First Responder & Police Officer Grants: Get Money for SWAT Helmets and More

Help address budget shortfalls and fund critical programs with this guide to writing a competitive application

Police and first responder grants can provide critical support for your agency’s projects and programs. But grant money can be tough to win: Most applicants don’t state their goals clearly enough, and those that do still might not convince grantors that their work is the most worthy.

Hard Head Veterans has put together need-to-know tips on grant-writing to help agencies get the best shot possible at securing critical funding for training, hiring, or equipment like SWAT helmets. This guide covers:

A clear need, fit, and promise are vital in winning competitive first responder and police office grants

Let’s start with the basics: Most grants are competitive. While there are instances where a third party will provide your organization with money as long as you check the right boxes, most public entities aren’t exactly swimming in cash. And most grantors don’t have enough money to fund every request they receive. Thus, both public and private organizations typically create competitive processes to decide who gets the resources.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers hundreds of millions of dollars in first responder grants annually, emphasizes that suitable applications provide compelling answers to some essential questions:

  1. First and perhaps most importantly: Are you sure you can’t get the money somewhere else, like tax revenue, budget requests, or different grants.
  2. Further, could the benefits of your program be realized through a cheaper approach?
  3. And finally, is there a real problem to be solved? “[R]eplacing gear when your department has experienced injuries due to noncompliant gear” is a compelling statement of need, says FEMA; buying police helmets to have a few spares on hand might not be.

Police training

Members of local police departments have joined with the FBI to train for situations requiring interagency communication. What will your program or grant do—and how will it leave your organization and the community better off? Image source: AFSCP

Your first objective is to show need; your second is to show fit. It’s better to find funding for an excellent idea than to come up with a proposal simply because funds become available. You’ll save significant time by skipping grants that weren’t created with projects like yours in mind.

Further, it’s essential to get a feel for more than a grantor’s bare-bones requirements. Take a look at previous award-winners for the grant you’re seeking, and ask: Are there things they seem to want but haven’t said aloud? Are there specific kinds of programs, people, proposals, or organizations that tend to win?

Finally, inspire confidence. You’ll want to write a proposal that’s compelling, easy to read, and makes your plan look especially promising. Show grantors that everyone involved—from members of your leadership team to those responsible for implementing resources—can make your proposal a reality. Match the scope of the project to your capabilities, demonstrating that you’ll manage a grantor’s funds well.

It’s about saving lives, not buying new police helmets: grant-winning communication tips

Applications for first responder and police officer grants are often complex. But while it’s critical to follow grantors’ instructions to the letter, it’s just as important to answer their questions in a way that’s persuasive.

So, write clearly. Simply. Make your proposal enjoyable to read.

While some grants are highly specialized and call for technical language, a good rule of thumb is to write so that a general audience (mom, dad, friends, etc.) can understand and appreciate the importance of your work.

To illustrate this, let’s look at a crucial section in many first responder grants: the problem or need statement. It’s typically short—just a page or two—and allows readers to understand your organization, your community, and the problems your program aims to solve. Here’s an excerpt from a sample template written by the Laerdal Medical Corporation, a provider of life-saving equipment:

“The town of Zenith is located in Pinnacle County (population 254,300), which is in the hill country of [a fictional state]… The population of Zenith is older than average, with a high percentage of retired people living on fixed incomes. This causes the city council to be reluctant to raise taxes. In fact, taxes have not been raised in fifteen years."

The situation is clearly described, setting up the problem: how can first responders continue to protect a town that isn’t investing in their work?

‘Zenith FD’ has an answer: Instead of struggling to hire already-trained personnel on a shoestring budget, they’ll use grant money to train new recruits for departments throughout their cash-strapped region. “[D]epartments in our part of the state will be able to obtain training at reduced cost, enabling them to increase spending in other areas such as salaries. The ultimate benefit is, of course, an increased ability to save lives.”

Fire engines

Los Angeles, CA received money from Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program—and used to answer the city’s 1,300 daily emergency calls with support for four new fire engines. Image source: LAFD via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The need is clear. The solution is thoughtful and cost-effective. The ultimate impact is saving lives, not just getting money or training resources. And every element is connected by clear, concise writing.

While some sections of an application aren’t as easy to make compelling, like a line-item budget, most grantors are grateful for applications that make it easy to understand what’s at stake and why.

The majority of police officer and first responder grants require a specific structure—here's how to make the most of every part

You’ll find that grants usually have at least three parts: A form, a cover letter, and the proposal. The form often contains basic information about you and your organization, along with the grantor’s instructions. Meanwhile, the cover letter provides your most concise chance to get a reviewer’s attention. In roughly one page, you’ll introduce your organization, proposal, some reasons you expect to succeed, and describe how to get in touch.

Regarding the proposal itself: If the grant calls for a specific structure—and it usually will—that’s the one to use. (You can borrow from your other grant applications, but don’t copy them wholesale.) While the required elements vary, most will call for something like the following:

  • A problem or need statement. As described earlier, this section helps readers understand you and the people you serve. The key here is to communicate why funding is necessary—that is, why you can’t get money somewhere else and why that’s a problem. A good problem statement includes a little demographic data, town history, information on the issue, and a little bit about your proposed solution.
  • Goals. This short statement provides an overview of the objectives. A handful of clearly articulated aims—complete with a reader-friendly summary of what you plan to do and when—will do.
  • Specifics. Here’s your opportunity to talk about what your program does in some detail. If you’re looking for new SWAT or police helmets, for example, don’t focus too much on brand names. Instead, list the types of items you need and organize them by what you expect them to accomplish.
  • Continuation. How will you continue to fund and support the project after any first responder or police officer grant runs dry? Can the money be used to create a self-sustaining structure (say, a fee-generating program)?
  • Qualifications. Show that you can pull this program off. Demonstrate the support of officials throughout your organization, and describe the relevant skills of staff members who can administer and execute the program. (An appendix with resumes may be appropriate.)
  • Budget. Applications may require you to describe this in detail through a line-item budget. If so, go easy on the specifics and summarize how funds will be used.
  • Conclusion. This is your last opportunity to speak to the lasting impacts of your program—so make it count. Reiterate the problem and solution, and explain why now is the best time for grant funding.

Search hard for a fit between your program and the organization offering first responder grants

Funding sources vary, but, in general, first responders can either seek grants from public entities (federal, state, and local governments) or private ones, typically through a foundation.

Federal programs may provide money to state governments rather than disbursing them directly to first responders: These are called block grants. To get them, you’ll need to apply with the agency in your state that administers the funds. Discretionary funding, on the other hand, provides that money to applicants without using the states as middlemen.

Private foundations typically rely on investment funds from wealthy individuals or corporations, while public foundations gather resources through public donations. In both cases, it’s essential to study their grant-making history and get in touch with someone who can tell you about the types of programs they prefer to support.

PPE bought with federal assistance grant

Federal funds during the coronavirus pandemic helped FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program provide personal protective equipment to first responders. Image source: City of Pharr

Below, we’ve included a short list of public and private first responder and police officer grants, with an emphasis on those that support purchases of equipment like first responders’ protective gear. We’ve also provided resources that can help you find an organization that might be interested in your program. As you’re reading through it, ask the following questions:

  • First, is your organization eligible? Do you meet the basic criteria in terms of need, personnel, and so on?
  • Is your project something they’d be likely to consider? Read their guidelines carefully, making a list of questions—and call those managing the grant to get answers.

Public police officer and first responder grants

  • FEMA’s  Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. FEMA’s grants provide hundreds of millions of dollars each year to first responders, funding, among other things, purchases of turnout gear and helmets.
  • Grants from the Office of Justice Programs (OJP). Through the OJP, law enforcement groups can seek funding for equipment, including special operations gear, along with other forms of assistance.
  • Loans and grants from the Departments of Agriculture. USDA funds support public entities in areas with no more than 20,000 residents. Emphasis is given to low-income and especially small communities (those with 5,500 people or fewer). Deadlines and contact information are provided on a state-by-state basis.
  • State grants. These vary by state but can be significant: Massachusetts, for example, has provided millions to fire departments through the state’s Firefighter Safety Equipment grants program. (You can find out more about local opportunities in the “resources” section below.)

Private first responder and police officer grants

  • The Gary Sinise Foundation First Responder Grant. Individual departments—law enforcement, fire, or medical—may apply for funds for equipment or training. The foundation prioritizes understaffed, underfunded, and volunteer organizations.
  • The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation grants. These support the purchase of life-saving gear by fire departments, law enforcement, EMS, and other front-line organizations. Typical grant amounts range from $15,000 to $25,000.
  • The Leary Firefighters Foundation. Fire departments are eligible for amounts ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 each year. Letters of inquiry are due in August; afterwords, the foundation invites selected departments to complete a full application.

Funding search databases, lists, and resources

  • This is one of the most robust sources of help online (and it’s free). You can access a centralized database for federal grants, searching by keyword, amount, deadline, and eligibility criteria. Better still, provides a grants learning center and applicant training to make the process easier.
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS maintains a list of resources designed to help first responders find different sorts of grants—for pre-disaster mitigation, firefighting, emergency medical services, and more.
  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS’s tax-exempt organization search tool can help you discover local charities and foundations—just enter a city and/or state along with any relevant keywords.
  • The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). IAFC’s grant-writing guides and news updates put firefighters in touch with more than a billion dollars of grants each year.
  • Candid. A non-profit organization dedicated to helping grant applicants do good, Candid provides training in fundraising and a grant-search database to help organizations connect with philanthropic funding sources.
  • Fire Grants Help. Firefighters can access a subscription-based search database of public and private funding sources, along with paid grant-writing assistance.

Successful first-responder grants are worth the effort

Workforce shortages have left first responders throughout the nation at a major disadvantage. More than 40% of fire stations are at least four decades old, requiring tens of billions of dollars in improvements, and departments throughout the nation remain chronically underfunded. In addition, many local law enforcement agencies lack sufficient resources and “are faced with tough decisions every day to ensure their communities are protected.”

In short, more and more police, fire, and medical organizations need a hand. And first responder grants offer a good way to help fill local funding shortages.

They’re no walk in the park, though. Start early, get deadlines on your calendar, and recruit a team of people who can give you feedback (and help) throughout the process. And as you write, remember to keep your reader’s interest front and center by:

  • Providing context. How many people are impacted by your work? How’s the economy doing? What challenges do people face (both in your organization and beyond)?
  • Keeping it simple. Use clear, friendly language. Try to favor active verbs (not “is,” “are,” “was,” and so on), and choose sentences like “swat helmets save lives” over “swat helmets are a life-saving tool.”
  • Using technical and professional terms with care. When you’re diving into the specifics of a program, feel free to use technical terms. But when you’re providing an overview or telling a story, you may want to speak as if the listener needs a refresher. Introduce acronyms once before using them (e.g., “Basic Life Support (BLS)”).
  • Following the writing rules. Include transition words that join your ideas together (“therefore,” “because,” “in addition”). Check your spelling and grammar—get another pair of eyes on your piece, and use grammar- and style-checking tools like Grammarly to refine the writing.

For more help in your search for funds, check out Part 1 and Part 2 in our series on grant funding for ballistic helmets.

And for more on personal protective equipment—like the bump and ballistic helmets we’re known for—be sure to bookmark the Hard Head Veterans blog.