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Grant writing: Own the night

By Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA
Sponsored by ITT Night Vision

"We own the night" 1 has become such a U.S. Military truism that it has its own acronym "OTN."  Until recently, the history of warfare was that operations where usually avoided at night.  Technology has changed nighttime operations from using artificial illumination (like flares) to using devices that take advantage of the low-light environment.  Moreover, technology is being employed to solve another age-old military problem – communications.  As Kerner noted in "Joint Technical Architecture: Impact on Department of Defense Programs," In today's increasingly dynamic battle space, systems that were never intended to work together are often involved in aspects of the same mission, sometimes even deployed in the same tent. In this environment, interoperability (i.e., the ability of systems to exchange information and use common information) is at a premium, but it rarely happens by accident." 2

Both the problems of working at night and communicating with different units (or agencies) are common problems for law enforcement organizations.  Indeed, FBI data for law enforcement officers killed in the line-of-duty reveals that between 1995 and 2004 over 65% of the deaths occurred between 2000 and 0800 hours.  Moreover, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2/3 of sexual assaults occur between 1800 and 0600 hours.  Clearly, there is significant crime at night and law enforcement officials need to look at technologies that improve their "OTN."

In addition to sharing the need to work at night, law enforcement and military personnel share the problem of interoperability.  Emergency situations often involve multiple jurisdictions with different communication equipment and jargon.  The National Institute of Justice has produced several reports detailing both problems and potential technological solutions. 

Military Applications – Law Enforcement Solutions

Whereas technological solutions for nighttime operations and communications have been developed for the U.S. Military, there has been significantly less technology development directed solely at domestic law enforcement.  A simply explanation is that the military has a much larger budget than any single law enforcement agency and therefore, money attracts and drives development of technology.  It follows that if the needs of local law enforcement could be combined, there would be greater private sector motivation to produce technology aimed at solving local law enforcement problems.

The purpose of the Technology Transfer Programs (TTP) is to determine and combine the needs of the more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies into a larger purchasing pool therefore increasing the development of technology for law enforcement; and, additionally, engendering uniformity across the nation.  As an example, between 1998 and 2002, the Counterdrug TTP delivered over 4800 pieces of equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies.  Simply, the larger purchasing pool has, in part, created vendor motivation to produce technology solutions for law enforcement.

Another economic force behind some of the TTP success was the "peace dividend" from the Cold War.  Around the end of the cold war, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) sought inter-agency agreements with research and development centers that had heretofore been dedicated to the development of military technology.  Now, places like the U.S. Army Electronic Proving Ground and, U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center are involved in the search for law enforcement technology solutions.

The National (or federal) policy on determining needs is that those need are best determined by the people closest to the problem.  Indeed, the character and nature of American law enforcement is that solutions forced down (from federal or state authorities) are much less like to be accepted than solutions reached by means of participation.  Recognizing this, TTP determines the direction of technological development based on input from regional experts. 

Once the regional experts agree on what types of technology would help solve local problems the technologies are offered to the local agencies through a competitive grant process.

The Last Bastion of Local Application

Most grants from the federal government are in some way funneled through the state.  Moreover, many grant applications are simply too complex and costly to administer for the small municipal agency.  Often, it would cost the agency more to apply and administer the grant than the money received from the grant.  Technology transfer grants, in both the areas of counterdrug and homeland security, are set up so that the local agency applies directly for the funding.  Again, this is because it is presumed that you know best what technological solutions would work in your community.

Perhaps the first and foremost clue in successfully applying is understanding how the technology will solve your local problem.  The funding agency is asking you to demonstrate that the technology will improve your agencies operational capabilities; you have the capability to integrate the technology into your current infrastructure; and, the technology is not too complex for your organization to support.  So, you the applicant, must understand the technology and the local problem and then draw a connection between the technology and your problem in the grant application.

Technology transfers grants are a competitive process.  In some manner, the grant applications are scored, and then the equipment is provided to the highest scoring agencies.  While this is somewhat a function of prioritizing the allocation of limited resources (there’s only so much to go around), it is also a function of ensuring local needs are met.  In other words, if your grant application demonstrates you need the technology you are likely to be awarded.

Demonstrating need

Completing a grant application as a means of demonstrating need is a much different mindset.  It places you, the writer, in the position of having to understand the technology, your community, the national priorities and the nexus between the three.  Because the types of technology offered by this process changes, your first step is to review the technologies offered.  It is critical to understand the capabilities and limitations of the equipment.  At a minimum, look carefully at the vendors specifications.  What do they say the equipment should be used for?  A very successful applicant would likely pick up the telephone, call the vendor and ask for the telephone number of a similar agency that is using the equipment.  How are they using it?  What does it do?  What can’t it do?

Once you understand the capabilities and limitations of the technology, you have a greater understanding of the problems the technology can solve. Now, specifically, what are your community’s problems?  How will the technology solve your, specific, local problem?  Or, how will it enhance your operations?  If you can answer these questions you have fulfilled the first two parts of the grant triad – improving your operational capabilities and integrating the technology into your operations.

National Priorities

Grants like the TTP are a dual-edged sword.  Yes, the focus is finding technological solutions based on local needs, but the process is also used to further national priorities.  As an example, you can not apply for TTP in the arena of homeland security if your community has not adopted the National Incident Management System (NIMS).  The furtherance of national priorities is not hidden in the grant process.  It is plainly among the questions on the application.

When you see questions that don’t seem to have a direct connection to the technology or are clearly connected to a national priority, step-back and make sure you understand the national priority.  As an example, don’t ignore or attempt a generic answer to questions about your community and the National Response Plan; or your community and the National Priorities.  Many times the grant application will have supplemental information that can help you understand the terms and phrases, and thus the questions.  Often, a greater understanding of the question will lead to an easy answer – you are probably in compliance or could be if you clearly understood what was being asked.

It is a competitive process

Nearly all grant applications are in some way a competitive process.  As for the TTP, your application is likely scored by a panel of subject matter experts.  Points are assigned by the expert based on your answer.  The higher your overall score the more likely you will be awarded the grant.  There are five simple things you can do to improve your application and thus your score:

  • Write clearly:  With the advent of online grant applications, many applicants type their answers directly into the application.  Instead of typing directly into the application, use word processing software to create a first draft.  At a minimum, you can now use the "spell check" feature.  More importantly, you can seek professional input about your application.

  • Seek Feedback: Once you have completed your draft answer you should seek feedback.  At a minimum, have a colleague read your responses.  Your readers should be looking at both your exposition and content.  Yes, spelling counts.  Reviewers are human beings, obvious misspelling, missing words or extra words detract from your presentation.  A smart grant writer will seek professional advice.  As an example, ITT Night Vision has Margaret Stark, a Law Enforcement Grant Consultant.  She is willing and able to assist you without charge.  You can contact her at 704.540.0981.

  • Answer the Question:  If you don’t understand a word, term or question you should seek clarification from the grantor.  You can pick up the telephone and call them.  Often, there is supplemental material and/or a reference location you can consult.  Moreover, concentrate on answer the question at hand.  As an example, there is a difference in how technology might be used during a disaster as opposed to how it might be incorporated into your routine operations.  Sometimes, because an agency’s routine operations are "emergency responses" they tend to view the two questions as the same.  They are not.  And, you must answer both while drawing the connection between the technology, your local problems and national priorities.

  • Explore the Question: The "National Priorities" is a reference to a specific document containing specific recommendations.  On the other hand, it can also mean a broad set of national goals.  You need to understand what is meant.  Or, a "needs assessment" is a specific activity.  During your initial review of the grant you may think you agency has never conducted a needs assessment.  Yet, upon further exploration you are likely to find that some larger (county, regional or state) agency included your jurisdiction in an assessment.  Don’t answer a question until you fully understand it.

  • Be specific: If a grant application asks you to answer a "yes" or "no" question and then to provides you space to describe your answer, don’t leave the explanation blank.  Your grant is going to be competitively scored against other grants.  A one word response is the minimum and will receive the minimum.  As an example, if you were asked, "Does your jurisdiction contain any critical infrastructure?"  Some would answer yes and then say "we have numerous bridges, highways and a single electrical generating plant."  Other, more savvy writers, would say, "Highway 76 runs east/west through our jurisdiction and is a primary hurricane evacuation route.  There are four bridges (two over highways, one over a rail line and one over a river).  The Cheap Power Company plant is located in the northeast area of our jurisdiction and provides power to the 34K residence of our jurisdiction as well as substantial power to surround jurisdictions."  The second answer provides the grant reviewer with a basis from which to assign a competitive score.  While there are no guarantees, you be the judge of which answer you would score higher.

As a final thought, the grant writing process is not simply an administrative function.  It should be a core component of your agency’s journey toward "owning the night."  It would be a shame if someone’s safety was jeopardized because a few hours weren’t spent on being a competitive writer.



1. Bowman, T. (2001)  Heat and light are silent allies for U.S. forces.  Baltimore Sun.

2. Kerner, J. (2001) Joint Technical Architecture: Impact on Department of Defense Programs. CrossTalk: The Journal of Defense Software Engineering, October Issue

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