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FEMA Director Urges States to Apply for Grants

April 23, 2009
By Henry Kenyon

CHICAGO - National Conference on Emergency Communications attendees interested in grants to fund local programs heard about recent changes to the program during a Thursday session titled "Show Me the Money: Understanding the Grants Process." The Honorable W. Ross Ashley III, FEMA Grant Programs Directorate, DHS, pointed out that partnership is not only the key theme for this conference but also for his directorate.

In testifying in front of Congress, Ashley and Chris Essid, director, Office of Emergency Communications, DHS, have been asked why so much money dedicated to emergency preparedness is still sitting in the federal treasury. Nearly $1 billion was allocated by the Senate to the U.S. Department of Commerce for the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program. Through a memorandum of understanding, DHS was assigned to manage this Commerce Department money for emergency preparedness programs. However, to date, the majority of the money in this account has not been been spent, Ashley stated.

"On September 30, 2010, if that money is not drawn down, it goes away. The federal government is working with local communities to help them draw that money down. Many states do not understand that once a contract is signed and the commitment made to purchase a capability or service, they can--if state laws allow--draw that money out of the Federal Reserve. Don't wait until the end of the fiscal year to request that money," he advised.

"Our partnerships are key to helping us reach out to stakeholders, find out what the priorities are, and make sure we can fund interoperability coordinators at the state level," he added.

Ashley revealed that there are 19 different preparedness grants, all but one or two of them touch on interoperability. "It's the number one target capability," he stated. FEMA and the grant programs direct between $7 billion and $10 billion annually, all for preparedness.

Referring specifically to interoperability and the technology connection, Ashley noted that in the 1997 timeframe, the question was "When lives are at stake, why can't we talk?" At that time, inadequate technology was the problem, he said. "We no longer have technology as an excuse. The technology is there. Any number of companies out there have solutions, and there are all kinds of excuses for not using it, but the number one reason is planning and people."

Because $3.2 billion has been spent on interoperability from 2004 to 2008, Congress is asking what has been done with all that money when interoperability problems continue. "We're buying a lot of equipment, but we're not investing enough time with the planning of what we do with the stuff. That's where we need to invest money today," Ashley maintained. An organization's ability to work with state administrative agent is important, he added, because most of the grant money goes through the state administrative agent.

Metrics for success have become very important in grant program assessments. In the past, the federal government asked for information about upcoming plans, and states provided massive amounts of information. "We ended up with a breadth of information, but it was not very deep," Ashley explained. This process has now been turned on its head to disperse grant money more effectively. Now, states are notified about how much money they will receive-taking into consideration current economic challenges-and they will be able to prioritize their purchases based on that amount. "Now the information is not very wide, but it will be deeper because you will be able to tell us how you will spend the money that you know you're going to get. Rather than a lot of information on the front end, we want to know what you've accomplished," he stated.

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