Taking the First Steps for Grant Writing Success

By David Lewis

Writing for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

Grants provide all fire and EMS departments, large or small, paid or volunteer, with funding opportunities to acquire critical equipment, ensure adequate staffing, and to help make their communities safe. To prepare a successful grant application requires planning and the willingness to assess your operational capabilities and then measure them up against the grant program priorities.



$100M to be Awarded through AFG for PPE

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program provides opportunities to acquire federal assistance in addressing challenges departments face and aid in meeting mission-critical needs. FEMA’s 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 paid firefighters and recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters in order to meet industry minimum staffing standards to provide adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards.

The FY2019 application period for the AFG program closed in March. The SAFER grant period is open from April 13 to May 15, and the FP&S application period is expected to open soon. All departments should be considering these opportunities to fund the development and implementation of programs critical to mission success. It is never too early to begin preparing for the next grant cycle.

Quite often, one of the major hurdles that departments experience in achieving grant writing success is not knowing where to start. In this article, I would like to discuss some of the considerations for getting started on the path to a successful application.

Gather the Right People

Before you begin the grant application process, you should consider forming a team within your department. Who has the best knowledge of the operational challenges? Who best understands the department’s financial profile? Who in the department has some good writing skills that can help develop the narratives? Forming a team maximizes your capabilities and helps ensure a better-quality application is submitted. Remember that you can tap into your department’s auxiliary or into the broader community network to find someone to write the application narrative if you don’t have someone in your operational staff with the time or expertise to do this.

Complete a Risk Assessment

Any application to a grant program must begin with a risk assessment of your department and its capabilities. What shortfalls in your equipment, staffing, or capabilities cause the highest risk to either your members or the community that your serve?

For AFG, is your greatest need new personal protective equipment (PPE) for your members, new tools and equipment, apparatus replacement, training, or some other need? How do these items put your members or community at risk and how can you best mitigate the risk?

Similarly, for SAFER, how well is your department able to consistently meet the staffing needs as defined by the OSHA two in-two out requirements and NFPA 1710/1720 staffing standards? How can funding under the SAFER program help you increase staffing (paid or volunteer)?

And for FP&S, where are your communities most at risk? Does every home in your community have a working smoke alarm? Is there a need to increase general community awareness of fire prevention and life safety? Are you in an area where there is a concern for wildland-urban interface issues?

Conducting a risk assessment helps drive your application towards defining a solution to address those risks. It is important to address any grant program with a risk assessment approach as opposed to a general “wish list” of items that the department would like to replace or obtain new.

Review the Notice of Funding Opportunity

Once you have defined your department’s greatest risks, you are ready to review the guidance for the relevant grant program. For all three FEMA grant programs, this process begins with a review of the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) document. The NOFO is your “rule book.” It contains a description of the grant purpose, its priorities, and the application requirements. Your department must adhere to the guidance in the NOFO to be successful.

The NOFO allows you to align your risks with the priorities of the grant program. You must apply for items that are considered a high priority for the grant program. You will not be successful if you apply for lower priority items or for items explicitly listed as ineligible for grant funding. Additionally, requesting multiple items where a mix of high priority and low priority items is presented will reduce the likelihood of your application being awarded as the lower priority items will draw down the score.

Take Advantage of FEMA’S Grant Webinars

If available, you should plan to attend a workshop or webinar for the grant program being considered. These training opportunities often will disclose details of the application process, the program priorities, and the scoring process that may not be stated in the NOFO. It also provides an opportunity to address questions that you may have with a grants program specialist about your department’s specific needs.

FEMA has reduced the number of in-person workshops offered but continues to host online webinars for each grant application period. Additionally, many state and local organizations have hosted workshops to help departments understand the grant application process. Never believe that you already have all the information needed to apply to the grant programs. There is always something new to be learned by attending a workshop or participating in a webinar.

Gather the Necessary Information

The next critical step in the grant writing process is to collect all the data needed to support the application. FEMA provides an application checklist for its grant programs, and any department considering an application should closely follow this checklist. Has your department already registered with the grant management entities (DUNS, SAM, FEMA GO)? What has been your annual income and operating budget for the past three years? What type of incidents has your department responded to in the last three years? It is important that you obtain this data and that it is accurate. Bad or incomplete data will doom your application. Your data will be validated during the review process for your application, and if you have made incomplete or inaccurate statements, your application may be denied.

As a part of the data collection process, you should consider looking at successful applications submitted by other departments. Is their requirement/risk like yours? What made their application successful? We often encourage departments to share their successful applications with others to help everyone be successful. One of the best ways to learn how to navigate the grant application process is to review successful applications. However, it is important that when developing your own application that you write the narratives to address your problem/risk and your solution and not simply copy what the other department stated in their application. Just because it was successful for them doesn’t mean that it will be successful for you. Also, if FEMA realizes an application narrative has simply been copied from another department’s successful application, they will likely disqualify it.

Develop Your Narrative

Developing the narrative portion is probably the most critical part of the application. For the FEMA grant programs, 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.

Take the time to develop complete and accurate narratives. Use the self-evaluation scoresheets provided by FEMA to develop and evaluate your own narratives. These scoresheets apply the same evaluation criteria provided to the peer panelists for the review of your application. It may be beneficial to seek someone outside of the department to review your application using the scoresheets. An outside independent perspective provides a review like what will occur during the peer panelist review.

Don’t be discouraged if your application is not funded the first time. Even the best grant writers are not successful 100 percent of the time. Each application is an opportunity to learn and improve in the next application cycle. Take the time to review the feedback received in your turndown notice and submit an improved application for the next submission cycle.

Writing a grant proposal is hard work, but a successful application can provide a huge benefit for your department. The time taken to analyze your department’s capabilities and to address the gaps enables you to align your risks and challenges with funded solutions. The time to address these challenges is now. Prepare your department to be ready for the next application cycle for the FEMA grant programs.

David Lewis is the Maryland director for the NVFC 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 an instructor for the National Fire Academy, the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and University of Maryland University College.


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