ISFSI and Fire Grant Peer Review

Firefighters at live fire training
Firefighters undertake take live-fire training. Photo: International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI)

By Mandy George

There is a common fire service saying that often produces a yawn and an eye roll when an old-timer says it to a probie: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” The eyeroll usually comes because the probie thought they were doing it “good enough” and there is no reason to do it any better. However, the details are often where the most important information lies. No matter the task—driving the engine, packing a hoseline, or loading a stretcher, it doesn’t matter how many times a firefighter practices a given tactic. If you practice it wrong, your performance of the task will never be right. The same rules apply to fire grant writing. For you to be as successful as possible in your grant applications, we reached out to two experts from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) to give you information about the process and insights that will make your grant writing practice closer to perfect.


Leigh Hubbard, executive director of ISFSI, and Steve Pegram, a past president and current ISFSI advisory board member, both have many years of experience in the grant writing and the peer-review process. They have written grants for fire departments and they have also done grant writing for the ISFSI, a non-profit organization dedicated to “inspiring, supporting and elevating [fire service] instructors around the world.1”Leigh and Steve also have specific experience with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), Fire Prevention & Safety (FP&S), and Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) programs and the peer-review process required by FEMA to approve or deny the grant applications.

Why Do We Need Peer Reviewers?

The concept behind peer review is to ensure fairness in the grant award process. According to the ISFSI, the peer reviewers ideally are people from similarly sized departments with the same career, volunteer, or combination designation. This way, reviewers understand the workings of the departments whose applications they are reviewing. If reviewers had to review applications from unfamiliar department structures and sizes, it would create an unnecessary barrier. FEMA also has found representation across the fire service industry as a whole to be an important element of the peer-review process. For example, recognized organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) send members to review the FEMA grant applications each grant cycle. This is another way the federal government ensures fairness: fire service professionals are reviewing grant applications for fire departments.

How Do We Find Them?

Each organization has its own way of finding and selecting peer reviewers. However, the process once they are selected by the organization is much the same.  ISFSI chooses peer-review applicants from their membership base who apply for the position. Once the application is approved, candidates will be sent to FEMA when FEMA requests peer reviewers from ISFSI. It is important to note that peer reviewers will never review the applications of their own departments. There is also no guarantee that FEMA will select an applicant for a specific grant or grant year. While it is not a guaranteed position, it is important for the fire service as a whole  for professionals with an open mind and grant-writing experience to apply.

Serving as a peer reviewer, according to Ms. Hubbard and Mr. Pegram, is valuable for fire professionals’ home and neighboring departments because the reviewer is able to see exactly what a panel is looking for in a grant application. The Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) says what to put in the grant application, but it is a large and often confusing document. A peer reviewer will learn to keep it short and sweet, so to speak. The best grant applications are no more than a paragraph per section and specifically answer the questions listed in the NOFO. Grant applications are often done in coordination with other departments or organizations. The more people an area can send, the more experience the entire region will have with successful grant submissions. “This process will also make you extremely grateful for what your department has,” says Mr. Pegram. There are departments who have four-figure annual budgets and are holding fundraisers to purchase basic necessities like turnout gear. It will make you grateful.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Do This?

There are significant challenges ISFSI and its sister organizations face in finding qualified peer-review candidates. Many of them boil down to one thing: the peer-review process is a voluntary process. There are few departments nationwide who give their members paid leave to participate in this process. Because of this, many spots on the panel are filled by retirees who have the time and ability to stay out of work for five days plus travel time. They are doing the major lifting in the review of these applications. Their work is immensely appreciated! At the same time, Ms. Hubbard and Mr. Pegram emphasize the review process can benefit from panel members who are actively involved in service delivery, operations, and training. Diversity of all kinds is also greatly encouraged. This definition includes volunteer organizations of all sizes and members at different levels in the fire service hierarchy.

What Can Chief Officers Do?

The ISFSI encourages chief officers to send their grant managers and department members to serve as peer reviewers for the good of the American fire service. They should ideally be sent on paid leave. The FEMA grant peer-review process should be performed by a representative sample of the American fire service. Since it is a voluntary process, it will take the financial support of departments to make it happen. Not every department is in a position to make this happen, but many are. It is another way to provide the excellent internal customer for which the service the fire service is known.

Mandy George

Mandy George is a lieutenant in the Chesapeake (VA) Fire Department. She is a training officer who works with a strong team to facilitate the training needs of a 500-member department of sworn and civilian personnel. She has a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management, a master’s degree in professional writing, and an associate’s degree in emergency medical services. She is also a Nationally Registered Paramedic (NRP).


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