"The Long, Winding, Bumpy Road" – Public Safety Communications

September 7th, 2016

Posted In: Industry Insights

Originally published in Public Safety Communications, June 2015


Applying for grant funding is quite vexing for many, if not most, public safety agencies—here are a few tips that will smooth the path and improve your chances for success

By Philip Penny
It should come as no surprise that the nation’s public safety agencies have needs. Some are working with antiquated equipment installed decades ago that lacks the capabilities offered by more modern gear. Or worse, they have received notice that one or more of their systems are fast approaching end-of-life, which means that soon they no longer will be supported by the vendor, and replacement parts will be difficult, if not impossible to procure.
Then there are the agencies that want to upgrade their infrastructures in order to take advantage of cutting-edge technology, for example:

  • Text to 911, to provide better service to the hearing- and speech-impaired communities;
  • Video, to improve situational awareness and reduce citizen complaints against first responders;
  • Fiber-optics, to handle all of the extra data traffic that high-bandwidth applications like video generate;
  • Automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems integrated with computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, in order to improve the ability of public safety answering point (PSAP) telecommunicators to dispatch the closest-available unit, which will improve emergency response dramatically;
  • Emergency Services Internet Protocol (IP) Networks, or ESInets, which are the first step toward Next Generation 911 (NG911); and
  • NG911 systems, which represent the future for the 911 sector, because they will support advanced capabilities, converge voice and data over single networks to enhance operations and reduce costs, allow PSAPs to share data, and enable them to shift their operations to another center when theirs has been rendered inoperable or inaccessible in the aftermath of a natural or manmade disaster.

Consolidation is another driving factor behind infrastructure upgrades, as agencies may need to update or enhance their systems, and/or add redundancy, in order to make the consolidation work. Finally, there are those agencies that are operating in facilities that they have outgrown, or which are in disrepair for a variety of reasons, or both.

Unfortunately, having a legitimate need for new or upgraded facilities and systems often isn’t enough for public safety agencies to move forward with their migration plans. That’s because the biggest need that many agencies have is money.

For example, let’s consider what has occurred in the PSAP sector. Over the last decade, tax revenues have shrunk dramatically in many regions, and this has had a negative impact on the operations of many PSAPs, as well as law enforcement and fire/emergency medical service (EMS) agencies. Compounding matters, the revenues generated by wireline telephone surcharges, which have sustained PSAP operations for decades, also have diminished greatly as citizens increasingly are abandoning their wireline phones in favor of wireless and/or voice over IP (VoIP) devices. This has created a revenue shortfall so severe in some places that some PSAPs are struggling to fund basic operations, much less find the money needed to upgrade their operations, and the systems and equipment that support them.

Fortunately, numerous federal and state grant programs exist to provide financial assistance to public safety agencies that want to upgrade their facilities and communications systems. However, the competition for such grants is intense, and the application processes are complex at best, mind-numbing at worst. This article presents a few tips that will help you navigate the journey and avoid the myriad pitfalls that await you.
Round pegs go into round holes—Most of the time, grant providers are very specific about what they are willing to fund. So, don’t submit an application that seeks money for a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system when the program only is interested in funding fire apparatus purchases.

Be thorough—A common mistake made by public safety agencies is that they don’t read the grant guidance provided by the funding agency from cover to cover. There is a perfectly good reason for why this occurs: agency managers have day jobs that keep them pretty busy, so it’s very challenging for them to find the time necessary to read and absorb the guidance, much less craft an effective grant proposal. However, not doing so is a recipe for disaster, because a failure to follow the grant guidance usually results in automatic disqualification of the application regardless of how compelling the need might be.

It is equally important to fully understand the questions that are being asked by the funding entity, and to thoroughly answer each one—again, a failure to do so usually will place the application in an unfavorable light, if not the circular file. This too is difficult to manage for many managers because they typically lack grant-writing experience.

In order to overcome such limitations, public safety agencies should consider hiring subject-matter experts who have the requisite grant-writing skills and experience. While this represents an out-of-pocket cost to the agency, it will be a small fraction of the grant award—and as such will be money very well spent.

  • Identify a specific need—It is not enough for an agency to simply tell a grant provider that it would like to expand its facility or implement a new radio system—it needs to justify the request. For example, a PSAP might want to expand from two telecommunicator positions to four, but its current facility doesn’t provide enough floor space for doing so. But simply saying, “We’re really busy,” won’t sway the decision-makers. However, a staffing study that indicates call volumes far exceed what can be handled by the current staff is sure to get their attention. Similarly, end-of-life notices issued by vendors provide solid justification for the replacement of legacy communications systems.
    Remember that one or two really compelling reasons for a grant-funding request are far better than a half dozen so-so reasons. Also remember to be clear and concise in stating your needs and answering their questions, i.e., avoid fluff.
  • Be realistic—There only is so much money to go around, and there is a lot of competition for it. Moreover, grant providers generally prefer to support as many projects as possible. Consequently, it is prudent to seek funding for a smaller project rather than a very large one, as the former is more likely to be approved.
  • Be honest—Let’s say that you’ve discovered a grant program that would provide the funding you need to add several new workstations that are sorely needed. However, you know that the municipality your agency serves won’t provide the money needed to hire the additional telecommunicators to utilize those workstations for at least a couple of years.
    The temptation might be to submit the grant application for the workstation expansion now, because the opportunity may no longer exist when you finally are able to add the positions. Avoid doing this. Grant providers want to see their money put to good use right away, and will be displeased if it isn’t. They also may feel misled. Because the decision-makers also tend to have long memories, it is better to put off the application until the timing is better, rather than to risk raising their ire, which could have a negative effect on future grant applications.
  • Be cost conscious—Again, grant providers want to spread their dollars as widely as possible. So, carving out the space needed in an existing facility for an expansion of the PSAP floor—by knocking out a wall or two and relocating the break room—might be a better option than a new facility construction. The former would cost considerably less than the latter, and the money saved then could be provided to another public safety agency that has an equally compelling need—a scenario that likely would please the grant provider.
  • Being mindful of the needs of other agencies and being conservative with your funding request will resonate with the funding entity’s decision-makers, who want to make the greatest impact with the money that they have to distribute.
  • Do your homework—This is a common failure of grant-seeking agencies, which struggle to find the time needed to adequately construct a grant proposal. However, a little due diligence can go a long way toward creating a proposal that will be seen positively by the grant provider. Here are a few simple things you can do that won’t take as much time as you might think:
    • Attend public meetings held by the grant provider—or at the very least, read the minutes from those meetings—in order to gain insights regarding the provider’s priorities and how its decision-makers think.
    • Visit the provider’s website often, for the same purpose.
    • Review past grant applications submitted to the provider, particularly those that are similar to your application, to discover what resonates with the decision-makers—and just as important, what doesn’t.
  • Offer a history lesson—If you have had past dealings with the grant provider, make sure that they are aware of that, assuming that the outcomes were positive. Grant authorities like to feel confident that the money they provide is being put to effective use, and a good track record buys a lot of credibility. Documenting past successes will help to put your current application in a more favorable light.
    Details, details, details—Every grant application asks for cost information, and the more detail that you can provide, the better. Ideally you will provide vendor quotes for all of the systems that are described in the grant proposal. If the vendors you’ve selected for the project are working under the auspices of a state contract, the pre-approved pricing information stipulated by the contract also will suffice.
  • Think holistically—It is easy to focus only on the major systems that are at the heart of a grant proposal, e.g., radio, CAD, and audiovisual, while neglecting to include the corollary equipment that is essential to effective system operation. For example, if an agency wants to implement a citywide video surveillance system, it also needs to contemplate whether its backhaul system will be able to handle the enormous amount of additional data that the video system will generate. Similarly, a new data-management system will require new and/or additional network cables, and a brand new facility will require an access control/security system. Errors of omission during the grant-application process could create future headaches if the agency can’t find the money to pay for such items. The best approach is to ensure that they are included in the grant proposal from the outset.
  • Think regionally—Again, grant providers always want to get the biggest bang for the buck. Consequently, banding together with other agencies in your region always is a good idea. Doing so often generates economies of scale that can reduce the overall cost of the project, something that will be viewed favorably by the grant provider. Decision-makers also tend to lean toward projects that benefit the largest-possible population base.
    Get elected officials on board early—The support of elected officials will be invaluable when you develop a grant proposal. They can help pave the way to getting information and documentation that is need to complete the grant application, and they can be quite an asset in identifying revenue sources if the grant provider requires matching funds. Plus, it is likely that one or more officials will need to review and approve your grant proposal before you submit it, so securing their support and understanding of the project early will streamline that process. One or more project champions amongst elected officials can make a big difference.
  • Start early—Usually, public safety agencies don’t start the grant-application process until after the funding entity has issued its grant guidance—and those that do are way behind right out of the gate. As a result, they typically find themselves scrambling at deadline, which leads to errors of commission and omission. Generally, agencies are aware of their needs well in advance of a grant cycle, so they should use that time to perform the due diligence required to ensure a through and compelling grant proposal.

Without question, creating grant proposals are time-consuming and challenging. Equally without question, grant funding is essential for many, if not most, public safety agencies. Following the tips contained in this article will make the journey far less arduous.

Phil Penny is a communications consultant with Mission Critical Partners, Inc. (MCP), a public safety communications consulting firm headquartered in Port Matilda, Pa. He can be emailed at philippenny@missioncritical.3twenty9.net.

Download the PDF