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Buying and applying: How to get the most from your communications budget

Experts share eight top tips for maximizing the value of both capital funds and possible grants

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Police departments must leverage all the resources they can to get bang for their bucks – and that includes seeking grants to help defray major costs.

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Sponsored by EF Johnson Technologies

By John Erich, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

In an era of shrinking budgets and spiraling costs, emergency responders are constantly asked to do more with less. That’s a tough position to be in when lives are on the line. Failure to meet key needs can have catastrophic consequences, especially failures of communication. For police, firefighters and EMS providers, their radios are lifelines.

It all puts a lot of importance on the budgeting and purchasing processes. Departments must leverage all the resources they can to get bang for their bucks – and that includes seeking grants to help defray major costs. However, many stretched and smaller agencies may lack the knowledge and resources for sophisticated approaches to budgeting that maximize the value of both capital funds and potential awards.

These tips – from a pair of experts with backgrounds in winning grants for the emergency services – can help agencies approach their budgets and address their needs more systematically, realize opportunities for improvement and maintain a holistic approach to the funding, purchase and replacement of key items over time.

Budgeting basics

Whether you apply for grants or not, getting the most from your communications budget is a year-round job that requires continual attention. Consider these basics for managing it.

Keep on a regular cycle

Great deals and new products can be tempting, but equipping the emergency services is too important to leave to impulse. By sticking to regular purchasing cycles, departments know what to buy and when so they can consider their needs and do their research to get the best product for the best price.

“The goal is to make sure you have the right equipment – that everything’s updated and you’re cycling out the old,” said Rebecca Jackson, who has written and managed public safety and other types of grants for a municipal government in South Carolina and is now a grants expert with Lexipol. “You need to make sure you don’t have too much to replace in a single year, or at least the same month. If there are multiple things to replace, stagger them, so you’re not looking at several big purchases at one time.”

The McHenry Township Fire Protection District in Illinois “chunks” its purchases – replacing all its stretchers one year, for example, and all its radios the next. That not only spreads out costs but helps keep equipment standardized and simplifies training and use for personnel.

“Say you replace five radios a year, and now you’re on the fifth year and something better comes up,” said Steve Spraker, the department’s deputy chief of administration. “Well, you just bought 20 brand-new radios, and you don’t want to get rid of them. So this provides an opportunity to look ahead at what technology is out there that’s been updated and may be more beneficial.”

Look for partnerships

There’s strength in numbers, and when multiple departments can come together to buy jointly, it increases their purchasing power. This is true of the different branches of the emergency services – where police and fire, for instance, may use common equipment like radios – and, more frequently, regional alliances of agencies. Purchasing consortiums and cooperative procurement organizations can negotiate good deals.

The same can be true for seeking grants. Many programs – the Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG) is a big one – allow for regional applications. And funders like to see that cooperation and maximization of benefit.

“It shows collaboration and teamwork among agencies,” noted Jackson.

Even if you don’t apply together, there’s value in networking – exchanging news, leads and strategies for success.

“If you can share that kind of information, you should,” said Spraker, who’s been writing and securing grants for 13 years. “I get that grants are competitive, but you want to share that information because then somebody may share information with you.”

Build relationships

Making friends across services can pay off, but so can making friends across sectors. Positive relationships with councils and commissions can help familiarize them with your challenges and foster support for your requests. Also, cities and counties may have grants experts with the skills to help you craft better bids.

The same holds true on the state level. If you can’t go to the capital, at least make yourself familiar to your local representatives while they’re home.

“[Relationships are] a part of the job you have to pay attention to,” said Jackson, who helped clients secure major awards from her state’s department of public safety and multiple major federal programs. “It can get a little tricky navigating them, but just make sure you’re always transparent about what you’re doing and why.”

A strategy some agencies use is “index cities,” where they maintain a roster of similar-size jurisdictions and departments to reach out to with questions about planning and buying. Feedback from such peers can be useful.

Know what you have – and what you’ll need

Items get lost and broken. Departments grow. A natural part of purchasing is overage – extra product you may not need now but may eventually. Plan for backup units and consider investing in maintenance plans that can help you avoid unexpected expenses down the line.

“If there’s a chance to take care of something you know may come up, go ahead and take care of it,” said Jackson. “That way it won’t become a problem later when you have another big purchase happening.”

Knowing your specifics is also important in seeking grants. How many radios do you have? How old are they? Why are they no longer sufficient?

“I’ve seen departments that felt like they had pretty old equipment, and actually it was relatively new and not a high priority for replacement,” said Spraker. “So you want to work on your narratives ahead of time and figure out your needs and priorities, because you can’t apply for it all.”

When you’re ready to apply

If you manage your budget to meet your biggest priorities, grants can be a nice supplement for additional needs.

“Say you’re going to replace all your radios in one year, and that’s going to take up a big part of your budget,” said Jackson. “But then you also need to get new Tasers or some other equipment for the car. That’s the nice thing about grants – they can come into play there and maybe let you do both in one year.”

Once you’ve budgeted for your most critical communications needs, here are some tips for alleviating your spending with awards.

Take it seriously

When McHenry Township transitioned from a majority part-time to a full-time department a few years back, it had to spend more on salary and benefits. That made seeking grants important, and leaders responded aggressively, leaning on the experience of Spraker and another deputy chief versed in applying.

Since then, the department has won awards under ARPA and other major programs, but also less-publicized state monies and even funds from its local telephone board when it last replaced radios.

“A bit of it is digging and knowing where to look,” says Spraker. “We’re continually looking for avenues to help fund our capital purchases.”

If you have that kind of expertise in house, be sure those people pass it on through mentorship and succession planning. If you lack it, consider partnering with a grant-writing service.

Start early

Many grants require a matching component, which you should prepare for well in advance.

“You have to communicate with your chief or governing board,” said Spraker. “You have to budget for the match and set those funds aside, or at least have a game plan for getting them. A lot of the requirements with the big grants don’t change a lot, so you can plan ahead as you’re doing your budget.”

Besides allowing time for needed discussions, starting early gives you plenty of time to digest the fine print around grant opportunities and avoid mistakes that might doom your bid. Read all grant notices and materials and follow their directions closely. There may be registrations or other steps required well in advance.

Make your case

Grant programs often have areas of emphasis so be sure to match your needs with their priorities. Explain your need, the circumstances behind it and how an award would improve things. Keep your ask modest – aim for what Spraker calls “needy but not greedy.”

“Some departments feel they need a large cache of equipment when maybe a smaller amount would do,” he said. “Say you have 30 volunteer firefighters and ask for 30 radios. The reviewers will look at that and know there aren’t going to be 30 volunteers on every fire. Is there a way to maybe just put one in each seated position on your rig, or something that’s a better cost benefit?”

Standards hold a lot of weight – they can help boost your case if you note how the grant will help your department comply with key safety measures. Many grants also have sustainability components, so be able to explain how you’ll continue any improvements once the money is spent.

Don’t give up

You may not win the first grant you apply for, or the first 10. Don’t stop trying.

“Not applying is one of the worst things you can do, because then it looks like you don’t need the money,” said Spraker. “If 8,000 people apply for a program that can fund 1,500, it lets us go back to legislators and say we need more funds. Keep trying, and eventually you’ll win one.”

About EF Johnson

Now in its 100th year, EF Johnson offers a high-level selection of radios and related products for users in the public safety fields. Its flagship offerings include Kenwood’s Viking line of portable and mobile radios, Atlas P25 systems, Nexedge NXDN bandwidth technology and Kairos brand simulcast repeaters. The company’s radios are streamlined and extremely durable for emergency services use and feature advanced fleet management, programming and noise-cancellation software. They can come with a perpetual software license.

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