"Dear John"; Rejected Again
By Kurt Bradley
If you are reading this article, you’re probably wondering, “Why did my grant get rejected and what are we doing wrong?” You’re not alone; in this year’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, about 9,000 other fire departments will also be wondering the exact same thing. As in any grant program, there are winners and losers. Still, I’m sure that getting a rejection notice (“Dear John”) from DHS was not what you hoped to see in your e-mail inbox.
So why did this happen again? What are some of the things that separate a successful grant application from a rejected one? What did another department do right, or better than you? Developing an award-winning grant application appears easy for some departments, but for many, gaining the actual award is as elusive as finding the Holy Grail.
I have seen hundreds of rejected applications and, almost without exception, they all have similar “fatal flaws” within them. So what are some of these "fatal flaws"?
Flaw #1: Procrastination
Many of the applications I examine quite obviously were put together at the last minute. This is a very bad mistake. In this world of competitive grants, a half-baked proposal will not get it done. Grants have deadlines that are cast in stone. One minute late, and your application won’t even be considered.
Most grants are cyclical in nature; in other words, they usually come around at about the same time every year. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) traditionally opens in the first week of March every year; Fire Prevention & Safety (FP&S) usually (except this year) opens in early fall; and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) typically opens in late summer. Changes in the program from year to year are usually very minor in nature and going back and studying the previous year’s program guidance is a good way to get a head start.
Starting well ahead of the opening date gives you the one thing you have the least amount of: sufficient time to research and develop a good application. Most grant application periods are only open for 30 working days. That is not a huge window of time to pull together a good application. In a career field where a call can come in at any moment, you need to utilize your available time to your advantage. I have departments right now that have had FP&S grant applications 90% complete since August of 2006. A number of my clients already are planning and developing their 2007 AFG applications as well.
Start early on developing that application for next year. Do your research now and get your statistical data together, conduct your risk and vulnerability assessments and identify your critical infrastructure. The research component is what takes the most time and if you have to wait two weeks to find out just how much oil is flowing through that pipeline in your first due area (because it is a piece of the critical infrastructure you protect), your deadline may come and go.
Flaw #2: Failure to identify and properly address program priorities
The biggest mistake I see is a failure to properly address the priorities of the grant program itself. A number of the departments do not thoroughly read and recognize the stated priorities of the program guidance document. Reading and rereading the grant guidance document is essential in identifying exactly what the program is trying to accomplish. The very first thing you should do: determine what the funding source is trying to accomplish with the program. Knowing where higher priorities will be placed is paramount to a successful application and subsequent award.
Applicants should always keep in mind that the funding sources have priorities they must meet in giving out their money. If you want their money, you have to meet their priorities first. Once departments open their eyes to this philosophy, they will find that they can locate far more grant opportunities and achieve much greater success in securing awards.
For example, the primary focus of the AFG program is to “enhance firefighter safety,” yet many of the departments have lost precious points in the preliminary computer scoring by failing to list any firefighter-related injuries. If the primary focus of the program is firefighter safety, and you list "0" firefighter-related injuries, what can you expect the reviewer — or in this case the computer — to decide about your department? It will reason that you must be a 100% safe operation and therefore in no need of funding.
If the priority of the program is to enhance the individual safety of the firefighter, then preference will be given to projects that seek to further enhance that safety. That’s why PPE projects are among the highest priorities of the AFG program and why 75% of the total money in the program goes toward firefighter safety and operations.
The above further underscores the importance of recording all injuries in the fire incident report — no matter how small. If an injury isn’t recorded, then you can’t report it in your application. As we all know, the call is not over till the paperwork is filed. Complete and accurate records are a must when researching and providing statistical data for these grant applications, including those minor cuts, sprained ankles and a few breaths of smoke. How long does it take to add “FF Smith suffered minor cut left hand, treated at scene, no other action taken” to your run call record? Just a few seconds, I imagine, and by not recording that injury, you just cost yourself points when trying to get those new gloves for your firefighters.
Many departments mistakenly think if a firefighter didn’t require formal medical treatment or didn’t miss any work, then it’s not an injury. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fire chiefs, in general, have an aversion to reporting injuries for fear of rising workers' compensation premiums and adding to the perception that they are running an unsafe department. This is wrong! First, workers' comp is not looking at your application and, if the injury is minor, it is not required to be reported on their forms anyway. The following are just a couple of examples of what constitutes an injury for the purposes of the grant application:
- If it bleeds, it's an injury. It doesn’t matter if you licked the scratch and put it back in your pocket or stuck a Band-Aid on it and went on with your duties. It was still an injury.
- Smoke inhalation. Many applications requesting SCBA equipment don’t list firefighter smoke-inhalation injuries. Smoke inhalation is just that – inhaling smoke. How many times have you been fighting a structure fire and a wind shift pushed the smoke column into you? You got a good couple of breaths of it, and had to bail out for a few minutes. Maybe you just went to clean air, breathed and returned to service; maybe you had to sit on the back of the rescue truck and suck in some oxygen. Either way, in the USFA's view, you had just sustained a minor smoke-inhalation injury.
- Sprains and strains count, too. How many of you have tripped over a hose or stepped off a ladder wrong and gotten a minor ankle sprain? You probably just limped around for a day or so, but whether or not you sought further treatment (such as went to the doctor or hospital), it was still an injury.
The key here is not so much the “severity” of the injury but the fact that you reported and recorded it as having occurred.
Flaw #3: Failure to “paint a picture”
Many departments fail to adequately describe their communities and responsibilities. When you write a grant, you are painting a picture for the reviewer with words and statistics. It’s in your best interests to make the picture a clear one. They must see how various things in your community adversely affect your department so they can better understand your particular circumstances and needs. Failed applications tend to present a black and white photograph, when what is needed is an 8 x 10 color glossy.
A grant application needs to present a unique solution to a unique problem in a unique community. That is why you cannot take a cookie-cutter approach to writing grants.
A Perfect Example
A department in Ohio provides a prime example of unique needs for a unique community. A small, very needy department in rural Ohio had tried for a number of years to get a truck to replace their aging equipment and were having no luck in doing so. When I first examined their grant application, it was not all that bad. They had the required elements, but it lacked "a hook" — something that would make the reviewers remember this particular application. There was no detail and nothing to make their grant stand out above another.
I approached this problem by interviewing their chief and asking about the community. I was trying to find that one thing that would make their application stand out. It took several minutes to find it, but when revealed, it elevated their application from mediocre to "these guys need help quick" status.
What had previously been missing from their application was the fact that they served a population of Amish farming communities. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the Amish religion should know the Amish do not use modern conveniences such as electricity, phones, radio or TV. When a young Amish family buys a farm, one of the first things they typically do is strip out all of the electrical wiring in the farmhouse.
In addition, they heat their homes with wood-burning stoves and read by the light of kerosene lamps. Since there is no electricity, they have no fire alarms or smoke detectors, nor do they have a phone with which to summon the fire department when a fire breaks out – a frequent occurrence. They usually have to send a speedy youngster running to the closest modern farm to summon aid, delaying the initial alert and response significantly. By the time the fire department arrived, many of the farms were fully engulfed.
To make matters worse, many of these families have no electricity for running pumps from their water supplies, so the responding fire department must transport ample water to the scene. After the initial delay of dispatching the fire call out, this just adds more difficulty and means further destruction to the farmhouse due to lost time and lack of a water source.
The department's previous two applications had failed to mention this crucial factor. They had presented an application which was for all purposes a black and white photo. Once we re-worked their narrative to include these facts…well, the results speak for themselves; in 2005 AFG, they received approval for a new $195,000 pumper/tanker.
Know Your Community
Understanding and explaining the uniqueness of your community is critical to construction of a successful application. They can’t help you fix what they don’t know is broken; you have to tell them.
Conduct an inventory of your community when you begin researching grants for these types of funding streams. Some things you should always know about your community and primary response area include:
- The demographics of your area: your population served, the median family income, the square mileage of your primary response area and the mutual aid areas.
- Your past and current statistical data: past three years minimum and last 12 months. Break this data down into relevant categories and learn to keep accurate records at all times.
- Critical infrastructure exposures: major chemical manufacturing or usage in industrial factories, hazmat conditions, propane storage farm capacity, pipelines, major highways, traffic counts and accident rates, major electrical production facilities and hydroelectric dams, navigable waterways and bridges crossing them, just to name a few. "Critical infrastructure" is a term frequently used throughout the AFG guidelines document and one of the items that add "priority" or higher points when addressed within the grant application.
When researching a grant, take a good hard look at everything that affects your operations. Things like "mountainous terrain" or "numerous snow days" add to the reviewer's painted picture of your needs. Knowing that you have a problem and then effectively visualizing this for the reviewer, through proper and sufficient detail, is critical to funding success.
Although this article does not cover all of the many mistakes I frequently see on failed applications, these are generally the biggest mistakes that I see. Avoid these mistakes when constructing your grant and you will have a much higher chance of receiving that coveted grant award.