Starting now will give your fire department a much better chance of being awarded an AFG
By Rick Markley
Traditionally, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant period opens in the fall and closes a month later. While the total dollars allocated to AFG will fluctuate with annual federal budgets, AFG still represents the largest single place fire departments can turn for financial assistance.
Because of the narrow window of opportunity to apply for AFG funding, fire departments need to get as much up front work done as possible before the grant period opens. And motivation to apply for AFG should be high with the recently announced grant awards from last year’s funding cycle.
In this cycle, Congress approved $360 million for AFG, which is $5 million more than last year. Typically FEMA receives upwards of 15,000 applications for AFG funding; about 2,000 of those will get funded. Furthermore, federal law requires that volunteer fire departments receive no less than 25% of the available grant funds. Likewise, combination and paid-on call departments are entitled to no less than 25% of the total funds. The same requirement applies to career departments. This, of course, helps distribute the money across different sized departments.
So, while there is a lot of money to go around, there is a lot of competition for those dollars. Fire departments, especially volunteer and part-time staffed departments with less human resources, need to begin the grant application early and adjust it as needed once FEMA releases its Notice of Funding Opportunity. This notice spells out both what is required to apply and FEMA’s funding priorities for this grant cycle. When the FY2021 NOFO is released, it will appear here.
Failing to understand and follow the requirements laid out in the NOFO will quickly sink a grant application. FEMA puts each application through an electronic pre-scoring that ranks the application by how well it lines up with FEMA’s identified funding priorities and requirements. This ranking counts for 50% of an application’s overall score and is done before a human ever sets eyes on it. This is also done prior to any review of the narrative sections.
At this year’s IAFC’s Fire-Rescue International, David Hesselmeyer, a firefighter and fire grants expert with On Target Preparedness, talked about how to build a winning grant application. Quantifying — having concise and accurate numbers — a department’s statistics are key to a successful application, he says.
Gathering run data, types of calls and response capabilities can all be pulled together well before the grant period opens. Likewise, demographic and economic data about the response area and descriptions of high threats can be collected ahead of time.
Hesselmeyer recommends constructing a grant application timeline. This spells out all the information the department needs to collect for the grant application, who is responsible for that information and hard deadlines to have that information in place. Assume, when building this timeline, that you will be awarded the grant. Include the timing and process for seeking and awarding equipment bids, securing matching funds, spending down the money and meeting all grant-award requirements. Again, assign responsible parties and due dates. Some of this information will be useful in the grant application; all of it will be useful in the event the application is successful.
When it comes to the narrative sections, Hesselmeyer says to focus more on outcomes than on needs. Every applicant will be painting a picture of dire need for money and the equipment it can buy. He says, the grant evaluation committee will reward applications that make the greatest impact. They want to see the dollars doing the most good. Show how the requested items will directly benefit not just the firefighters, but also the entire community they serve.
AFG has four narrative sections: financial need, project description and budget, cost benefit, and statement of effect on daily operations. These four categories each count for 25% of the overall score in the narrative section — so, no section is more heavily weighted than any other section.
He also stresses the importance of using active verbs, showing enthusiasm, limiting fluff and jargon, and most importantly, doing careful copy editing. Some departments won’t have skilled writers and editors within their ranks. Outside grant writers or writers-for-hire can help, but they come at a cost. If the copy editing will be done in-house, the editor should be someone other than the writer. It is very easy to miss mistakes in your own writing as you read for content and often miss the small and large errors. Extra eyes are as useful in the grant application as they are on the fireground.
The fire grant experts at Pennsylvania-based Decoplan Associates caution fire departments to pay close attention to FEMA’s priority list. The funding priorities typically fall into three categories. Decoplan says it is nearly pointless to apply for any equipment not listed in the top-priority category. For example, in the 2020 AFG funding notice, portable radios and basic hand tools were listed as a top priority, while tablet computers to use on scene were a medium priority and non-disposable biological detection equipment was a low priority.
If a department’s top need is not one of FEMA’s top funding priorities, it is advisable to look for other grant funding opportunities. State and local grants are often overlooked. One place to start is Grants.gov, a free listing of government grants available. A privately run grant collection site, eCivis, has both free and paid access tiers.
Landing an AFG can profoundly change a volunteer fire department’s response capabilities. But getting it is difficult. Departments that are late to start the process, are disorganized or are uninformed will be at a tremendous disadvantage in this highly competitive game.