By David Hesselmeyer
If you have been a firefighter for more than a day, you have probably heard of the grants provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for local fire departments. You are probably reciting the ones in your head as you read this right now. The main ones that come to mind are the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Act (SAFER), and the Fire Prevention and Safety Grant.
FEMA Grants History
The AFG was created in 2001 by Title XVII of the FY2001 National Defense Authorization Act (https://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/RL32341.pdf). It is administered by FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security. Eligible agencies include fire departments and unaffiliated emergency medical services agencies. Departments can be volunteer, career, paid-on-call, or combination. The grant is opened once a year for applications, which should be focused on the priorities as noted by FEMA. Most of the time, these priorities focus on equipment needs and training. When looking at the history of this grant, the overarching goal of it is to ensure that fire departments are equipped and trained as best as possible.
SAFER was passed in 2004 by Section 1057 of the FY2004 National Defense Authorization Act (https://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/RL33375.pdf). It is also administered by FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security. It has the same eligible entities as the AFG.
The main purpose of these grants is to boost staffing for local fire and EMS departments. However, this is not intended to be solely paying for career staffing. SAFER can be used in a variety of ways to ensure that entities are staffed to levels around the clock that our industry considers proper. For volunteer departments, this may mean for recruitment and retention programs.
The Fire Prevention and Safety Grant program was created through the Federal Fire Protection and Control Act of 1974 as amended in 2004 (https://www.fema.gov/afg/docs/pdf/2004FPSguidance.pdf). The purpose of this grant is to mitigate risks to our citizens and their property. Fire prevention and safety programs can range from public education campaigns to smoke detector campaigns. FEMA also oversees this grant program; however, this grant is more focused on state and local fire department and agencies.
The fire service is lucky that the President reauthorized all these programs mentioned above from 2019-2024. It is imperative that we continue understanding the standing of these programs so we do not lose them. They are vital and have funded many great projects. When 2023 comes along, please consider staying involved through entities such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to contact your federal congressional officials and President to have these programs renewed for another round. I am sure you can agree that these programs are important.
Three of Four Pillars
The FEMA grants do a great job of supporting us in three of four areas. The AFG handles equipment to ensure we are prepared for response. The SAFER ensures we are ready to respond with trained and adequate personnel. The Fire Prevention and Safety Grant does it job to mitigate threats and risks even before they happen. So, you may be asking yourself, “What is the fourth pillar?”
As local fire and EMS departments, we are tasked with a great deal of responsibilities. Some of these responsibilities are fire prevention, fire suppression, technical rescue, vehicle extrication, our own vehicle and building maintenance, public events, and the list goes on and on. Therefore, our fourth pillar is all the extras that do not fit into one of the other three areas.
Where do we get the funding for those items in that fourth pillar? Where do we go if we cannot be competitive in the FEMA grants noted above? This is where many times we give up in terms of grants. We limit ourselves to only these three. The good news is that there are many grants out there that fire and EMS agencies can apply for but aren’t well-researched or well-known. We must be willing to take a look at these other grants to determine if they would work for us. What should we be looking for when researching other grants?
The first item to consider when looking at grants outside of these FEMA grants are what agencies are eligible. The first item noted on most grants is what Internal Revenue Service (IRS) classification your department must be. Most departments are 501(c)3 organizations. This is largely what most grant funders are wanting you to be classified as to be eligible. If you do not know your IRS classification, reach out to your department accountant or to the IRS. If you are not a 501(c)3 organization, then consult your accountant to determine if you should consider being reclassified. This may cost the department some in accountant consulting fees and such but may be necessary if you want to look into more grants.
The second item to consider is what general agencies the grant funder mentions. Many times, you see people researching grants and when it does not specifically list fire departments or EMS agencies, they will skip it. You need to think more broadly than this. One example that is seen over and over is when grant funding agencies list Community Agencies as an eligible type. Our departments are very community based. Look at your department in a legitimate yet broad view. If you have questions as to whether your department is eligible, reach out to the funding agency and ask for clarification if it allows for questions.
Often questions arise as to where to look for potential grants. After considering the FEMA grants above, one area to look is close to home. What agencies are in your first due? What agencies are in your mutual-aid areas? What agencies are in your state?
Grant funding agencies like to know that they are making a difference and impact with their funding. Many times, they want to have the greatest impact in the area where they provide services too. They want to put their money where their facilities are, where their staff live, and where the citizens they impact live. Thus, we should look at who we impact too.
If you were to look at your first due, maybe you would find out you have retail stores of US Cellular, Wal-Mart, Firehouse Subs, and Lowes Home Improvement. Do an online search on Google. Possible search words would be US Cellular grants, US Cellular community giving, and US community involvement. You can do this with every agency listed. Not all will have grants, and you will not qualify for every grant you find. However, this can be a great way to find more options.
Look with your state. There are several ways to research who the largest employers are in your state. The Web site Zippia (www.zippia.com) can show who the largest ten or so employers are in each state. These agencies want to fund locally as well. Perform the same search for each for more options.
An additional place to research for grants is through insurance companies. These companies want to find ways to lower what funding they provide through insurance payouts. They have a vested interest in your department providing proper services to limit damage. They are profit-driven agencies; therefore, a more efficient response through their funding local fire departments limits their payout for damages, which leads to increased funding. Consider agencies like this that provide mitigation services when researching grants.
Another option for potential funding is through unique partnerships. For example, within your response district, you are seeing an increase in motor vehicle crashes with injury to infants and children because of not being in car seats. Your department decides you need to find funding alternatives to purchase car seats and have members take car seat training so you can install them. Some partners you may consider working with are the local hospital, partnership for children, Red Cross, etc. They may have access to grant funding and allow you to obtain training for fire department members as well as partner staff while purchasing enough car seats for both agencies.
Sometimes you cannot find funding from one agency that will cover your needs. Maybe this is because of the funding levels of the grant agency (i.e., they only grant up to a certain amount, but your need is larger than that) or any number of other issues. An option in this area is to work to find multiple grants to handle your needs. This requires proper planning, as grants have deadlines and not all grants allow for this. However, if you plan and are honest with the grant funding agencies, this may lead to success in obtaining needed funding.
Don’t Limit Yourself!
Most firefighters have heard of the FEMA funding grants like the AFG. However, there are always limitations in funding amounts, allowable expenses, loads of grant competition, and similar issues. Therefore, be prepared to find other options. There are many grants out there; work to find grants that are unique, that you are eligible for, and that you can compete for. Success in grants can be done through hard work and proper research. Continue working to find the grant funds and options that allow you to achieve your projects and needs for your department. Don’t be grant limited!
David Hesselmeyer began his emergency services tenure in 1997. He has certifications as a firefighter, paramedic, rescue technician, and certified emergency manager. He graduated from East Carolina University in 2004 with a master of public administration degree. He owns On Target Preparedness, a full-service emergency services consulting firm. He is also an adjunct professor at Campbell University in the Homeland Security program. He serves with the Buies Creek (NC) Fire Department.