COVID-19 Public Assistance briefings go virtual

Author: Brian R. Haines

On March 25, 2020, North Carolina received a federal major disaster declaration providing public assistance funding to reimburse local governments and certain private nonprofits for some of their response efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During most disasters, eligible applicants must attend an in-person information briefing that provides basic information about the FEMA Public Assistance Program to receive reimbursement for their recovery efforts. The briefings provide information on FEMA Grants Portal registration, expense eligibility, tips for documenting expenses and resources to help navigate the reimbursement process.

However, current social distancing measures to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus meant in-person briefings were not possible for those applying for assistance.

“We quickly realized that the traditional model of conducting in-person applicant briefings on a county-by-county basis was logistically impractical and wouldn’t get the information to potential applicants as quickly as they need it,” said Norma Houston, senior legal advisor to the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, who’s working on loan to N.C. Emergency Management for the COVID-19 event.

To overcome this obstacle, the NCEM COVID-19 applicant briefing team scheduled a series of 12 virtual briefings that reached 1,305 participants across the state, based on geographic regions.

“To help our local governments and nonprofit partners, we had to communicate accurate and consistent information as quickly and widely as possible so they could start the registration process and get ready to apply for reimbursement. Most importantly, virtual briefings support social distancing to keep both NCEM staff and applicants safe,” Houston said.

In addition to Houston, the COVID-19 applicant briefing team includes NCEM Public Assistance grants managers Kate Van Tol, Brian Snell and David Gale, along with support from NCEM IT personnel.  The team’s grant managers are experienced at assisting applicants across the state in federally declared disasters and are experts in the FEMA public assistance program, the reimbursement process and the grants portal. Houston is also a lecturer in public law and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government.

A significant challenge in standing up the briefings was communicating broadly about the purpose and schedule of the briefings, why people must participate and providing clear instructions for accessing the webinars.  It has been years since many eligible applicants worked a federally declared event, and some had never worked one at all. This meant there was no existing communications mechanism to reach all of them.

“The PA applicant briefing team thought outside the box and reached out to our recovery partners to help communicate information about the FEMA PA program and the applicant briefing instructions and schedule,” Houston said.

They used the School of Government’s local government list-serves, pushed communications through various recovery partners prior to the first week of briefings, and repeated the communications push prior to the second week of briefings.  The results of these communications efforts show in the numbers of attendees, grants portal registrants, and requests for public assistance already submitted. By conducting the applicant briefings virtually, the team was able to communicate to a much broader audience in less time.

“We literally reached applicants from coast to mountains in the same day,” said Van Tol, the lead presenter in all 12 briefings and NCEM’s FEMA Grants Portal Administrator.

The team also worked to replicate and improve the experience of a traditional in-person briefing online by adding features such as a chat function to allow participants to ask questions and get answers from subject matter experts in FEMA public assistance. PA experts Van Tol, Snell and Gale participated in all the briefings to provide consistent information and well-informed answers to participant questions. Houston describes them as the “A Team.”

“This effort was a huge lift by our applicant briefing team to stand up 12 regional webinars with meticulously developed briefing slides, supporting resources and a well-organized and carefully scheduled series of regional briefings to avoid confusion among local governments and nonprofits and make sure they had clear information on when and how to participate in the briefings.  We did all this in less than a week,” Houston said.

The virtual briefings also save time and resources for both the participants and NCEM public assistance personnel by not having to travel to attend in-person briefings, makings copies of presentations and materials, and other administrative costs.  Electronic copies of the presentation and supplemental resources and guidance have the added benefit of enabling applicants to share this information within their organization.

Houston adds that the feedback on the virtual briefings has been very positive and believes there is potential for replicating this model for other large-scale events and across other disaster recovery programs. Holding the briefings on a wider scale than the traditional model also provides participants a greater opportunity to hear questions and answers that they might not have thought of themselves. The NCEM public assistance team is also planning the next level of virtual training for applicants on the FEMA reimbursement process and requirements, as well as more in-depth information on procurement.

Applicants only needed to attend one of the virtual sessions. There are currently 1,565 entities registered in the FEMA Grants portal and almost 400 who have submitted requests for public assistance. By comparison, 480 applicants registered for Hurricane Florence.

Eligible nonprofits include houses of worship, food banks, homeless shelters, domestic violence programs, animal shelters, private nonprofit childcare facilities, and other entities providing emergency assistance in response to COVID-19.

A PDF version of the briefing slides is available on the NCEM Public Assistance COVID-19 website with links to forms and helpful resources so participants get access to the briefing information, supporting guidance and helpful resources. In addition, the PA COVID-19 team produced a recorded on-demand version of the applicant briefing that is also available on the NCEM Public Assistance COVID-19 website for those who were not able to participate in the live briefings.