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SAFECOM Grant Guidance

Written by Dr. David Boyd

If anyone is familiar with the challenges of funding and implementing an interoperable public safety radio system, it’s Marilyn Ward. Ward experienced the process first hand as a part-time police officer in Orlando, FL, then as Orange County Public Safety Communications Manager, and as Chair of the Governor’s Statewide Regional Domestic Security Task Force Interoperability Committee.

Throughout her career, she managed multiple interoperability projects, the majority of which were funded at least in part by federal grants from agencies such as the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP). So when Ward and others like her shared their personal observations about the process of applying for federal grant money to make interoperability a reality, SAFECOM listened.

When SAFECOM became part of DHS, the program heard a lot from the public safety community about the federal grant application process. The feedback was that it was confusing and complicated. Many folks were daunted by what seemed like the impossible task of writing a winning grant proposal.

One of the first things the public safety community asked of SAFECOM was the development of a grant guidance document. Although SAFECOM is not a grant-making body, the program created this document to guide grant applicants in successfully securing funding and to help maximize the efficiency with which public safety communications related grant dollars are allocated and spent.

SAFECOM worked closely with key stakeholders from the public safety community, soliciting insights and input from practitioners like Marilyn Ward—who has experience “on the ground”—to develop a document which clearly outlines eligibility for grants, the purposes for which grants can be used, and recommendations for implementing an effective, interoperable wireless communications system.

SAFECOM’s grant guidance can also be viewed as “best practices” for any region planning or implementing a wireless communication system, regardless of whether or not they are seeking additional funding.

As Ward observes, “Funding is hard to get, but governance is also extremely difficult to develop.” The grant guidance document is structured to highlight some of these key factors for success including governance and planning, so that by the time a proposal is completed, many of the challenges regarding governance have been addressed, and important partnerships among disciplines and jurisdictions have been established.

Key Considerations

SAFECOM’s grant guidance document is organized around a series of questions and criteria that organizations should consider when beginning the grant application process. First, of course, applicants need to be aware of the eligibility criteria: federal funds that are earmarked for improving public safety communications and interoperability should be provided to public safety agencies or organizations at the local, state, or tribal level. This means that to apply, and be considered, an applicant must represent law enforcement, fire service, or Emergency Medical Service (EMS) agencies.

Before initiating a proposal, applicants also need to understand and articulate the purposes for which grant money can be used. Finally, make sure the application answers critical questions outlined in the guidance document. These questions are designed to drive “best practices” in completing applications.

Define the vision, goals, and objectives of what applicants will ultimately try to accomplish with the federal funds. It’s also critical that the application states how the proposed project will improve interoperability with other agencies and ultimately, will fit into the overall interoperability efforts.

Describe the specific problems or needs that will be addressed. Identify any potential partners who will work with the applicant on achieving interoperability goals.

Applicants need to consider whether they provide staffing, and, if so, what jobs the people will be performing. For instance, Ward and her colleagues in Orange County used the SAFECOM grant guidance in preparing their application for a COPS grant. “We were looking to enhance our system to communicate among other systems within our Domestic Security region, and we felt like the grant guidance helped to lead us in the right direction,” she said.

Also provide information on any agreements such as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or a Mutual Response Agreement. These documents tell the people who are reviewing the grant application that all of the parties involved have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them, and are ready to get started on the work. This can be a time consuming task, so applicants should begin the process early.

Provide a detailed budget and timeline. Again, this is comprehensive, nuts and bolts work. However, both the timeline and the budget will serve as valuable planning documents to see what can be accomplished, what it will cost, and how to minimize the chance of financial surprises down the road.

These questions will not only help complete grant applications, but also determine the best and clearest path toward improving interoperability. The application can serve as a planning framework, so that upon receiving federal funds, an applicant is already at the starting gate.

The questions walk through four important components of the grant application process. The first component covers planning for public safety communication systems. This section guides applicants through the two critical types of planning that need to be addressed in a successful proposal: the first is technical planning, which may include 1) needs and requirements assessments, 2) development of system network architecture, 3) propagation studies, and 4) similar technical elements.

The second important component of the planning process deals with governance planning. This includes elements such as leadership needs assessments, strategic plans, and financial plans.

Needs Assessment

Since public safety interoperable communication grants can be used to build, upgrade, enhance, or replace communications equipment, the second portion of the questions section deals with helping the applicant create a detailed assessment of their current communication system and future needs. The questions run the gamut of issues that impact interoperability such as the type of terrain in which the agency operates, the primary radio language being used by the agency when communicating with other agencies or organizations, and the type of equipment currently used by the applicant agency.

The next series of questions deals with the important issue of training personnel to use equipment properly and effectively in emergency situations. For instance, applicants are urged to consider very broad questions such as how training plans will include participation from all levels and functions of emergency response, such as local, state, tribal, and federal, as well as fire, law enforcement, and emergency medical services. They are also asked to consider very basic logistical issues such as who will conduct the training and where it will take place.

The final series of questions relates to the need for consistent leadership and management to ensure that the planning, equipment procurement, training, and funding are in place when developing a public safety communications improvement or interoperability project.

Feedback from the Federal Perspective

Michael Dame, of the COPS Grants Administration Division and also a member of the SAFECOM Advisory Group (AdG), has already seen how the grant guidance document is shaping applications and echoes Ward’s assessment of its value. “Local agencies are planning for interoperability projects on a multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary level. They are engaging in partnerships and developing governance structures and are working on needs analyses prior to receiving federal funding,” Dame said. “This means that they are quickly implementing important projects that are well planned and will ultimately have important outcomes that we are looking for here at the federal level.”

SAFECOM’s grant guidance has been well received by many federal grant-making authorities. It was adopted as part of the COPS and Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) grant process in 2003 and was incorporated into the COPS and ODP grant processes for 2004 and 2005. The SAFECOM Program believes that this is an important recognition of the “best practices” advice that has been incorporated into the guidance document.

Visit SAFECOM Program to download the complete grant guidance document. There you will also find links to resources that support grant applicants, such at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and the National Institute of Justice’s CommTech Program. Finally, you’ll find a list of potential funding sources such as the Office of Justice Program (OJP) Information Technology Initiatives, the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP) Equipment Grant Program, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance Local Law Enforcement Block Grants (LLEBG).

SAFECOM expects that grant guidance will serve as a helpful tool for all grant applicants and federal grant providers, leading to successful grant applications that reflect a well-thought out plan for the development of effective interoperable communications solutions, both across disciplines and levels of government.

Dr. David G. Boyd is the Director of the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) and the Director of the SAFECOM Program Office.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2005

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