Needs and Capabilities Assessment: Why and How Do We Accomplish This?

Needs Assessment

There is an old saying that floats about and holds a special truth not only in how we conduct our daily operations, but also in how we go about applying to grant funding sources. That saying is:

“If You Fail to Plan, You Can Plan to Fail!”

Proper planning involves a myriad of things, one of which is assuring that you have proper manpower and equipment to carry out your basic mission for your citizens.

Get the facts of what you need to know about your department’s ability to respond to incidents

One of the tools that you should be using in that planning is a needs and capabilities assessment. It is one of the first things that you need to do, especially if you are the Chief of the Department.

This report is what gives you the facts you need to know about how well prepared your department is to carry out its primary function, whether that be a Fire/EMS or Law Enforcement agency. It gives you a “State of the Union” report, so to speak, about your department.

So, just exactly what is a “Needs and Capabilities Assessment,” and how do we go about doing one?

Inventory all the equipment the department has

The first thing to do is a complete inventory of all equipment the department has. This inventory should include the following:

Personal Protective Equipment

  • What is your PPE? Whether that be structural turnout gear, wildland gear, ballistic protection equipment, or specialty haz-mat suits, inventory and assess all PPE
  • How many coats, pants, fire hoods, boots, helmets, goggles, gloves, etc., do you have?
  • What are the ages of each piece?
  • When was it purchased and to what national standard/edition does it comply with?
  • What is the condition of the equipment exactly?
  • How do you clean and repair it?
  • Where is it stored it when not in use?

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus

  • How many SCBA sets do you have?
  • Describe them well?
  • When were they purchased?
  • How many spare bottles do you have, and what is their age and NFPA standard/edition of compliance?
  • When are your bottles going to expire?
  • How many facemasks do you have? When were they purchased, and to what standard/edition do they comply?
  • What is wrong, exactly, with the SCBA or bottles?
  • How much money have you expended in the past 2 years repairing or inspecting these bottles?
  • Do you have a compressor-fill station to fill bottles with? How old is it? What is it costing you to maintain? If you don’t have one how do you fill your bottles now?


  • Do you have enough hose to meet NFPA1901 compliance on each apparatus?
  • What hose testing have you done, and what were the results?
  • How much hose has been taken out of service and needs to be replaced?
  • What size and lengths are needed?
  • What appliances or nozzles and attachments do you have? What is wrong with them?
  • Are your hoses compatible with surrounding mutual aid departments?


  • You should obtain a complete list of each apparatus by year of manufacture, manufacturer, pump and tank size.
  • Number of seat belted positions?
  • Number of SCBA carried onboard?
  • Mileage, hours on pumps and engines?
  • How much money in maintenance has been spent during last 2-3 years?
  • Is each apparatus passing its tech inspection for pumping capacity or aerial operations?
  • Are they all properly equipped with emergency lighting and properly marked to NFPA standards?

Miscellaneous Tools

  • How many vent saws, PPV fans, ceiling tools, flappers, axes, pike poles, ladders, hydraulic rescue tools, generators and scene lighting equipment do you have?
  • What condition are these tools in?

Assess all personnel, training, and certifications

The next thing in completing the Needs and Capabilities Assessment involves personnel.

  • How many members do you have?
  • How many are active FFs?
  • How many are strictly support staffs or fire police?
  • How many are trained to the equivalent of or certified at FF1 and FF2?
  • What about EMTs?
  • How many hold dual certification, and to what level?
  • Are all of your people compliant with NIMS?
  • How do you staff?


  • What about your station houses?
  • How many stations do you have?
  • How are they staffed?
  • What is the condition of each?
  • Do any need major repairs? If so, how much is it anticipated to cost to repair?
  • Do you have living quarters in them?
  • Do they have an auxiliary emergency generator supporting them?
  • Do they have Vehicle Exhaust Removal Systems?
  • Are they ADA compliant?
  • Do they need expansion in terms of living space, admin offices, training rooms, wellness and fitness rooms etc.?

Call Volume & Incident Response

Next, you need to do an analysis of the past three years of your department’s call volumes.

  • Are you seeing increases in certain areas and why?
  • Are you staying level with call volume, or are you increasing or decreasing?
  • What kind of critical infrastructure are you exposed to exactly?
  • How much mutual aid are you calling for or responding for?

What to do once you have the data

Once you have gone through these questions and gathered the data for them, you should be able to sit down and do a comprehensive report delineating data and statistics for them all. This now becomes a planning tool not only in budgetary matters, but in looking toward the future operations of the department. It also becomes a sheet you can turn to in deciding what you might need to be asking for in your grant applications.

Knowing where shortcomings are helps you to develop a “wants vs. needs” list, and there is a distinct difference between the two.

A “wants” list is items or equipment which would make your tasks easier to perform or give you additional capabilities, but it is not a critical piece of equipment for you to perform your basic mission tasks. It’s good to know what your department wants, but wants won’t help you get grants.

Identify the needs and seek grants to fill those needs

When you are dealing with federal grant programs, you want to be looking at your “needs” list and seeing which items or equipment on that list are listed as a priority of the funding source to whom you are applying for.

Most of the federal grant programs (including AFG, FP&S and SAFER) pretty much require you to make your request based upon the results of a “Needs and Capabilities” study you have either had prepared or accomplished on your own.

When you read the RFP/NOFO of the grant program, it will always spell out what priority certain requests will have. Never go for anything other than a high priority on any grant program if you expect to be successful. This is where the document you are producing comes in really handy, as it will allow you to prioritize the wants and needs on your list according to what the program funding source’s priorities are.

Although it might seem like the proverbial pain in the backside to do, once you’ve completed your needs assessment it can be a guidance document for you in many different decisions involved in efficient and safe operations for your department. Having completed a needs assessment can also increase your likelihood of being funded, by assuring that you have formed the proper nexus between your needs and that of the program funding source. Many grant programs will give higher priority to those requests that are submitted based upon a “Needs and Capabilities” assessment.