal, visit:
The AFG program allows for regional applications in many categories. Each year, FEMA can make changes to the guidance. In recent years, regional ladder trucks and command vehicles have been allowed, but building modifications cannot be shared. The SAFER program allows for regional recruitment and retention activities, but not for the “hiring” category. Nonaffiliated emergency medical services agencies are also eligible for regional applications.
FEMA is surprisingly silent on many regional rules. Some common questions posed by fire departments are the following:
- How close to we have to be to apply?
- Do we have to purchase the exact same equipment?
- Do we have to use the same vendor?
- Do we have to use each other under mutual aid?
The short answer is logically “yes,” but legally “no.” It makes the most sense to achieve interoperability and enjoy the potential cost savings, but as of today, the answer is no. For our clients, we establish a self-rule of 40 miles and 40 minutes (the 40/40 rule). The 40/40 rule is an in-house gauge we recommend to our clients. The landscape of our home in New York is much different than one of our clients with 700 square miles of deserted district. One important point that FEMA stressed in a recent audit was that all equipment should be delivered to the host agency and picked up by its partners.
One vital aspect is the mandatory required match (yes, there is a “hard match”). A hard match means that services or expenses cannot be used to meet your match; it must be in cash in terms of items purchased. The match is determined based on population, usually five or 10 percent for most Long Island, New York, regional applications. However, you must determine in your MOU how the match will be shared. Will it be evenly distributed? Maybe it be distributed proportionally based on items received, but there was a match, and FEMA will need to see proof that it was met.
FEMA sets caps on regional applications based on population. The average Long Island population-based regional application will be for 100,000 full-time residents. The associated cap would be $1 million. Minus the match, this allows for $900,000. In addition, the budget line will carry the mandatory A-133 financial audit. This professionally prepared audit is required on FEMA awards above $750,000. It ranges in cost from $3,500 to $7,000. When coupled with the GWF of $1,500, this reduces the shared amount to $898,000 per award (still a hefty amount, to be sure). However, when requesting high-cost items such as radios, the margin will slim down quickly, very quickly depending on the number of partners you have. At an estimated cost of $4,500 for a portable radio, this will result in about 200 radios per award. Extras such as chargers, batteries, microphones, installation, programming, and carry cases will further drag down the final figure.
Yes! You are limited in portable radio and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) purchases to seated SCBA riding positions. A quirk of the application is that, to list all of your fleet information, you had to list at least one SCBA on the vehicle even if it didn’t have one. It’s our understanding that this peculiarity will be addressed. Based on 2018 FEMA AFG program guidance, a radio applicant can only request portable radios that adhere to the following:
- Meets National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards to the the latest NFPA standard,
- are P-25 compliant, and
- corresponds to a seated riding position located in the request details section.
Any existing portable radio that is in your inventory is not eligible for reimbursement if it is NFPA and P-25 compliant. The riding positions are reported per vehicle in the body of the application. Similarly, base stations are limited to the number of response facilities being reported in the applicant characteristics. Also, mobile or vehicle radios are limited to the reported response fleet.
FEMA seeks to bring applicants to 100 percent compliance with national standards. So, the argument that “one or two is better than none at all,” while certainly sounding good, in practice is not a FEMA policy when discussing regional applications. In fairness to them, they don’t want you to come back year after year to the same applicant for the same item; they want 100 percent compliance. They also want to avoid liability if they purchase some equipment and the odd-man-out gets injured.
One issue many Long Island fire departments experience is that Nassau and Suffolk Counties are not NFPA compliant in terms of the National Fire Incident Reporting System. The fire call data must be reported jointly. The problem arises when partners don’t report in the same manner (or report at all). Each partner must have its own fire department identification (FDID) number. An agency that shares a FDID cannot report the same emergency response in the call data. The same is true in terms of agencies that share automatic mutual aid or dual response. You must reach a decision on this as a shared response that wither only one will report it or the call a mutual-aid response. One agency is sure to object to an ambulance call in an adjoining jurisdiction being called “mutual aid” when it’s their ambulance district. But, in terms of the application, everyone can’t claim the same call—no “double dipping” in calls. Exaggerating call response can result in severe penalties, even criminal liability in some extreme cases. Partners should be very careful when reporting data and statistics that they don’t double report square miles, population, or fire calls where two agencies simultaneously respond.
Lastly, the application will ask if you if you conducted good market research. FEMA wants you to be sure you didn’t ask for too little or too much. But be careful; tailoring an application to fit specific goods or a vendor is a violation of federal rules. Consolidated in what is called the “Super Circular,” grant-writers are prohibited from discussing pre-award applications with grant writers. That doesn’t mean that the fire department can’t obtain estimates, but it does mean the vendor cannot attend any preapplication meetings, especially ones the grant writer or his agents are attending. Super Circular violations are investigated by the DHS Inspector General.
Regional applications can be great tools for achieving interoperability. In 2015, a Suffolk County regional coalition received a large regional AFGP award for pagers, portable radios, mobile radios, and base stations. The three-member partnership of East Moriches, West Hampton, and Center Moriches, New York, were awarded a regional radio grant prepared by Grant-Guys. The strong partnership stuck to the application, had a solid procurement policy, and avoided unnecessary delays by discussing the details early in the application stage, not post-award.
In 2010 a large SCBA regional application was successful, but to a lesser extent. The issue was that the cost of SCBA vary widely. Some partners wanted units that doubled the cost of other partners. One partner wanted his funds to pay for a 100th Anniversary parade, but they promised to repay the host. Fortunately, the award was managed by a strong host who kept all the partners on track. But the lesson learned was that too many partners can greatly complicate an otherwise great award. And, it will reduce the amount of funds each will receive.
In 2011, a SAFER regional application was also successful but had logistical difficulties, with 13 members that equaled 39 fire chiefs and 65 fire commissioners. It was very difficult to please all 13 agencies with differing priorities, overlapping events to cover, and trouble obtaining bills for reimbursement from the program manager. In the end, some funds went unused. The award went through three different coordinators. The paid position was working eight hours a day, seven days a week.
For every success story, there are five “horror” stories. The time to review your application is pre-submission, not post-award. The time to tell your governing body is before you sign your MOU.
Kevin Mulrooney is the president of New York-based Grant-Guys Inc. and is a former captain with 34 years in the fire service. He is also a New York state hazmat technician.