By David Lewis
Across the U.S., fire departments are struggling to meet the rising costs of equipment and apparatus replacement. Many times, decisions are made between paying the monthly bills or acquiring much-needed equipment or personal protective equipment (PPE). The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Assistance to Firefighters Grants program (AFG) provides opportunities to acquire federal assistance in addressing these challenges and aid the department in meeting its mission needs.
Public safety, including fire and law enforcement protection, is traditionally the responsibility of the state and local governments. Therefore, funding for these services is provided primarily through these local governments. During the 1990s, it was recognized that fire and emergency response was a nationwide concern, and many local governments were challenged with providing adequate funding to meet emergency response needs. As a part of the Fiscal Year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 106-398), the AFG program, also known as the FIRE Act grant program, was established.
AFG is an important component of the larger, coordinated effort by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FEMA to strengthen the nation’s overall level of preparedness and ability to respond to fire and related hazards. Now in its 18th year, the AFG program has provided more than $7 billion in grants to fire and EMS organizations (career, volunteer, and combination departments) to obtain much-needed emergency response equipment, PPE, firefighting and emergency vehicles, and training. The FY 2018 AFG program will award another $315 million to first responder organizations that need support to improve their capability to respond to fires and emergencies of all types.
FEMA assistance to local fire departments consists of three grant programs that fall under the AFG heading.
AFG: These grants are designed to enhance the safety of the public and firefighters with respect to fire and fire-related hazards. The program provides direct financial assistance to eligible fire departments, nonaffiliated EMS organizations, and state fire training academies for critically needed resources that equip and train emergency personnel to recognized standards, enhance operational efficiencies, foster interoperability, and support community resilience.
Fire Prevention & Safety Grants (FP&S): These grants enhance the safety of the public and firefighters with respect to fire and fire-related hazards by supporting fire prevention programs as well as firefighter health and safety research and development.
Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergence Response (SAFER) Grants: These grants provide funding to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to assist with hiring of career firefighters and recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters to meet industry minimum staffing standards to provide adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards.
Departments should consider all three grant programs when examining their capability to meet their mission requirements. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published its latest “Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service” study in 2016. The survey concluded that many departments lacked basic training and equipment to safely and efficiently perform their mission. The survey further assessed that those departments who had acquired funding through AFG, FP&S, and SAFER had significantly improved their operational capabilities.
Departments should conduct their own needs assessment to determine their ability to meet their mission requirements. Assessing operational capabilities against mission requirements will help identify gaps in delivery capabilities. Once the gaps have been identified, the department should then develop approaches to closing those gaps to improve operational capabilities. Funding must then be allocated to implement each of those gap closing approaches. That’s where many departments fall behind, as the funding simply is not available in their budgets. The FEMA grant programs provide the necessary financial support to departments to alleviate the strain on operating budgets.
Yet, as I travel across the U.S., I find many departments don’t know about AFG or how to apply. At the same time, these are the departments which can most benefit from financial support to purchase basic equipment, PPE, and apparatus.
Let me put all this into a perspective that firefighters should be able to easily understand. When we first took our Firefighter I training, we were introduced to the fire triangle (or fire tetrahedron) to explain the principles of fire behavior. To sustain fire, all three legs of the triangle—heat, fuel, and oxygen—must be present. Remove any leg, and the fire cannot sustain itself and it goes out.
Similarly, we can draw a triangle to represent our mission. In order to satisfy our mission needs, we must have proper equipment, adequate staffing, and a community risk reduction (fire prevention and life safety) plan. Without any of these legs of our mission triangle, we fail to meet the needs of our community.
Each of these legs readily equates to one of the FEMA grant programs. AFG provides funding for PPE, equipment, and apparatus. SAFER provides funding to increase staffing levels, either through enhanced recruitment and retention of volunteers or the addition of paid staffing. FP&S provides funding for community risk reduction (life safety) measures.
What has your department done to complete an internal needs assessment? Have you identified your service delivery gaps? Using this assessment, you should then consider taking advantage of these three FEMA grant programs to help address your needs and make your community a safer place to live and work.
I frequently hear the complaint that only larger departments get the funding or that the process is too hard for volunteer departments. Both of these assertions are myths and far from the truth. The authorization for the grant programs ensures that funding is available for all departments, career or volunteer, large or small. AFG funding is divided so that all-career departments, all-volunteer departments, and combination departments each get 25 percent of the allocated funding. The remaining 25 percent is split several ways, with some set aside for fire departments regardless of staffing type and some allocated to the FP&S program, non-affiliated EMS organizations, and state fire training academies. This system puts volunteer departments on equal footing with career departments. What you are requesting (how it aligns to the program priorities), financial need, and how you explain your need (the narrative portion of the application) are the biggest factors in determining who gets funding.
The key to a successful grant application is to understand the process. FEMA and state organizations offer in-person workshops and online webinars prior to each application period. It is important to participate in one of these to understand the application requirements and how to submit an application. Additionally, it is important that you thoroughly read the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) document for the grant program that you are applying for. The NOFO is your rule book. It explains what items are eligible for grant funding, how to apply, and how your application will be evaluated for grant consideration. You should also take the time to gather all of the information necessary to complete the application. I can’t tell you how many applications I have reviewed that were submitted incomplete, with data missing and clearly not reviewed prior to submission.
Developing the narrative portion is probably the most critical part of the application. The narrative consists of four segments: project description, financial need, cost benefit, and statement of effect. Your narrative will be reviewed by a panel of other firefighters who will be looking for you to explain what is your risk and what you need to solve it (project description), why you need grant funding (financial need), why your proposed solution is the most cost-effective approach to addressing the problem (cost benefit), and how implementing this solution will reduce risk in your department and your community (statement of effect). Each of these four narratives will be scored by the peer panel and have a significant impact on the grant funding decision.
Grant funding provides all departments, large or small, with funding opportunities to acquire critical equipment, ensure adequate staffing, and to help make their communities safe. To be successful requires planning and the willingness to make an assessment of your operational capabilities. The time to address these challenges is now. Prepare your department to be ready for the next application cycle for the AFG programs. The future of your department is in your hands.
David Lewis is the Maryland director for the National Volunteer Fire Council and is the vice-chair of the NVFC Homeland Security Committee. He is an active member of the Odenton (MD) Volunteer Fire Company, previously serving as assistant chief and as president. David is a past president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association and the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, a director with the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association and the National Volunteer Fire Council, and an instructor for the National Fire Academy, the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and University of Maryland University College.