Fire Service Grants: Are We There Yet?

Most of us have probably lived this Simpson's scene during a long car trip, but in case you haven't seen it, it goes like this:

Bart:
Homer:
Bart:
Homer:
Bart:
Homer:

While this conjures up a few family vacations in my mind, both Bart and Homer's last statements should be one that we all ask as emergency responders: are we there yet? And if we know for sure that we are not, are we ever going to get there?

Of course the first step in answering these questions is answering the previous one that probably hasn't been asked: where is there?

One of the metrics that success experts have found that differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful is something called situational awareness. Not only do the successful know where they're going but they also know where they're at, something the unsuccessful grouping doesn't know. In other words, planning is nice but knowing how to work the plan is another and the important step of working it is still another.

The first step in going down the road of success is defining the current point we're at on that roadway. Like any road trip we want to go on, the first thing we have to know is our starting point in order to define a route to get from Point A to Point B.

The Importance of Operational Assessments
When it comes to our organizations, physically we're not moving. So our "success roadway" is theoretical: we have to define our current level of operations against where we want those operations to be at a point in time in the future.

As emergency responders our recommended/required levels of service are defined by national standards (NFPA, OSHA) and local or state regulations (Department of Health, State Department of Insurance, etc). These agencies have defined where we should be in terms of staffing, equipment, training and other topics (Point B). Our first step if we need to make improvements in our operations is to define where we are at in terms of all of the metrics we are being graded against (Point A).

This is the most crucial step in making any argument for additional funding regardless of the source. So whether we're going after an increased budget or creating grant applications, both of those situations demand that we know where we are at right now, where we are required to be, and most importantly why we need to get there. Without all three pieces of that puzzle in our argument we're not very likely to increase our funding levels through any means, especially through grants.

Grant programs are designed knowing that there are certain deficiencies; what separates the competitive from the non-competitive applications is the why behind the what. The program creators already know that there is a list of things that applicants will need to improve their operations. For instance, they know fire departments need structural bunker gear to protect their personnel. So they already know that they are going to get a lot of applications asking for bunker gear, but those that get the funding not only know that they need it but also how the current gear got in that condition and why it is so important to them that they receive new bunker gear in order to improve their operations.

So you can be a competitive applicant by knowing how many sets of gear are in compliance with NFPA 1971 standards, whether or not you've been able to comply with NFPA 1851 care and maintenance standards, and what risks your personnel face by continuing to use this non-compliant safety equipment. Of course you'll need to know what the standards say to be able to reference them; odds are anyone reviewing your application already knows the applicable standards and if not they will do their homework and read up on them.

The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Peer Reviewers have access to codes if they need them so they can verify your claims as to what is or isn't in compliance. But even if you have all of this down because you've been tracking your gear from the day it arrived, meaning everyone it's been assigned to, when it was cleaned or repaired, this just means you are going to be more competitive than someone that can't explain their operational Point A. That doesn't mean we're getting funded, it just means we will have a better chance of being funded. The difference is always in the minor details.

Along those lines our operational assessment is going to give us numerous Point A's for each aspect of our operations. For example:

  • Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) - do we have enough? Do we have Rapid Intervention (RIT) connections? Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) protection? Voice Amps?
  • Apparatus - do we have enough pump capacity to handle our risks? Open cab? Seatbelts?
  • Water supply - is our supply line large enough for drafting/hydrant operations? Do we have enough draft sites? In non-hydranted areas can we get enough water on wheels? Do we have enough for a reliable initial attack until help arrives?
  • Training - do our people know enough to recognize situations and respond properly on fires, extrications, hazmats?

The last point to me is the most important and hopefully those that write the really important articles we read, or should should be reading (Dr. Carter, Chief Goldfeder, etc.) agree with me: properly trained personnel mitigate incidents, not equipment. Sometimes doing the right thing to make improvements doesn't involve money. Many of the important steps in improving our operations don't cost anything such as attitude adjustments and culture changes.

My philosophy is and always has been that there are only three ways to leave any incident: either wet, tired, or dirty. Leaving a scene on a stretcher or in a body bag is not an option. None of us on this side of the clouds can guarantee that, but certainly we can reduce the risks.

The best tool any public safety agency has is well-disciplined, well-trained people. No matter how expensive or how many bells and whistles you have on your trucks, no matter how high-end the equipment you purchase, if the people in your organization aren't properly trained to use what you have then you will never get to any Point B.

To answer the training question, we have to take an honest assessment of our personnel and ask: do we have more Darryl's than Larry's? For those who aren't old enough to have seen the Bob Newhart show, ask yourself: do you have idiots in your department? Do you have people that never come to training? Do you have people that freelance on calls? They don't take a tool with them, don't take the TIC, a radio, or don't wear an SCBA when they should?

These are idiots and all we will have if we get a grant for new bunker gear is well-dressed idiots. We won't have a safe fireground operation as long as they continue to operate in this way. If there is no SOP for seatbelts, or even if there is one and our personnel don't wear them, you will kill or injure your own people. We can't predict accidents since there are other drivers on the road, that's why we call them accidents. The first step to improve our response safety is clicking that seatbelt. Ask someone who was thrown through a windshield if they wear their seatbelt now, if they're still with us. Nothing in our business is an 'if it will happen', it's a 'when it happens'. If the trucks leave the station we have the risk of a wreck so click the belt.

Please don't get defensive and take that sentiment as if I'm pointing the finger elsewhere. In my 15 years in the fire service I've been an idiot on more than one occasion, and I'm now experienced enough to realize that I was an idiot and mighty lucky I got to leave that incident without being in a bag or on a stretcher. We're all human and we will continue to make mistakes as long as we are on this earth, and I'm no exception to that rule. No one can claim that they will never make a mistake, but what training and discipline do is minimize the frequency of those brain cramps that can cause injuries to us or others.

So sometimes the first step in getting us to that Point B (or C, D, etc) is to handle the attitude and culture factors that are preventing us from being a well-disciplined and well-trained machine. Those are generally free, and when mentioned in grant applications will help to prove that we are doing all we can to improve our operations without an increase in funding. That shows we are still deficient in some aspects of our operations but that we are doing all we can to correct them for free, so we still need additional funding to accomplish our goals.

No amount of training or discipline will make unsafe equipment safe; but in order to prove to anyone that is going to hand out funding the only way to have the competitive edge is by showing in our need to get to Point B that we already handled everything that we can using our own money to get where we are at now. Giving us the funding in our application is the next step to improving our operations.

Financial Assessments
Another major point that separates the funded from unfunded applications is that they know why they can't afford it, not just that they can't afford it. They know their financial Point A and why they can't reach their financial Point B in order to tackle this project on their own. And it's a little more complicated than just saying 'our project costs more than our budget'.

Remember when we're submitting a grant application our argument is being judged by other people who afford things that most of us don't have the money to pay for in a single block either. We have mortgages since we couldn't pay off the house with savings or annual earnings, plus car payments and other things like that. So we finance things we can't afford, an option some vendors offer with needed equipment.

Most of us also save up over time to buy other items such as furniture, TVs, computers, etc. So saving over multiple budget years is also an option that can be used to purchase needed equipment. Many departments have a truck fund or capital expense fund that they put a little money into for a rainy day or in case of a major incident that damages a lot of equipment. They'll have the funding to purchase replacements for some items quickly so the department isn't at a lower level of operations for very long. There is nothing wrong with planning ahead and you won't be punished for doing so since it makes sense for everyone.

Does this apply to us you may ask? Maybe, maybe not. But unless you've done a financial assessment to see where your money is going you can't accurately say that you can or can't afford a project, or whether or not you could save up for it. We have to know what we're doing with what funding we get now and why we are spending it on the things we're spending it on in order to demonstrate that we're not possibly wasting it on things that aren't as important.

Don't cry poor over your ability to afford 20 sets of new bunker gear to replace 10-year-old sets if you just paid cash for a new chief's car. This means you're not doing the right thing with the money you do have, so your ability to properly handle a grant award's proceeds might also be in question when the reviewers look over it. Replacing bunker gear that is over 10 years old is one way to do that. Buying a chief's car doesn't quite further our wet/tired/dirty goal, so maybe we should handle the truly important things first.

This crucial financial assessment is often skipped, and it is important because in the grant industry the average is only one out six applications gets funded. So five out of six times we are going to need to spend our own money to improve our operations. Our applications have to reflect that we're doing all that we can without additional funding. Again, that's what separates competitive but unfunded applications from funded applications. All grant programs are competitive, meaning more hands than money. So if we want to be the ones reaping the benefits we need to put together the most competitive applications possible.

Many Hands, Little Money
If we are successful with the financial assessment and we are still not funded, don't claim the program is broken. Thousands of competitive applications don't get funded every year. As we all learn more about putting competitive applications together that means we are raising the bar each time the program cycles around, so we have to be better than we were before. Doing the right thing doesn't guarantee funding, so if you aren't funded take consolation in the fact that people that needed the money more than you were funded. This is especially true when it comes to the AFG program. By the time an application gets funded a computer and a panel of fire service members all agreed an application was worthy.

So if we want an increased likelihood of funding we need to push where we can for increased funding. The law governing the AFG program has only authorized through a 2010 application period, meaning we only have three cycles left. I can easily answer the question "are we there yet" for most of the fire service based on the number of people I have contact with: No, we are not there yet. We are getting closer to Point B, but since we're in a dynamic industry we have Point C, Point D, and so on to get to. And sometimes they move on us as risk factors change. We need more funding and we need AFG to continue past 2010. As I mentioned, every year deserving and competitive applications don't get funded. It may take more than one year to get an application funded even if you do all of the right things. That's the nature of the competitive grant world. Don't get frustrated, don't stop applying. Keep applying, encourage your neighboring departments to apply, and keep hammering your Congressional representatives to extend AFG and properly fund it along with the other grant programs we have.

We aren't there yet, but if we work together we can all make improvements.

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BRIAN P. VICKERS, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, has been in the fire service for 15 years and is currently with the Westlake Volunteer Fire Department in Houston. He is CEO of Firegraphics.org Consulting Services (FSC), one of the country's leading public safety consulting firms specializing in strategic financial planning and grants. To date FCS has helped their clients receive nearly $70 million in grant awards. . To read Brian's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Brian by e-mail at brianv@firegraphics.org.

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