The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has released guidelines for the fiscal year 2014 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants program. The guidelines for this next round of fire grants were released in December 2014, with the application window expected to be open from February 9th through March 6th 2015. This is a very short application timeframe (less than 4 weeks) so if your fire and emergency response agency needs fire grants help and is serious about winning SAFER grant funds, the time to start preparing your proposal is now. The purpose of SAFER is provide funding paid and volunteer firefighting agencies to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, “front line” firefighters available in their communities. The goal of the SAFER program is to enhance the capabilities of fire departments to comply with staffing, response and operational standards established by the NFPA (NFPA 1710 and/or NFPA 1720).
SAFER grants are awarded in two categories: Hiring or Recruitment and Retention. In the previous round of funding, FEMA made 249 awards with grants ranging in size from less than $5,000 to more than $24 million. Grants were awarded in 41 states with the average award being just over $1.2 million. Of the 249 grants awarded in the previous fiscal year, 170 were in the Hiring category with the remainder in the Recruitment and Retention category. The average Recruitment and Retention award was just over $406,000 with the largest in that category being just under $2.4 million. With 27 awards totaling nearly $51 million, California took home more awards than any other state. Florida came in a distant second, counting 16 awards totaling just under $38 million. With a grant of just over $24 million, the City of Detroit Fire Department took home the largest SAFER award in fiscal year 2013. It is important to note that SAFER grants are awarded in ‘waves’ throughout the year. For fiscal year 2013, FEMA announced 28 different rounds of winners. In this round, FEMA expects to make approximately 300 awards from June through September.
As noted above, SAFER provides funds in two categories (Hiring, Recruitment and Retention). Information about each program area is shown below.
Eligible applicants: Career, Volunteer, and Combination Fire Departments. Funds may be used to:
- Hire new firefighters
- Rehire laid-off firefighters
- Retain firefighters who may be laid-off in the future and/or filling positions left vacant through attrition that weren’t filled because of economic factors
- Recruitment and Retention
Eligible applicants: Combination fire departments, volunteer fire departments, and national, state, local, or tribal organizations that represent the interests of volunteer firefighters. Funds may be used for:
- Volunteer firefighter recruitment programs
- Retention benefits and programs for volunteer firefighters
Unlike many grant programs, matching funds contributions are not required. Combination and Volunteer Fire Departments may apply for funding from both categories by submitting two separate applications, one for each category. However, an applicant may not submit two applications for the same category during a single application period.
Despite the fact that there were nearly 250 grants awarded for the fiscal year 2013 funding cycle, the SAFER grant program is highly competitive and requires a great deal of preparation and work to develop a winning proposal. As a grant writer, I have a great deal of success winning FEMA grants. Of the $170 million in grants I have won over the last ten years, about $40 million were for fire departments and other public safety organizations. My largest SAFER award was in excess of $10 million. Part of my ability to write successful grant proposals for fire departments and other public safety organizations stems from my years of experience working as a professional grant proposal reviewer. I’ve done peer reviews for dozens of different state and federal funding agencies over the years and have been part of the decision making teams that have allocated more than $500 million in funding over the last five years.
In my experience as a grant proposal reviewer as well as through conversations with members of my review teams and program officers, not following the directions provided in the funding opportunity announcement is the number one reason most grant proposals get rejected. Not following directions can mean anything from not answering questions properly to not including required attachments or supplemental information (if requested).
Here is an example of not properly answering a question. For the “Financial” section, applicants are request to address three questions:
Provide detail about the department’s operating budget, including a high-level breakdown of the budget
Describe the department’s inability to address financial needs without federal assistance
Discuss other actions the department has taken to meet its staffing needs (e.g., state assistance programs, other grant programs, etc.).
And here is a response that I have seen – “XYZ Fire Department has an annual budget of $1.5 million. Of this, more than $1 million goes towards personnel and benefits costs. Without federal funds our department will be unable to fill these much needed positions. Funding is not available from other sources.” From a reviewer’s perspective, this response is meaningless because it does not say anything about the source of the department’s budget, how the budget has changed over time or external factors (e.g., declining property values, state or county budget cuts, etc.).
In contrast, a well-crafted response would provide details about the sources and uses of department funds in order to provide reviewers a clear picture of the department’s operating budget. It would break down all sources of the department’s revenue and then provide details outlining the dollar amounts and percentages of the total budget that are allocated towards the various expense categories (e.g., salaries, benefits, maintenance, etc.). It should also include a brief discussion of factors such as pension or retirement expenses. It would also include information about how the budget has changed over time, particularly if certain expense categories have increased.
A thorough response would also explain how and why the department is unable to secure funding through other sources. For example, the narrative could include a discussion of economic factors that have had a negative impact on the department’s budget. Overall, a strong response would clearly explain why the department is unable to secure the funding it needs from other sources. Lastly, a solid response would also provide an overview of steps the department has taken to meet its staffing needs. These discussions might include descriptions of other grants the department has sought along with steps it has taken such as budget cuts, union concessions or other cost cutting strategies.
With this in mind, here are five tips for helping you to develop a strong SAFER proposal that gets funded:
- Tip #1: Follow the directions:
- Never omit information requested or leave out a required section of the proposal guidelines
- Follow the instructions exactly and provide all of the information requested
- Even if it feels like you are being asked to provide information you’ve already discussed in an earlier section, include the requested information where it is requested or at the very least, refer back to the previous response and indicate where the information can be found
- Tip #2: Match: Be certain that your project and request are aligned to the SAFER priorities. This sounds obvious but you would be surprised at how often applicants seek funding for activities that are clearly not aligned to the program’s funding priorities. If your hiring or recruitment and retention needs are not aligned to SAFER priorities then your proposal will not get funded.
- Tip #3: Provide quantifiable data: Reviewers need to fully understand the scope of your department (e.g., number of personnel, number of responses each year, etc.) as well as the negative impact not obtaining SAFER funding would have on your budget, along with the positive impact SAFER funding would have on the budget. Here are examples:
- Call volume: In 20XX, the department responded to 49,169 emergency service calls and 655 mutual aid/automatic responses.
- Negative impact of not receiving SAFER funds: Without SAFER funding, the department will have to decrease Special Teams (e.g., Technical Rescue, etc.) response due to reduction in units, and thus, the department will be forced to rely on mutual aid from surrounding agencies rather than being self supporting. Our Dive Rescue team will also be cut in half and our HazMat Tech team will be reduced to a Type III rating, which will inhibit our ability to respond to hazardous materials incidents and provide EOD responses.
- Positive impact of SAFER funding: With SAFER funding, the department will rehire the 46 laid-off firefighters, which will result in enhanced safety for the firefighters and more effective response for the community. By rehiring all 46 of these men and women, the units mentioned above will be fully operational, reducing the risk to our community by eliminating the noted potential increase in response time for fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) calls, protecting property, and saving lives.
- Tip #4: Be succinct and make your proposal readable: If you can clearly say what you need to say in five sentences, leave it at that—there is no need to use all available space or character limits just because you have room. Rather, reviewers appreciate it when you clearly and concisely state your case and provide all of the necessary information without being verbose, making excessive use of buzzwords or otherwise using flowery or unnecessary language.
- Tip #5: Don’t wait until the last minute: As a reviewer, I often see applicants that try to recycle old proposals by cutting and pasting them into new proposals. Here, they fail to understand that each grant program (even those within FEMA) has different priorities and is requesting different information. Last minute cutting and pasting inevitably fails to address the current priorities or provide the requested information. Avoid the temptation to engage in last minute cutting and pasting by starting the proposal preparation process well ahead of the deadline. Assign responsibilities for gathering statistics and other required information and be sure to follow up to ensure that each person his following through with his or her obligations.
Follow these five tips and your department will be well on its way to securing SAFER funds to carry out needed hiring, recruitment or retention activities. Contact us if your department is unsure of how to proceed and would like to put the job in the hands of one of the most highly qualified and experienced grant writing teams in the United States.