The Do’s and Don’ts of Securing a Fire Service Grant

 

To Grant or Not to Grant?

One of the annual debates in every emergency medical services (EMS) station, firehouse, and community or board meeting is whether or not to submit the annual application for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, which is open to volunteer, career, and combination EMS agencies. Everyone has strong opinions on the matter. Older members want to plug budget holes and younger members want the latest “flying-submarine hovercraft-drone” with fully automatic weapons and a lot of flashing lights. However, despite your position, it is a valid point to ponder. The good news is that there appears to be a dedicated federal EMS funding source on the horizon.

Nonaffiliated EMS organizations and fire-based EMS are eligible to apply to the AFG program. FEMA’s other two programs—Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response Grants and Fire Prevention & Safety Grants—are for fire departments only.

The Application Process

When applying for the AFG, the first step is to determine your level of noncompliance to national standards. This is not free money; this is a federal program to help you achieve 100-percent compliance if you are fiscally unable to do so on your own. So, the gateway questions are, “On what am I out of compliance?” “Can I comply on my own financially?” and, “Do I have the time and wherewithal to prepare this application on time and in a quality manner?”

Grants are long-term solutions to institutional problems; they are not quick fixes to emergency repairs or vital but short-term issues. It is about strategic thinking. It’s not about the trundle that broke today but the $200,000 ambulance that you need to replace within five years.

Next, become registered in the federal System for Award Management (SAM) database (www.sam.gov/SAM). SAM is a free service, but registering can be time-consuming and frustrating, so some people have a company register them on their behalf. SAM will require a parallel registration at login.gov. To register or be registered, have ready your bank routing and account numbers, DUNS number, and Internal Revenue Service Employment Identification Number. Following that, proceed to the federal FEMA portal and register a username and password. After that, you have won half of the battle!

Next, compile local statistics such as number of stations, square miles, membership, population, critical infrastructure, vehicle fleet data, and call reports. In addition, a detailed budget is vital (this is more for the application portion than the narrative section). Many items are eligible to nonaffiliated EMS, and the list can change year to year. I can speak only to our clients and the items with which we’ve had success. The most popular items for many in our area are EMS personal protective equipment, ambulances, diesel exhaust, defibs, and cardio pulmonary respiratory machines. This is not to say that others have not had success elsewhere, but these are the items that are local “winners” in my region. Some items are specifically excluded such as self-contained breathing apparatus and interior firefighting structural gear.

Each item will have priorities attached to it when compared to various models and versions, and the program guidance will spell them out each year. It’s important to read the program guidance because things can and do change. For instance, some years featured a cap on the allowable dollar amount for ambulances; the following year, this cap was removed.

The Time Frame

My department predicts that Labor Day 2019 will be a good starting point for the new grant cycle. When the application period is announced, there will be a lead-up of a few weeks, and various government help sheets will be available online. The AFG will be open for about four or five weeks. Following that, all applications will be computer scored, and those ranking well will be forwarded to a peer review committee to be read. This entire journey takes about nine months.

When FEMA has its list of awardees, it will release weekly awardees every Friday for (approximately) three months. The awardee will have 30 days to accept or reject its award; the period of performance will be 12 months following acceptance. When the grant period is open is not the time to start your grant committee. EMS entities can also coapply for items with a generally co-located partner. Prior to application, have a memorandum of understanding in place with your partner, but remember: If you apply as a region, you can apply on your own but not for the same item. Equally important is that the host is responsible for managing and closing the award. Be ready for the cost, time, and responsibility associated with being the sponsor.

Record Keeping and Reporting

It is vital to maintain accurate records every step of the way. Basic items to maintain are invoices, purchase orders, receipts, request for proposals, quotes, estimates, cancelled checks, shipping labels, and any other item that will help you with your audit.

Tom Devaney, a professional grant writer for North Hempstead, New York, and a senior associate at Grant Guys, Inc., says, “On average, about two percent of all awards will be randomly selected for an audit. That number seems to have increased as of late, but despite the nasty tone of the audit notice, if you have good documentation, your basic desk audit or review can be completed in as little as one or two days. The process of your decision making is often as important as the decision themselves.”

Although some program managers are great, some routinely make mistakes and, when they do, they or their supervisors either don’t respond or give a typical answer of “we are overworked.” However, if you or your grant writer makes a mistake, the flurry of nasty, threatening e-mails will be nonstop as you are led off to the gallows. Remember the old saying, “They can only hang you with the truth once!”

In fairness, most of the rules aren’t really that hard to follow. If you begin your documentation process and procurement policy believing you will be audited, it will save you time and heartache. Some best practices include establishing a dedicated grant bank account and keeping a separate three-ring binder with all documents in a single central location, ready for FEMA review.

Grant Tips

Following are some best practices for new grant committees:

  • Don’t wait until the last minute to file.
  • Have membership and leadership buy-in.
  • Be accurate and honest. Some questions are difficult to answer based on your procedures or location. Interpret them the best you can and have a defendable rationale on how you reached a particular answer to a question.
  • Keep detailed records for three years past your period of performance.
  • Don’t lie or cover up an honest error—be truthful.
  • Be cognizant of the required match of funds.
  • Spend your funds quickly if you receive them.

Don’t stray from your application in terms of time frame, items, or amounts. It will delay or even endanger your award. In one instance, a fire department tried to change an awarded item. The FEMA manager rightly explained to them, “We are administering this award for you, but your person on the peer review panel awarded the item. It’s not for me to change their decision.” And she was right.

(1) This $300,000 tanker was purchased in January 2019 by the West Salem (IL) Fire Department (WSFD) with funds obtained by one of my company’s grants. The WSFD applied for the purchase one time previously. It had been using a dangerous, obsolete milk delivery vehicle with no lights, sirens, or markings as a tanker. The department instituted a formal vehicle and traffic law, a written seat belt policy, and a formal driver training policy to comply with grant requirements. The application included funds for the National Fire Protection Association physicals for apparatus operators. (Photo courtesy of author.)

Some applicants contact their local federal elected officials. This is a local issue and an internal decision. For the record, we offer that option, but it is not a requirement. From my perspective, we have experienced an equal number of awards from those who contacted officials over those who did not. That is not to say that your congressman won’t call on award day to tell you how hard he worked for you. When that call comes—and it will—my question is always, “What exactly did you do; when did you do it; and do you have documentation of those calls, letters, or e-mails?” Chances are, he won’t because he did nothing with this peer-reviewed and computer-scored program.

Others also enjoy attending FEMA workshops to pick up tips. This might be good for a beginner, but I would suggest skipping them.

One common question is whether a grant writer is right for your organization. The simple answer is, it depends. Grant writer fees are reimbursed if the application is awarded. Grant writing is more an issue of time over ability. Grant writers won’t miss deadlines and can guide you through typical pitfalls or applying for what they view as long shots. Your district lawyer or accountant is almost always a poor grant writer, with almost no exceptions; the same goes for the well-intentioned community activist. However, if you do engage a grant writer, read and review the entire application. You, the applicant, are responsible for the contents of the application, not the grant writer. Don’t be misled by the “I have a 100-percent success rate” line. The way to ask the grant writer his level of success is, “What is your success with this program, with this item, over the past five years, or with this region or department?” Blanket success rate statements are meaningless.

There will be various assertions that you will verify such as cyber security, SAMs, supplanting, lobbying, and others with which you should familiarize yourself prior to submitting the application. There are always horror stories in the media of folks who abused the program for self-gain or even engaged in criminality regarding the program. However, the overwhelming majority of applicants are just trying to improve safety and services and keep costs down while dealing with a segment of the population who is notoriously bad at technology and all things computer related.

Recently, a federal rule, commonly called the “Super-Circular,” that prevented grant writers from interacting with vendors was implemented. This rule seems to be flagrantly ignored and unenforced, so much so that we brought it to the attention of a FEMA program manager at a trade show; his response was total disinterest. In that example, a grant writer had pitched his tent on the vendor’s display area. Never write your application to a specific brand of equipment or vendor; the peer reviewers will catch it.

A major complaint of many EMS agencies is that there is no national EMS body sending representatives as part of the peer review committee. This is a major problem. For instance, many of the organizations sending peer reviewers are just not organizations that play a part in our local response area (or even in this state). This is an area that, hopefully, can bring the EMS community together and pressure Congress to change it. Without exception, the peer reviewers are fire-based.

If a FEMA representative contacts you directly regarding a potential award, remember, this is business; you’re not friends (not yet, anyway). How you answer and interpret the questions he is asking and how you answered on the application are crucial. A quick, well-intentioned but poorly thought-out reply could endanger your funds if your answer is misunderstood.

We offer these best practices and lessons learned:

  • Be honest.
  • Communicate with members and leadership.
  • Get a good head start.
  • If awarded a grant, spend your funds as soon as possible.
  • Don’t give up.
  • Don’t change time frames, amounts, or items after the award is made. (There is a mechanism to change certain aspects through an amendment process, if required.)
  • Mistakes do happen. If they do, own them.
  • Do good market research. Don’t ask for too much or not enough funds.
  • Don’t buy an item prior to the denial or award; it will be disallowed and defunded.
  • Stay on the “reservation.”
  • Document, document, document!

Review your application; talk to your grant writer and grant committee; and respond with a full and honest, well-thought-out response to their concerns in a reasonable time. Remember, they are dealing with many applications and will move on to the next one if you don’t answer them on time.

 

KEVIN MULROONEY is a 34-year volunteer firefighter; an emergency medical technician; a hazmat technician; and the owner of Grant-Guys, Inc., which prepares Assistance to Firefighters Grant applications for 98 fire and emergency medical services departments, territories, and tribal nations. Mulrooney is also a retired sergeant in the Counterterrorism Division of the New York City (NYC) Police Department assigned to the NYC Office of Emergency Management.

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