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2013 AFG Program: Updated Priorities and Application Tips

The 2013 Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program opened Monday and there are hundreds of departments vying for the $320,920,083 in federal dollars. In my last article, I examined some of the changes to the funding allocations, changes to the grant matching criteria and updates to the vehicle application rules. In this article, I'm going to share information on the applications for regional grants, operational and safety grants and other tips to help you get your shot at the funding.

Allowable Applications

As usual there are the Individual Operations & Safety application, the Individual Vehicle application, the Regional Operations & Safety application and new for this year is the Regional Vehicle application. As in 2012, the Regional Operations & Safety projects are limited to training, personal protective equipment (PPE), self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), large diameter hose/water supply and communications projects. 

A slight twist to Operations & Safety grants is the micro grant (MG) designation, which is the applicant’s choice to pick when the federal share being requested is $25,000 or less. In the past, the review of awards seemed to indicate that lower dollar, yet high-priority requests were being scored low because they were seeking a small amount of funding. This year, there is the option to check a box in your application to indicate that you are submitting an MG application, and according to the guidelines these applications “may” receive additional consideration. They are still normal Operations & Safety grants subject to the same rules as far as priorities and project design, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get scored higher for being an MG. So don’t just ask for five SCBA when you need 15 just so you can check the box, that doesn't solve anything. This is mainly a statistical indicator from the looks of it, not a scoring advantage to plan for. If you have higher dollar/higher priority needs it will still be more advantageous to apply for those instead. 

A totally new opportunity for 2013 is the Regional Vehicle application, which is doing with the statistics what we’ve been doing for years in narratives, which is talk about how many other departments would benefit from a particular vehicle being funded for the applicant department. In these applications you will be required to list the names of partner departments, as well as a contact name and phone number for each. Understand that these people will be receiving phone calls to make sure they knew that they were involved in this application if it scores high enough. Since they have to supply their statistics to the applicant just like any other regional grant, they should not be surprised by this phone call or not know what the nice person at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is talking about when they ask about a Regional Vehicle application they were involved in. 

These are also not like the Regional Operations & Safety applications where every participant physically receives something from the award’s proceeds. Vehicles are insured and titled by the host, but they cannot be restricted from responding to the partner organizations listed. A lot of areas have a rural and city coverage situation and when one taxing entity purchases a vehicle it can’t leave that boundary. Any vehicle awarded under a Regional Vehicle application will have to be made available for mutual aid responses at any time, so make sure the powers that be realize that it can’t be kept at home in the station when it is called for. There will be more information later in the article about what this new opportunity means for everyone. 

Top Priorities

While there have been many administrative changes over the year, the base level of the program has not strayed from its original intent so the actual priorities for funding are basically the same as they have been in years past. For Operations & Safety, as always PPE and SCBA remain the highest scoring needs in that order, but that doesn’t mean it’s all you can go after by any stretch of the imagination.  If you have PPE, but don’t have the gear washer/dryer or proper lockers or racks to help store and maintain your PPE then that could be a competitive need for your department. If you have the SCBA, but no rapid intervention team (RIT) SCBA, no thermal imaging camera, or breathing air compressor within a reasonable distance from your area, those items have competitive stances as well.  If people are in your station 24/7, then maybe some of the Station Modification projects like monitored alarm systems, fire sprinklers or exhaust removal systems will be competitive. 

Again there are many more projects that are eligible, but your potential level of scoring is dependent on your assessment based against National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and other national standards, what I call measuring sticks. The normal starting point is any items past their recommended NFPA useable lifetime, which on most things is 10 years. But don’t forget that it’s all items in that category, not just what you’re looking to replace. The reason all of your PPE has to be reported is that it’s not about the fact that you need to replace 10 sets of 15-year-old gear, it’s also about how you have 30 sets that are less than five years old. In simple terms, that situation shows an applicant that’s 75% compliant with PPE protection for their firefighters. Grant needs are usually those where you’re a lot closer to 0% compliant, not appearing to be solving the issue on your own without help. 

Also remember that all projects must bring departments into compliance with the applicable standards including NFPA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and EMS protocols depending on your project and state. There is a new NFPA standard for thermal imaging cameras (NFPA 1801) and also one for ambulances (NFPA 1917), so ensure that your project and pricing are within the proper range for the standards. In addition, remember that the grant is funding projects that meet or slightly exceed the NFPA Standards, not the gold standards. It’s certainly possible to option out a PPE coat to $3,000 by itself, or make an $8,000 SCBA, but that's not what AFG is going to fund. Basic is the name of the game.

When it comes to Regional Operations & Safety, as mentioned earlier, the projects are limited, but represent the opportunity to present a stronger application, and also increase the number of applications a single department is involved in. For instance, at the simplest level, if two neighboring departments (“A” and “B”) both need PPE, both need radios, “A” needs rescue tools, and “B” needs SCBA, then “A” can host a Regional PPE application, “B” can host a Regional Radio application, “A” can apply for rescue tools on an individual operations grant, and “B” can apply for SCBA on their individual ops grant. Each department is involved in three applications for things they need within the same year, instead of lumping them all in one application. Any or all of them could fund because they are all scored independently of each other, with the only limit on awards being the total population funding cap. 

As mentioned above, for the vehicle side it appears that it might be the year of the ambulance, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the funding priorities have changed. Overall, the Vehicle Priority Matrix hasn’t changed much from past years, but as mentioned earlier, the inclusion of a Regional Vehicle application will allow for some creative thinking and applications, if you have your assessments together (see the Matrix in the image above left).

In terms of the Regional Vehicles, some common sense has to come into play. Certainly a pumper is going to go on a mutual aid call when requested, as will brush trucks and tankers. Are they a Regional Vehicle application project? Probably not, since the neighboring departments all hopefully have pumpers. Remember, in these applications you not only have to put together all of the call volumes and other statistics, but also the fleet information for everyone involved. If 10 departments have 20 pumpers between them, a Regional Vehicle application isn’t going to look like a great need. 

To the contrary, this is where the specialty pieces are going to be more competitive because there most likely aren’t a lot of them in a given area. Aerials, rescues, command, hazmat, air/light and rehab trucks have all had limited success in past years, with all but aerials and rescues being that once in a few years possibly even making Peer Review. As a law of averages situation, the Priority 2 trucks just don’t make Peer Review as Individual applications, but in a Regional Vehicle setting these will be much stronger and will score better. 

The same situation exists on the vehicle side as the Operations & Safety side, in which departments can do both Individual and Regional Vehicle applications, but there is still no “double-dipping.” This is defined as the same applicant being involved in more than one application for the same items. So, in Operations & Safety a department can’t be in a Regional SCBA grant and then also request SCBA on their Individual. With the Vehicle projects the same rule is in place, but this means that one department can submit for a Pumper and also either host the Regional Aerial or provide their statistics to one without causing any problems. 

Also adding a twist is the same opportunity to apply for multiple vehicles is in place, but again this is when proper project design and common sense have to be used in the decision-making process. I’ve seen it in past years where someone who was a 20% match put in for an Aerial at $1 million ($800,000 federal, $200,000 local), and also included an Ambulance for $150,000 in the same application. This begs the question, if you have $200,000 in cash matching to put towards the Aerial, why do you need $150,000 to buy an Ambulance if you have the money already in the bank for one? The better option is buying the Ambulance and taking $150,000 out of your budget, which actually helps your Financial Need for the Aerial. Then, if you leave the Ambulance out, it isn’t there to hurt your case for the Aerial. This year, of course, if you’ve been reading closely this same department could do an Individual Ambulance application and a Regional Aerial application. 

For those that like to play the “what if?” game, yes, you can put two vehicles within the same Regional Vehicle application just like you can with the Individual application. So, if the need is there for both a Rescue and an Aerial in a Region then they could both technically go within the same application. My personal opinion again is to keep it simple and split them, because remember with Regional Vehicle applications the host department will be the one to own and operate the awarded trucks. If staffing is tight for any type of department, you might be up against Reviewers wondering how both will roll at the same time. The better option is to split these into two separate applications. After all, like I say about every application we work on, some money still beats no money so the lower your request to solve the situation the better your chances. 

The time to have started is yesterday because if you need something today you probably needed it yesterday, so you're already behind on risk assessment and prevention. Let me speak for my colleagues when I tell you not to wait, especially if you are planning on working with an outside grant writer. Most of us don’t sleep much during this busy application period because we try to help as many applicants as we can, but there are so many hours in a day. Now that we’ve broken down the program, start planning and don’t miss your chance at the funding your organization needs.

As we should always do in the fire service, never assume anything. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact AFG staff prior to submitting your application to ensure that you don’t do something that gets your application kicked out before it even gets in the game. Every year this happens for applicants and their opportunity to make an improvement is lost. Check on the Fire Grants website at www.fema.gov/firegrants for your regional program staff contact, or call Helpdesk at 866-274-0960 for more information. Since it’s their sandbox, make sure you’re within the rules at all times. 

BRIAN P. VICKERS, has been in the fire service for 18 years with numerous state and national certifications for Fire, Rescue and EMS disciplines. He is a former Department Training Officer and District Captain, as well as a Chapter Author for Fire and Emergency Services Safety and Survival, Brady Publishing's textbook on the NFFF 16 Life Safety Initiatives (published April 2011). He is CEO of Vickers Consulting Services (VCS), one of the country’s leading public safety consulting firms specializing in strategic financial planning and grants. VCS has helped over 3,500 clients receive over $450 million in grant awards in the last 7 years. Their website is www.vickersconsultingservices.com

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