Over 300 senior level firefighters spent four days this week holed up in a large meeting room west of Washington, DC. They were helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency review thousands of applications received from fire departments and EMS organizations for the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER).
Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 applications for AFG funding alone were submitted electronically. They were all reviewed and graded by computers using criteria developed by FEMA. Then the ones that made it through the basic screening were all printed and given to the firefighters for peer review. The computerized technical review and the peer review each make up half of the final score.
The 300 firefighters reviewing the AFG grants were organized into groups of six people at each table, and were given packets of six applications at a time. Every application was reviewed by three evaluators who read the 20 to 35 page document and then wrote by hand their analysis, addressing four categories on a 2-page form. If the scores among the three evaluators varied too much, they had to discuss it, and either change their scores to come closer into alignment, or write a statement on the scoring form saying it was discussed and no changes were made. Every table of firefighters reviewed 36 to 60 applications each day.
The firefighters reviewing the SAFER grants may have had a different procedure.
The SAFER grants may have all been reviewed, but the firefighters handling the AFG grants worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for four days, Monday through Thursday, and at the end of the day on Thursday there was still a large pile of AFG applications pending. The FEMA personnel asked for volunteers to work further into Thursday night, and may have even asked some to volunteer Friday morning before they had to get on the shuttle to the airport. It is unlikely that all of the applications got reviewed, and FEMA will have to come up with a plan to finish them, possibly bringing another group of firefighters to Washington.
This year, fiscal 2012, Congress provided $675 million for firefighter assistance, including $337.5 million for AFG and $337.5 million for SAFER. Started in 2001, the fire grant program reached a high in 2009 when it had $985 million to distribute, but the amount appropriated has been declining since then.
FEMA personnel at the grant review meeting estimated that there was enough money available to fund approximately 10 percent of the applications this year, so most departments are going to be disappointed. FEMA hopes to begin rolling out grant notifications to the lucky few in September, if they can get the rest of them reviewed soon.