Last year, the federal Assistance to Firefighters Grants program awarded more than $494 million to 5088 U.S. fire departments. Also in 2007, the one-time Public-Safety Interoperable Communications program distributed more than $968 million. This year, the Department of Homeland Security planned to give out $16 million for equipment and training, including support for video surveillance, information technology and covert vehicle tracking, through its Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program.

These are just three examples of the programs that public-safety agencies can tap for funds to buy communications systems and equipment. In an era of tight budgets, probably the biggest mistake an agency can make when it comes to winning grant money is not to try.

“It doesn't hurt to apply. It costs nothing,” said Chris Lienhardt, a dispatcher and grant writer with the Regional Emergency Dispatch (RED) Center, a facility in Northbrook, Ill., that serves 13 fire/emergency medical services departments.

Thanks in part to Lienhardt's grant writing skills, the RED Center received $722,000 this year from the AFG program to outfit member departments with mobile data and automatic vehicle location systems. It also secured $500,000 from the PSIC program for 700 MHz radio equipment to establish interoperable communications with the Illinois statewide radio system.

Grant applications developed with care could pay off in similar ways for other public-safety agencies. But written incorrectly, they will bring only disappointment.

One of the keys to a successful grant application is attention to detail. “Read the program guidance. Make sure your needs fit what the program is intended to do,” Lienhardt advised.

Each grant-giving organization issues a document — often long and complex — known as the grant guidance or request for proposals (RFP). It spells out the kinds of projects the grantor supports, the criteria it uses to make selections and the information that the grant applicant must provide. Applicants should read every word and follow instructions to the letter.

“People tend to read what they want to read instead of reading what they should read,” said Kurt Bradley, director of CHIEF Grants at CHIEF Supply, a vendor of public-safety equipment in Auburndale, Fla. The company offers free grant consultation and grant writing education.

“The objectives of the program and the focus need to be in line with what the funder is looking for,” said Marissa Berg, outreach coordinator at Resource Associates, a grant writing consultancy in Farmington, N.M. So do the applicant's priorities and partnerships, she added. If the guidance stipulates, for example, that a public-safety agency needs to form a partnership with a school district to apply for a particular grant, agency officials must make sure to sign an agreement with the district and outline the role of each partner, she said.

It's not enough just to pore over the grant guidance documents. The PowerPoint presentations, lists of frequently asked questions and other supplements that come with them also are important, Berg said. “You wouldn't believe how many times we come across things that were not stated in the RFP that were in the PowerPoint presentation,” she said. These items, such as advice about the kinds of projects the grantor is most likely to favor, carry just as much weight as if they appeared in the RFP.

Besides carefully reading the grant guidance, agencies should start work on their grant applications early. “Probably the biggest hindrance to public-safety agencies getting grants is their procrastination,” Bradley said. To persuade a grantor that the agency needs the funds and will spend the money wisely — and to show the impact the grant will make on the community — the application must provide a wealth of facts and figures. These might include details on the population served, the agency's activities during the course of a year and the critical infrastructure within its jurisdiction — the length of gas pipelines and the capacity of reservoirs, for example.

“Departments typically don't go out and get that information well in advance of the grant application period,” Bradley said, leaving them scrambling to meet the deadline after the RFP is issued. A better tactic is to get started as soon as the current application period ends, gathering information for the following year, he said.

Chris Gilmore, a grant writing consultant who works with state and local governments, suggests looking ahead even further than the one-year preparation cycle. “It's a total planning process,” said Gilmore, who is based in Bay Harbor Isles, Fla. “You don't just say, ‘There's a grant. Let's apply for it and we'll get some money.’” The agency needs to develop a fiscal plan that dovetails with its entire organizational plan and with the plans of neighboring agencies and communities, he said. “Your best chance of getting big money is to do a comprehensive planning process.”

Pursuing a single grant that provides $20,000 or $100,000 for equipment won't take care of an agency's communications needs, Gilmore said. He tells clients to draw up a plan that defines all the public-safety communications technology the community wants to implement over the next several years. “They tell us how they're going to phase it in; we tell them how much it's going to cost,” he said, citing figures in the millions of dollars. “Then we identify possible funding sources.”

Like Gilmore, Lienhardt advocates taking a regional approach. “The more people involved, the longer you can stretch the dollar to show that it spreads over a greater area, the better off you're going to be,” he said.

Phil Summers, sheriff of Catoosa County, Ga., agrees. Together with neighboring Dade and Walker counties, Catoosa successfully applied to the PSIC program for funds to support an 800 MHz trunked radio system. The goal was to further build out a regional system that also includes Chattanooga/Hamilton County, just across the border in Tennessee. The three Georgia counties received $5.77 million from the federal program this year.

“Think about the region as a whole, not just yourselves,” Summers said. “The more area you can cover, the more population [your system] can serve, the better it will look for you.”

Besides forging the necessary relationships to create a regional project, it's also important to gain support from local government leaders. “Reach out to your village manager, city planner or the town board,” Lienhardt said. This is essential, of course, if the grant requires matching funds that local legislators must approve. But getting input from the city council, school board or other local government body also can help a public-safety agency develop some fresh ideas for the proposal, he said.

Agency officials also should seek input from leaders beyond the local level, Summers said. “Pass it on up the chain, making sure your regional people are aware of what you're trying to do and the state people are aware of what you're trying to do.”

When it comes to writing the narrative — the essay that outlines why the agency needs the grant — it's crucial to understand your audience, Bradley said. In an application to a corporate or private foundation, you try to pluck the reader's heartstrings. But panelists who read applications for federal public-safety grants require a different approach. “They have more like a Joe Friday attitude — just the facts, ma'am,” he said. “Your need is strictly predicated on known and existing facts and statistical data.”

Some of Bradley's students ask if there's a template they can follow when composing the application narrative. “That's a surefire disaster,” he warned. “Grants are by their very nature designed to be a specific solution for a specific problem for a specific community.” The applicant must make the narrative unique while still satisfying the grantor's priorities, he said.

For that very reason, although Gilmore develops proposals for his clients, he asks someone within the agency to write the narrative. A narrative composed by a consultant won't contain the same compelling details that public-safety professionals writing about their communities are able to provide. “These are people talking to people, and they want to hear your story,” he said.

Specific details become especially important in the part of the application that explains the department's financial situation. “You can't just say, ‘We need the money because we don't have it.’ That's pretty much everybody in this economy,” Lienhardt said. The agency should outline its current budget and show where the money goes before it asks a funder to provide more.

Because not every public-safety professional is an expert writer, agencies that aren't working with consultants might want to ask professionals in the community to help fine-tune their proposals, Lienhardt said. “If you have a good contact at the local high school or college, don't be embarrassed, don't be shy. Reach out to somebody in the English department.”

But a grant writer doesn't need the talent of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Lienhardt said. The key is to state your case simply and clearly. “If your needs are what the program is intended to do, and you follow the program guidance, everything should line up,” he said.

Procrastinate. Start preparing for next year's request as soon as this year's application window closes.
Skim the instructions. Read every word of the grant guidance carefully, including supplemental materials, and follow all instructions.
Ask for money for whatever you want to buy and then cross your fingers. Pursue grants that actually fund the kind of purchase you want to make. Understand the funder's priorities.
Work in isolation. Collaborate with other agencies in your region. Gain support from local, regional and state government leaders.
Rely on a grant writing template. Explain your unique situation, using particular details to support your request.