Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Lessons in Funding Emergency Services

Jan. 1, 2007
Brian Vickers uses the characters of "The Wizard of Oz" to assist fire departments in tracking down new funding sources.

There have been numerous theories as to the underlying theme of the movie "The Wizard of Oz." I'm not here to debate any of those, certainly they weren't thinking of the issues surrounding the funding of emergency services that many years ago. But we can take away a few things from that movie to give ourselves a little guidance.

The four main themes in the movie certainly parallel our needs in emergency services: heart (Tin Man), courage (Lion), brains (Scarecrow) and of course the overwhelming desire to go home (Dorothy). These emotions and human conditions are familiar to all of us who respond to emergency calls. No one can continually answer the call for help and feel no emotions. Courage shows up on scenes every day all over the world, and if we didn't perform intelligently, we might not be able to go home at the end of the day.

How does this relate to funding for emergency services? First, you have to have some heart to want to make a difference at your department or in your community. To be under-equipped on the front line of any emergency is a gut-wrenching situation. We might leave frustrated that we could have done a better job if we just had X. Those emotions need to be channeled into doing what you can to acquire X, so you need to tap your brains and your courage to go after what funding might be available.

Involving People

None of the characters in the movie could have made the journey to the Wizard on their own. It took the individual strengths of each one of them to achieve the collective goal. In the same manner, no single member of a public safety organization can tackle all of the financial issues facing it. It takes teamwork. In some instances, involving people outside the department could provide added insight that otherwise might not have come to light. One of my favorite sayings is, "You can't think outside the box when you're in it." Involving other members of the community such as bankers, business executives, teachers and others could help. Lots of opportunities exist to do things in a fire or EMS organization and not all of it involves running into burning buildings or treating patients. There are many people looking to volunteer and feel needed who can handle filing, research, computer work or anything else that you may need help with. Fire Corps has shown that people want to help emergency services agencies, but if you don't ask for help, you'll never get any.

One main advantage to using members of the public is that they are also your voters. They can help communicate the needs of the department to the rest of the community to help support initiatives that you want to undertake. They may have more credibility in that sense because they aren't members of the organization, so the rest of the voting public won't receive the message with as much bias as it would if the organization were asking for funding.

Another advantage to outside help is that you find people with real-world business experience. Business managers and executives have to operate within their organization's budgets and perform cost-benefit analyses with projects on a daily basis, so they are well versed in what makes sense and what doesn't in terms of return on investment. They may also know other outlets for finding funding.

You may even have members of your organization who can handle these tasks, but haven't been asked. Find them and involve them. Most people take pride in belonging to an organization. This is especially true when they are given the opportunity to make a real difference across the organization. Money does make the world go around, and very few public safety organizations ever see enough of it to handle every project they would like to implement. There are some well-funded emergency service organizations out there, but that number is easily less than 1% of the total. Most of us have funding issues. So assemble a good team and put the right people together to start down the road of funding.


Before you start looking for money, you need to determine what you need the money for, what you are going to do with it if you get the money, and why you are doing this project to begin with. The best means to figure this out is to make a list of everything you think you need to create the best-equipped fire department possible, including equipment and training. Categorize the list based on the problems you are having and group all of the possible solutions for those problems together. For instance under safety issues, perhaps new personal protective equipment (PPE) would decrease the risk of injury, but so would some additional training in many cases. For each item on the list, come up with a cost to implement that solution. Under water supply you may find dry hydrants, large-diameter hose or even a tanker. Continue to build the list based on what you feel is needed for each category that needs addressing.

Now that we have our needs assessment, the list must be prioritized in order of importance. Emotion helped build the list, but this is where the courage and brains step in to keep us on track. Certainly, new trucks are fun to design, and having a big-screen TV might improve morale and increase retention, but they don't always measure up to what the perception of the needs of the organization may be from an outside, public view. This is where we have to compare and contrast the list to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations since those are the measuring sticks used to judge most funding requests, especially those geared to emergency services. It may be best to do this in order of the impact the project would have on the ability of everyone to meet the end goal, to go home at the end of the day. While that new fire truck will help lower your ISO score, and the enclosed cab will shield firefighters from the weather, if the PPE they are going interior with is full of holes, then lack of proper PPE is the biggest safety risk and should be at the top of the list. Certainly bad brakes or a truck that won't always run make the priority discussion more detailed, but that is part of setting your priorities.

Finding the Money

Once you have completed your list, prioritize the items and put a cost on each item. Local funding sources should always be the first stop on your trip. It may be a very short stop, depending on the financial situation in your area, but there is definitely more than one opportunity present in every community. Many think that local taxes or direct donations from residents in the area are the only options. There is a limited supply of both and you're not going to get blood from a stone. No one likes the notion of raising taxes, and winning public support for higher taxes needs a longer discussion than what is available here.

One approach that won't take as long to implement or find much resistance is to try and increase the effectiveness of the existing donations. As an example for volunteer emergency service providers, many companies have employee donation matching programs in place where an employee donates to a non-profit organization and the employer will make a matching donation of varying degree. Nearly every company I have worked for over the past 10 years would match dollar for dollar up to a certain limit per employee or organization. What I have found in many cases is that people don't even know their companies offer a program like this. Using this tool could double the amount of monies received in donations. Simply asking your volunteer staff to find out whether their employers have such a program is a great start.

Don't stop there. Ask the public you serve for its support in doing the same. If most of your budget is donation based, you could theoretically increase your budget by 30% to 50% just by making the public aware that such programs exist. Your list will also help show the public that you have true needs that will help make both the organization and the community safer, and you have a proper basis for those needs.

Communicating with your local government is paramount, even if you don't have much chance of raising taxes. Sometimes, government officials will find unallocated funds that can be spent on any item that comes up. But if they don't know the needs of the fire department or EMS squad are, it won't occur to them to allocate these discretionary funds to your organization. Give your local government leaders a copy of your list. Let them know that you have thought carefully about what you really need over the long term. Give them data on what it will cost to fix the various situations. This way, if they find that they have an extra $1,000 here or there, they know that this relatively small amount would make a large difference somewhere in the public safety sector.

The next step is a natural one; you should move up to the county, state, and federal levels government to see what programs are available from them in terms of direct financial assistance.

Grant Programs

There is no such thing as a grant program that will give you money for anything you want. Grant programs from any source are specific in who, what, where and when they will give money. No matter how hard you work, and how well you write a project proposal, if you are asking for money from an organization that deems you ineligible, you have wasted a lot of valuable time and probably numerous chances at other funding sources.

The first step should always be to qualify your organization against each program's eligibility lists. There are thousands of private foundation grant programs in the U.S., but each one has different purposes. None of these programs were created just because someone wanted to give away money. These programs were created to fulfill needs that the creators found and wanted to correct. You will have to read the program guidance documents carefully to ensure that your organization is qualified to apply. Once you have determined your eligibility, you will need to compare the various projects you want to complete against the program's purpose and what it will and will not fund. There should be contact information for an administrator in the documents, so if you have questions, don't make assumptions; get the answer directly from the source.

Some of the most damaging mistakes relating to private foundation grant programs have been to ask for the wrong item or for an item that is too costly. Most foundations will list their recent awards, so use this information to figure out what amount may be too much to ask for from that particular foundation. It is usually more fruitful to ask for smaller amounts from several organizations rather than large amounts from one or two.

Money certainly doesn't grow on trees, but when funding an emergency services operation, we sometimes have to get creative to reach our goals. It will take time, it will take effort and it will be a roller coaster of emotions along the way. While we can parallel the journey in "The Wizard of Oz," we have to realize that in the real world, there is no single yellow brick to follow and certainly no Wizard at the end to grant us all of our wishes. But if we keep the goal to get home at the end of each journey at the forefront of our minds, we will find a way to handle our funding issues.

Brian P. Vickers will present "Funding Emergency Services: Strategic Planning" and "Getting a Grip on Grants" at Firehouse World 2007, Feb. 25-March 1, in San Diego, CA.

BRIAN P. VICKERS, a freelance grant writer and fire service consultant, is an engineer/EMT with the Community Volunteer Fire Department in Houston, TX, where he previously was district captain and department training officer. He has a bachelor's degree in computer information systems management and is pursuing an MBA with a concentration in eBusiness. Vickers is employed full time as a senior programmer/analyst for Landata Systems Inc of Houston.

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