At the many conferences and association meetings I attend, I am often asked about the federal grant process and how it works. These inquiries are inevitably followed up with a request to have the United States Fire Administration (USFA) assist in the grant application process and offer courses on grant writing. Given the limited staff in our procurement offices and the scarce resources available for this function, it is impossible to offer massive grant-writing assistance. However, I do feel the USFA is obligated to pass along some of the lessons learned from its processing of applications for the most recent grant program.


The grant process is not intended to be convoluted and confusing, but the USFA must meet several mandated guidelines when processing applications and distributing funds. If your department wishes to apply for federal grants-or any other grant program-you would be well served to heed the following lessons.

As is always the case in the world of grant applications, some apparently very good proposals are disqualified because applicants failed to follow all requirements for submission. Although it is a monumental task to prepare an application for a federal grant, it is imperative that applicants follow all listed requirements to the letter. They include submitting the application before the announced deadline, providing the required number of copies of the proposal, enclosing a clear description of the requested information pertaining to the organization applying, and so forth.

After carefully reading all of the eligible applications in our most recent grant process, the panel found it necessary to decline a majority of the programs because applicants failed to read or comply with the requested information.

The technical evaluation panel offers the following tips to grant applicants:

  • Provide all of the requested information. Submit it in writing, in a clear and concise manner. Applicants are competing for limited resources and must make every effort to show that they meet or exceed the requirements.
  • Include “cause-and-effect” elements: Your organization usually has a reason for developing the proposed program and has developed some method for evaluating its effectiveness. Make clear your reasons for instituting the program, the goals you anticipate it will accomplish, and accomplishments to date.
  • Be sure you understand what the grant’s funds can be legitimately used for. As an example, if the grant restricts using the funds for equipment and personnel, it would be unwise to include these categories of expenditures as part of your proposal. Although you may not be disqualified if you do this, you will be asked to agree to delete such restricted expenses from the proposal/program.
  • Often, federal grants are used to provide “seed” money to local and state organizations so they can provide model programs to others. Obviously, the more flexible a program is, the better. It is important to share good ideas. Sometimes, factors such as the use of copyrighted materials complicates this process and may make the program more costly and thus less likely to be used by others.
  • Review the summary and evaluation criteria to make sure that they have been completely addressed. Incomplete information may affect consideration.
  • When requested, operating budget information needs to address current funding and its sources. Provide additional information that demonstrates the benefits that would be derived from the funding increase in terms of individuals reached and anticipated results. Having an itemized breakdown that shows how the increased funding would be used is always helpful to committee members.

  • Whenever possible, include evaluation techniques. They may be in the form of follow-up visits, surveys, or testing-for example, statistics that track fire alarms, fire losses, and fire injuries and deaths. Fire prevention is not just reducing the loss of life from fire; it is also reducing the number or severity of fires and fire-related injuries.
  • Usually, it is advantageous to show the overall reach of an existing or potential program through partnerships with public and private organizations. Partnerships enable you to leverage resources so that you get the most value for more people.


Other sources of grant-writing assistance are available. The USFA offers several publications; check our Web site, , or call (1-800) 561-3356. These publications include the PIER Manual (which details differences of Public Information/Education/Relations) and those that cover alternative funding sources for fire and EMS departments and other relevant topics.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs is among fire service organizations that sponsor various programs that assist local fire departments in learning the ins and outs of good grant preparation. Two- and four-year colleges, local Red Cross chapters, local government and state agencies, and private philanthropic groups may also provide useful information, as can the Internet, state fire service training systems, state emergency medical service agencies, and commercial outfits.

Now is the time to start honing your department’s grant-writing skills. Procrastinating and waiting until a grant program is announced before exploring this process will place your organization at a disadvantage in comparison with one that has already prepared and is ready to act.

KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR., is the chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He retired as fire chief from the City of Marietta, Georgia. He has an MPA from Kennesaw State University and a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati. He formerly served as treasurer of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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