Pandemic Health Effects Underscore the Priority of AFG-Funded Physicals

firefighters in gear

By Todd LeDuc

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency poised to open 319.5 million worth of Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) opportunities to start of the New Year on January 4, 2021, there is a tremendous opportunity to prioritize health and wellness. The International Association of Firefighters has reported that 30,000 of its members have been exposed to COVID-19. I have written previously calling on the need for a long-term medical surveillance program for first responders in light of reported potential long-term health effects of COVID-19, what has been referred to as the “long haulers” effect. More troubling perhaps is a study that was published in September that looked at student athletes from Ohio State University, presumably in top athletic condition given college sports conditioning. This study looked at 26 athletes and used cardiac magnetic resonance imaging. Thirty percent of the student athletes that had contracted COVID-19 had cellular heart damage, while 15 percent showed signs of heart inflammation or myocarditis. Myocarditis has been associated with a significant increase in risk of sudden cardiac death in competitive athletes. In fact, this prompted enough concern that on September 17, 2020, the Center for Disease Control issued a statement regarding heart damage in even young, healthy people who had contracted COVID-19. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health explained that while COVID-19 most commonly impacts the lungs as it is a respiratory illness, damage to the lungs can lead to serious heart complications. Certainly, if young, otherwise healthy college athletes can suffer from this residual health damage, first responders are not immune.

Additionally, with many first responders beginning to receive emergency-use approved COVID-19 vaccines, any long-term health issues are also potentially unknown. This underscores the importance of comprehensive baseline occupational medical physicals not only for early detection of health consequences but for trending even the most subtle of changes from year to year. In 2016, the International Association of Fire Chiefs conducted a survey that demonstrated more work needed to be done to ensure each fire department provides its firefighters with an occupational annual medical physical. Certainly, with the focus on occupational health risks including cancer and sudden cardiac death, now adding to occupational risk of contracting COVID-19 and its potential ongoing or long-term health effects, we need to prioritize assuring every department is focusing on providing a robust occupational firefighter annual physical. The opportunity to have federal grant funds assist with this goal shouldn’t be missed—carpe diem!

Research and fully understand the particular grant eligibility requirements and priorities of the funding entity and match requirements, if a match is required. A primary reason that grant applications are denied is failure to follow direction and applying for items that are not aligned with the priorities of the grant. Establish early contact representatives from the grantor for clarification, guidance, and assistance, which will allow for a professional relationship to be established. Close attention to program guidance is essential in constructing your application. Conduct a formalized needs assessment/risk assessment: identify through a formalized process why what you are requesting is needed and vital to your service and your community using quantified data to show current gaps from not having what you are requesting and proposed outcomes if your grant is funded.

Ideally, quantified data should be used to support your case. Successful applications clearly articulate that a formalized process was used in conducting a needs and/or community risk assessment which demonstrated there is a need for what you are requesting and what the impact to your operations would be the request is not funded, particularly as it may relate to safety, operational outcomes and service delivery expectations/standards. Most grant narratives have specific wordcount limits that require you to be concise in your writing – make sure your writing style uses the maximum word count to your benefit. As part of your narrative, clearly articulate the fiscal challenges facing your community and organization that make grant funding a necessity. These justifications should be quantitative in nature using examples of decrease revenues and uncontrollable expense increases such as insurance and health premiums, for examples. Additional examples may be other fiscal pressures which limit your organizations ability to fund internally. Be a specific as possible.

Proofread your narrative several times. Leave enough time to ask colleagues who have been successful in grant awards to review your narrative and provide feedback to you prior to submitting. It may be beneficial to review other successful narratives that have been awarded funding by asking colleagues if they would be willing to share their grant submissions to benchmark from other peers as to writing style and justifications. Serving as a grant peer reviewer, if the opportunity allows, may also give you the experience of learning the elements of robust and well-developed grant proposals

Your narrative should also articulate a clear cost-benefit analysis for the funds you are requesting and what can be expected for a return on these monies. An example may be the requested funding of a training facility/tower cost versus the estimated life expectancy and projected number of firefighters trained with that investment over the number of projected years of use.

You have just over a month to make the case and submit for this funding opportunity for the health and wellness of your department and its members. Good luck!

Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, FIFirE, retired after nearly 30 years as assistant fire chief of Broward County, Florida, an internationally accredited career metro department. He served as chief strategy officer for Life Scan Wellness Centers, a national provider of comprehensive physicals and early detection exams. He has served as a member of the International Association of Fire Chief’s Safety, Health & Survival Section for over a decade and is currently secretary of the section. He is a peer reviewer for both professional credentialing and agency accreditation. He is editor of Surviving the Fire Service (Fire Engineering Books) and serves on numerous advisory boards and publications. He can  be contacted at Todd.

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