By Matthew D. Weber
For the second straight year, fire departments from all over the United States sent members to Emmitsburg, Maryland, to review the Fire Act grant applications. Over a three-week period, 300 fire service professionals nominated by nine fire service organizations to act as peer reviewers went through 9,200 grant applications.
The nominating organizations included the International Association of Fire Chiefs, International Association of Fire Fighters, National Volunteer Fire Council, National Fire Protection Association, Congressional Fire Service Institute, International Association of Arson Investigators, National Association of State Fire Marshals, North American Fire Training Directors, and International Society of Fire Service Instructors. If you are interested in being a grant reviewer next year and you are affiliated with one of these organizations, request that they send in your name for consideration. Multilingual or bilingual reviewers are especially needed.
I was a review panel member during the second week of the reviews. The first morning, we attended a mandatory meeting with the Grant Management Team (GMT), which outlined the ground rules. The GMT included individuals from the Grants Program Office and the Office of Financial Management of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The team also had a technical expert in the grants process. Also assisting with the management of the fire grants were Chief (Ret.) Glenn Gaines of Fairfax County, VA; Chief (Ret.) Vicki Murphy of Seminole, FL; Chief (Ret.) John Lee Cook of Loudoun County, VA; and Chief (Ret.) Al Conners from Grand Rapids, MI. They made sure we followed the process consistently, and they answered fire service-related technical questions.
The rules were simple: read every grant application and rate them against the rules set forth in the Federal Register. We were not to consider anything outside the rules defined by Congress and documented in the Register. The key task is for the grant applicants to show financial need. The applicants also have to provide a cost/benefit analysis showing the value of the request to the community they serve.
Potential grant recipients must be part of or willing to provide fire reports to FEMA through the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), which was one of the screening criteria prior to our receiving the grant applications. A few slipped through and were accidentally forwarded to us. The grant applicants also must declare their ability to provide the matching funds required by the grant. The on-line application provided a very accurate means for eliminating mathematical errors in the process. Through this process, it calculated the 10-percent matching funds for fire departments serving communities of fewer than 50,000 in population and the 30 percent for fire departments serving more than 50,000 in population. The departments had to agree that their budget would not be modified if they received a grant award. This ensured that fire department budgets would not be reduced by the amount of the award.
One of the most significant considerations the grant review process highlighted was that many departments did not use a programmatic approach to their grant requests. The peer review panels looked for such an approach in grant requests. To build a program approach, a fire department needs to take a holistic view of the deficiency it is trying to eliminate. Its narrative should explain how the grant request will eliminate the fire service delivery deficiency using the least amount of grant dollars.
CATEGORIES FOR REQUESTS
The fire departments could request assistance in one of the following areas:
- Fire Operations and Firefighter Safety Program. Eligible activities under this function are training, wellness and fitness, firefighting equipment, and personal protective equipment.
- Fire Prevention Program. Eligible activities under this function include public education and awareness activities, fire code enforcement activities, fire inspector certifications, purchase and installation of smoke alarms and fire suppression systems, and arson prevention and detection activities.
- Emergency Medical Services Program. Eligible activities under this function for fire-based EMS units are equipment and training. Vehicles such as ambulances are not eligible.
- Firefighting Vehicles Acquisition Program. Eligible apparatus under this program include pumpers, brush trucks, tankers, rescues, ambulances, quints, aerials, foam units, and boats.
We had to become very knowledgeable about all four areas as quickly as possible. If we were reviewing a grant application and could not determine if the items were eligible, we could ask the GMT for clarification. Someone might request an item that was unknown outside a particular region in the country, or occasionally, a grant applicant would use local jargon to describe the item. If the GMT and the three-person team reviewing the grant did not understand the item described, the entire room would be asked if anyone had heard of the item. There was always someone who had heard of it.
Note: Use common language in your grant request when describing your items. Don’t leave it to chance that the panelist will understand your request. Print your grant application and get feedback from other professionals inside and outside of the fire service.
It was important for grant applicants to develop a comprehensive program that would address all of their needs. For example, for a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) purchase, the department had to explain in a narrative its need for the air packs and its ability to fill them with approved grade “D” air. If not, it needed to include an air compressor that provided the same grade of air quality. The department should also include in the narrative a plan for maintaining the air packs and storing of the compressed breathing air (i.e., if storage bottles are needed) and whether it is willing to share the capabilities of its SCBA program with neighboring departments.
Each reviewer was given a number, which was used to divide the group into 33 three-person review panels. Each day, a master assignment board showed the table assignments for each reviewer. Our assignments were changed daily to ensure that panelists did not develop a group-think mentality. Three rooms of personnel reviewed the volunteer grants; one room reviewed the paid department grants the week I was there. We were told not to discuss any of the applications outside of our three-member review panel, and we could not discuss any part of the overall grading process with anyone. We signed a confidentiality statement ensuring that we would not discuss the particulars of the rating system. Hence, that rating process is not described in this article.
Every grant application was logged into the room and then tracked completely throughout the process. When the GMT assigned the grants to a table, they were also tracked to the panelist reviewing the grant applications. Once the team leader reviewed the panelist’s scores and the completed conflict of interest statement, the grant application files were returned to the GMT for review. If something was missing in the process, the GMT would return the grant application file to the team leader for corrections. Mathematical mistakes were the most common reason a file was returned to the panelist. To ensure the integrity of the process, the panelist, not the GMT, made all mathematical corrections. This ensured that the scores were not changed after the grant file left the panelist.
Each day, one member of the three-person review panel was selected as the team leader. In the typical process, each table received six grant requests at a time. The team leader would first announce the names and location of all six grant applications. The panelists would declare any conflict of interest with any of the grants. If there was a conflict of interest, that grant was given to another group of panelists. The team leader managed the paperwork at that table for the entire day. Over the course of the week, every person had the opportunity to act as the team leader. The team leader checked and rechecked the paperwork prior to returning the grant application to the GMT. If the scores of one panelist were not consistent with the overall panel scoring, the team leader would require the members to review their scores and discuss the differences in case there were any misunderstandings. At no time was there any pressure to change scores.
We were then dismissed to begin the task of reviewing the grant applications. It became very clear that there is tremendous need in today’s fire service. Those fire departments that completely read and followed the Federal Register rules really stood out from those that had not. Several departments asked for items in two of the functional or program areas. This mistake took a very heavy toll on their competitive rating.
If you want your department to succeed in the competitive grant process, remember that the narrative is a critical part of the grant request. It is your opportunity to describe your needs and why you have been financially unable to purchase the items you are requesting. Many departments only develop a shopping list. Take a serious look at your basic fire department operations. Look at your most critical needs. Depart-ments that showed their basic fire service delivery needs received more consideration than those that went way past basic needs. The panelists were not allowed to consider only part of a grant request; it had to be considered in total, as written by the fire department. In many applications, fire departments asked for basic needs and then went beyond. Other fire departments asked for more items than the rules allowed or for items FEMA did not consider priorities for Fiscal Year 2002.
Provide enough information pertaining to your request. If you asked for a $300,000 pumper and failed to briefly describe what equipment the grant request would include, the panelist was left guessing whether the pumper would include any hose. Make sure you have realistic cost estimates. Explain in your narrative how you arrived at the projected costs to ensure that you would spend the federal grant money efficiently and that you would be able to purchase the equipment you said you would if you received the grant. Some grant requests had unrealistic price estimates. Make sure you use costs that are realistic, appropriate, and economical for the items you are requesting.
A FAIR PROCESS
Serving as a peer reviewer was an excellent experience. It is a fair and objective process that provides funding to departments that can articulate a program to address specific needs identified in the Federal Register. It won’t meet all the departments’ needs but truly begins to establish a program of federal funding to bring departments up to a baseline capability in several critical areas.
If you are considering applying for a grant next year, read and follow the Federal Reg-ister, Program Guidance, and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) posted at the USFA Web site, and show legitimate financial need. Applicants that did so fared well in the grant application process.
Get a grant committee together right now. Define your fire service delivery deficiencies and your financial need. Develop a plan to alleviate your deficiencies that includes a programmatic approach. Describe how you will share these resources with your surrounding departments. Plan to limit your requests to items included in the Program Guidance when published. We do not know what the grant categories will be next year, but it is a good bet that they will build on this year’s categories. Be realistic in your request. Get price estimates that ensure the grant money is being spent in the most efficient way.
MATTHEW D. WEBER, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Danville (IL) Fire Department. He has been a staff instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute for 21 years. Weber has a bachelor’s degree in fire management and a master’s in public administration.