Great news: The U.S. DHS/FEMA SAFER grant application period opened Monday, February 13 and closes Friday, March 17, 2023 at 5:00 p.m. Eastern time.
The fiscal year 2022 SAFER grant period application and guidelines can be found here. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response-SAFER Grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (U.S. DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides direct funding to volunteer, career and combination fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations. For volunteer fire departments and local, regional, state and national volunteer firefighter interest organizations — this means a $0 cost-share. Yep, FREE MONEY! This article will focus on the volunteer recruitment and retention component specifically.
This is your opportunity to use your imagination to gain funding to improve your recruitment and retention efforts. Few ideas are likely off the table if you can demonstrate you have a plan for implementation, connect the outcomes and can justify the expense. Show you have your act together but don’t pigeon-hole yourself into hyper-specific recruitment or marketing activities that may limit your imagination and efforts should you be successful in securing a grant.
When listing activities you hope to accomplish, web, streaming and social media platforms you hope to be on, types of photography or videos you want to produce, offline recruitment resources you want to purchase, or efforts you want to execute, the most important words to use could be: “may include but are not limited to…” The entire marketing and recruitment landscape can shift dramatically from the time you write and submit your grant, to when the grant is awarded, and the performance period gets underway. Don’t limit your possibilities for adapting to the ever-changing volunteer environment.
The time is now to jump on your narrative and background data while you clarify and prioritize where you want to go with your grant-funded recruitment efforts. Don’t be afraid to dream big but be realistic too. Securing a large grant can be a “be careful what you wish for” moment when it comes to implementing, executing and managing government funded recruitment efforts, but that shouldn’t discourage you from applying.
If you are looking at the deadline and thinking you do not have enough time to write an application, or you are unsure how to begin, consider hiring a qualified grant writer who has significant experience developing SAFER and AFG applications. And the cost of hiring the grant writer is an allowable expense to be reimbursed under the grant program.
The objective of the SAFER grant program is to increase the number of firefighters so that departments can respond to emergencies with an increased number of trained personnel assembled at the incident scene in a timely manner. Increasing personnel means your application should discuss BOTH how to maintain (retain) current members as well as recruit new volunteers.
To Recruit or Retain, that is the Question
FIRST ARRIVING: As volunteer fire departments formulate their SAFER grant applications, should their focus be on recruitment or retention, or both?
RON BENEDICT: You need to link current recruitment and retention issues with your proposed solutions and demonstrate how your request will address the underlying problems. Successful applications articulate a few key points:
You should clearly define how members qualify for incentives. For example, are members receiving a stipend or gift card required to attend a minimum number of training sessions? Who will be monitoring the disbursements of perks? Have you asked members who left the department if the perks are enough for them to come back?
FIRST ARRIVING PRO-TIP: Balance your desire to improve your retention efforts with the inherent need to feed the front of the pipeline and recruit more people to offer your benefits and incentives to. All that retention money does you little good if you don’t have the new recruits to retain.
You should discuss how you will increase the overall training levels of your department. Many departments indicate in their applications that less than 50% of their departments are trained to the FFI level. In order to make your application stand out, show how you will increase member training levels so that they can better assist the public and also operate more safely and effectively. Read more about this balancing act at: https://www.firstarriving.com/striking-the-balance/
Where Do I Start?
FIRST ARRIVING: What are the elements that should go into a comprehensive recruitment marketing plan?
RON BENEDICT: Successful recruitment marketing plans typically include strategy and campaign management, a recruitment focused website, video production, online marketing, event and offline marketing materials (hard goods) and recruitment/leadership training. All of these elements are typically categorized under contractual>marketing in your SAFER grant application. These same elements can be used to create the framework for a request for proposals, allowing you to compare apples-to-apples when selecting the right marketing and strategy partner should you be awarded a grant.
FIRST ARRIVING PRO-TIP: There are no silver bullet/one-size-fits-all recruitment solutions so you need a solid, qualified recruitment strategy, and it needs to be based on your local needs, wants and market. Websites are still the clearinghouse for all recruitment related information. Video drives online engagement (although upwards of 70% of viewers will watch it with the sound off) and you need offline materials to support your online efforts when you have the opportunity to connect with candidates in person. Organizational and personal leadership skills are critical to being successful at sustaining any recruitment and retention effort, and that’s where the most training is often needed. These are the elements that form a full-circle recruitment and retention marketing program. How you execute those elements is left up to your imagination and the creativity of the partner you choose.
Ain't Got No Time for That!
FIRST ARRIVING: What do you say to the fire chief or administrator who says: “Our volunteers are already busy running calls and other tasks, how do we effectively manage a grant too if we’re successful?”
RON BENEDICT: That’s a great question and one you really must ask yourself: “Who will be submitting the administrative and financial reports to FEMA?” While not overly burdensome, it is another task for a department member with limited time to perform. You will need to report on your recruitment and retention initiatives, track expenses, and analyze all volume. Consider including a stipend for a member to perform these tasks, which is an allowable expense under the grant guidance.
Putting a RRC (Recruitment & Retention Coordinator) and/or a grant program administrator in place can enhance both your plan and your chances for a grant award.
Most importantly, who will be implementing your strategy and ensuring you are meeting your timeline and objectives? Reviewers understand that most responders do not have adequate time to train, respond to incidents, and manage grant deliverables. Consider requesting funds in your application to contract with a marketing and strategy vendor that fully understands your daily operations and is willing to come spend some time with your department to learn about your operations, needs, wants and culture. Grant reviewers realize departments are more likely to accomplish their stated objectives with the assistance of a reputable company focused on volunteer fire and emergency services marketing.
FIRST ARRIVING PRO-TIP: Don’t underestimate the value of outsourcing your recruitment strategy and marketing execution. Hiring the right partner who knows your business can save you a lot of time, energy and money–it does you no good to get the best price on a plan that doesn’t work! Hiring out the marketing strategy and implementation part of your recruitment plan alleviates the impact of overburdening a likely already-overburdened volunteer with figuring out the right way of going to market, something that they may have neither the time, talent nor interest for doing. Do what you do best–outsource the rest.
Be sure to include sufficient budget to secure offline materials and hard goods that will help your recruitment program be sustainable long after the end of the grant performance period. Build a cache of resources that will fuel your recruitment efforts into the future.
To wrap it up nicely and put a bow on it, ask for money for outsourcing customized in-person and online training sessions for all members and partner agencies to ensure that fire department leadership and members involved in recruitment and retention efforts have the understanding of what’s involved in sustaining an open, inclusive and welcoming environment, and the skills to effectively communicate and sell individuals on the idea of becoming volunteer firefighters.
Plan now to coordinate all aspects of grant execution and management. There’s still time to be SAFER successful!