Ballam: 'Tis The Season -- To Write Grants

It is grant season again with the opening of the 2013 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program today (Nov. 4.)  It’s a time of year when fire departments across the nation make their “wish lists,” fill out their applications, hit send and wait, and wait and wait for the results of their effort.

I’m not going to tell you how to write a grant, or offer lots of tips on how to be successful because I’m not that good at it myself having only received two awards in the 10 or so swings I’ve taken at it since the program started.

I am going to encourage you submit grant applications because you never know and you owe it to your taxpayers to get as much money back for them as you can. If you don’t apply, they’ll give that money back to some other community who may be less deserving than yours.

The grant program has a huge impact on the business of firefighting. Manufacturers organize and lobby for grant programs. They even offer free grant writing advice to firefighters and “boiler plate” language that can be cut and pasted into grant applications. I have to offer one bit of advice – avoid using the boiler plate language. While the offer from the vendors is appreciated – generally our peers, the ones who judge our applications, aren’t impressed. They want to know about your department and your particular needs. Think about how much you dislike spam. If you think about it, it’s not much better than that, leaving an unimpressive impression.

It’s also interesting to me to note how many fire departments delaying mission-critical purchases, waiting to hear about grant awards even though the odds are stacked against them. Getting an AFG grant is a little like winning the lottery – you play the game, fill out the application, which is the ticket and with a little luck, you numbers come up. I will say there’s a winning elation that fills one’s soul when the grant award notification is official. It feels even better when you get confirmation the money has been deposited in your account.

But, the key is, no one should be counting on winning a grant. I know, by design, the grants are meant to help finance purchases departments could otherwise not make. There are, however, some purchases that shouldn’t be left up to lottery luck.  And you know what they are to achieve your particular mission.

Personal protective equipment has got to be one of those.  I wouldn’t want to be the one to order a firefighter to wage an interior attack in defected and out-of-date turnout gear.  Can you say lawsuit?  You don’t want to be the one on the witness stand saying that you knew that injured firefighter’s bunker coat was 15 years old and was showing signs of thermal damage.

I know there are sometimes when a firefighter has got to do what a firefighter’s got to do and you go in anyway, taking the risk. But there’s a high cost for taking that gamble and loosing.

I for one would much rather figure out a capital improvement plan that’s either funded by local public tax dollars or fundraising activities – the latter source being challenging and unpredictable.

Our department faced that dilemma with turnout gear. We found ourselves in a situation where we had 10 sets that went out of date at once – mine included. We were staring at a huge expense.

I wrote a grant – and lost – meaning we were right back at the point where we were before, staring at an expenditure of close to $20,000. The only thing we did was delay the inevitable and put our firefighters at a risk for several months. We scraped our equipment budget clean and begged our precinct commissioners for forgiveness for going over budget and made the purchase. It hurt like heck, but the consequences were too great to wait to another year, to get another ticket punched and wait for the results.

We all appreciate the opportunity to get federal grant money, or any kind of “free money,” but they are not predictable and are most often not reliable.

Sure, you might hear about grant superstar department’s that receive hundreds of thousands of dollars year after year. What’s there secret? I don’t know. But I do know the chance of losing big are greater than the chances of winning big.

And, unfortunately, the AFG program never tells you exactly why the grant was not successful. Sure, they do provide some generalities, but specifics are skimpy.

Year after year, thousands of fire departments play the game, fill out the applications and hope and pray they win the proverbial federal grant lottery.

A bit of advice for those contemplating purchases. Don’t count on the grant. Luck is still in play for even the best written grants submitted by the most deserving fire departments. Usually, the evaluators, which are our peers, get it right and allocate the funding to where it’s needed most. The trouble is, there are way more deserving needs and departments than there is money to fund them all.

It’s tough investing all that time and energy into writing grants that are not successful. But, you know what, you gotta buy a ticket to win the lottery.

So log on, get your stuff together and send it before the Dec. 6 deadline. It’s the least you can do for your taxpayers. And, who knows -- you may win.

In the meantime, be thinking of a funding “Plan B,” because our firefighters must still be afforded all the protection, training and equipment they need.

Time to wrap this one up. I’ve got my own grant writing to do.  Now where are my passwords?