Assistance to Firefighters Grants: Appealing for Thermal Imagers

March 1, 2005

Thermal imagers are one of the most frequently requested pieces of equipment by U.S. fire departments appealing for Assistance to Firefighters Grants. In judging FIRE Act applications, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expects departments to demonstrate their needs effectively and to offer a clear explanation of what will change in the community as a result of the project.

This column provides both general ideas about how to write successful FIRE Act applications and specific ideas about how to appeal for thermal imagers. It is based on interviews with three grant writers who won thermal imagers for their departments in 2004:

  • Elbert McMorris, past chief of the Otego, NY, Volunteer Fire Department, completed a FIRE Act grant application for a thermal imager in 2004. On June 18, this 60-member department was awarded $11,700 to buy a thermal imager.
Kevin Kleinsmith, president of Citizen’s Fire Company of Upper Milford Township in Vera Cruz, PA, constructed a FIRE Act application for a thermal imager, bunker gear, an exhaust-removal system, hose tester and several pieces of cleaning equipment. On Aug. 6, this 27-member volunteer department was awarded $106,254 to purchase all the equipment requested. Karl Lusk, a captain with the New Haven, KY, Volunteer Fire Department, wrote a successful grant for FIRE Act funding to support the purchase of a thermal imager, SCBA and portable radios. On Aug. 20, DHS announced that this 28-member department would receive $56,880 to purchase all the equipment requested.

Benefits of Thermal Imaging

The benefits of thermal imaging for fire departments are wide-ranging, from improving the health and safety of the community to helping firefighters respond effectively to hazardous materials incidents. In your FIRE Act application, be as specific as you can about how firefighters and the community can benefit from thermal imaging. Consider the greatest needs and problems for your department, and explain how the technology might help. For example, if a staffing shortage is your greatest challenge, you might discuss how thermal imagers speed overhaul efforts and reduce the strain on personnel.

What were the benefits of thermal imaging emphasized in your department’s FIRE Act application?

McMorris: “Our application focused on the benefit of thermal imaging for improving community and firefighter safety. We wrote about the use of thermal imagers for searching schools and nursing homes, conducting wildland searches for missing persons, fighting structural fires effectively, and detecting dangerous building conditions for firefighters. We also discussed our need to be able to respond to hazmat calls on Interstate 88 and the Canadian Pacific Railroad that run through our area.”

Kleinsmith: “We focused on the health and safety of firefighters and the health and safety of the community. Our application mentioned the use of thermal imaging by the rapid intervention team, as well as the use of the technology in responding to motor vehicle accidents on and off the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

Lusk: “The key philosophy of our department is, ‘Everybody comes home.’ During our needs assessment and pre-planning, that was our focus – we’re all going home. As a firefighter, you’ll have to take some chances, but being safe is a priority, and we prioritized firefighter safety very highly in our application. A thermal imager will allow us to fight fire better, safer and smarter. We also included in our argument that a thermal imager would help us stretch our volunteer resources by making them more effective during responses.”

Demonstrating Need

An effective demonstration of need is a key element of your FIRE Act application. Explain why your department is unable to budget for the expenditure and why you are in need of assistance from the federal government. The more you know about local, county and state fiscal trends and issues that constrain the department, the more solid your grant will be. Paint a picture of your local economy. In this portion of your grant, you should also address other funding sources that exist within the department.

How did your department demonstrate need in its FIRE Act application?

McMorris: “In discussing our financial needs, we provided income statistics and discussed our financial issues related to replacing our 25-year-old engine. We have an annual fund drive for ambulance diagnostic and treatment equipment for the Emergency Squad, and we mentioned that as well.”

Kleinsmith: “To demonstrate need, we discussed the financial burden of recent purchases of necessities, including a pumper-tanker, compliant SCBA and compatible communications systems. We also noted other sources of income, including money from the township, public donations, quarterly drawings and fundraising events managed by the department.”

Lusk: “In writing our grant, I noted the annual budget constraints, stagnant population, current debt load of the department and the need to purchase a compliant pumper within the next two years. The fact that the incorporated limits of the town are static due to a flood plain, a river and hilly terrain gives us a finite area for a tax base, and we don’t have the ability to annex.”

Resources Utilized

Grant writers should take full advantage of resources available to help them construct effective applications. Guidance can be found on the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program website at, as well as at the websites of equipment manufacturers.

To help your grant writer be as effective as possible, be sure to send him or her to a free grant writing workshop available through DHS.

What were some of the resources your department utilized in putting together its FIRE Act application?

McMorris: “We used fire department run records, a census report, advice from a neighboring department about equipment, program guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, statistics on local fundraising and a Cisco Internet seminar on writing grants.”

Kleinsmith: “We knew we wanted a thermal imager, and I spent some time on line looking for help. I also reviewed winning applications from departments surrounding ours, to see how they had approached it. We couldn’t have gotten the money without all the resources we used.”

Lusk: “After we identified our greatest needs, I constructed a grant with the help of sample narratives on the Internet and with the help of a FIRE Act workshop in my area.”

Keys to Success

What do you believe made your FIRE Act grant application successful, and what would you recommend to others who are writing applications?

McMorris: “We estimated as accurately as possible the cost of the project and the number of people who would benefit – both civilian and fire department personnel. I believe we made a compelling argument for the technology, which included a realistic assessment of the impact of the camera on civilians, local and neighboring fire department, as well as preservation of life and property.”

Kleinsmith: “Use every available resource you can find – neighboring departments, websites and the help offered by manufacturers. One of the most helpful things to us was reviewing narratives that other departments shared.”

Lusk: “For any department appealing for FIRE Act money, you need to first have clarity within the department and in your application about what the department really needs. Pay attention to the criteria for writing the application. Read the DHS website, attend a FIRE Act grants workshop and follow directions! It helps to review successfully funded grants for similar needs. Do not copy them, but use this as a way to understand how to organize data and information, and to project a valid case statement. Finally, request objective reviews of your application before you submit; if awarded, perform as you proposed. Do what you said you’d do!”

Writing a Budget

When writing your budget within your FIRE Act application, be sure to determine the specific equipment you need to accomplish your project, including a listing of all the items, parts, training, replacements, upgrades, etc. Consider including accessories for your thermal imager, such as a wireless transmitter, truck mount charger and monitoring equipment.

Write down the cost of all the items for which you are requesting funding, so reviewers have a clear picture of exactly how the money will be used. Be as accurate as possible. Call distributors to ask them to help you price their items exactly. Get written quotes to ensure requested funds meet purchase requirements.

Matching requirements have changed for the 2005 Assistance to Firefighters Grant program. Departments serving jurisdictions of 50,000 or more people are required to have matching funds of 20%; departments serving jurisdictions between 20,000 and 50,000 people are required to have matching funds of 10%, and jurisdictions smaller than 20,000 people are required to have matching funds of 5%.

The full 2004 FIRE Act narratives of these three successful departments can be found at

Public Affairs Manager Rebecca Scholer directs thermal imaging funding programs for Bullard. In 2003, she developed and managed the introduction of the inSIGHT fundraising program, which helps firefighters and community leaders raise money locally for thermal imagers. Scholer also manages the FIRE Act assistance programs offered by Bullard to fire departments seeking thermal imagers through the Department of Homeland Security. She has a bachelor of science degree in journalism from Ball State University and an MBA from Indiana University. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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