Incorporation and the volunteer fire model

Around the country, we have a mix of professional, volunteer, and hybrid-professional/volunteer fire departments, that serve the public, and help promote public safety.   The structure of common defense in the United States, follows a somewhat similar structure.   Just as big cities have full time professional fire fighters, The Federal Government maintains a full time professional military.    The National Guard, and individual State Guards parallel the “paid-on-call” and hybrid professional/volunteer fire departments.   They have some full time or paid employees, but the rank and file are usually volunteers.   At the most local level there are groups of people that volunteer to come together for the common defense of their communities.   They may call themselves “Militia”, “Mutual Assistance Groups”, “Neighborhood Protection Teams”, or even “Neighborhood Watch”.   Regardless of name, they function much like the all volunteer fire services that dot rural america.    They give selflessly of their time, and money, for the betterment of their community.

One of the lessons we can learn from the volunteer fire services is how to apply a legal and business structure to our groups.    At this point, some people might be thinking to them selves “Why would I ever want to do that?”   That is what I will answer below.

While there is huge variance from state to state, and even town to town, most volunteer fire departments are set up as a non-profit corporation, with a board of directors.   We’ll start with incorporation.   Incorporation is creating a legal entity that can do business just as a person would.

A corporation can own property.   If a member of an unincorporated militia buys radios for the group, those radios belong to whoever paid for them.   If, however they are bought by a company, or gifted, or donated, then they belong to the corporation, thus the group.   If the actual purchaser dies, or moves on, or looses interest, the radios are still property of the legal entity of the group (“the corporation”.)   A corporation can also hold property in trust.  This may be useful for keeping access to a training site.   It is better for “The Anytown Mutual Assistance Group” to have access to a range, than “Capt. Bob, of the AMAG.”

A corporate structure can also acquire FCC radio licenses, and liability insurance, which won’t leave if  member does. Corporations may also be eligible for some grants that are not available to an individual.

A corporate structure can also help with continuity of the group.   For a lot of current small groups, the groups identity is tied to one or several key people.   If those people leave, or die, or loose interest, or have a falling out, the group by default falls apart.   The corporate structure allows the group to continue without those key people, or founders.

Most states have minimum rules requiring a board of directors, certain corporate officers, and an annual meeting.   The board of directors serves several functions.   It acts as the “civilian leadership,” and provides checks and balances.    Generally, the board should approve promotions, and be able to reduce rank, or evict members for misconduct.   This is a check against abuse from a corrupt leader.   A board is also a good means for long time members who are no longer physically able to participate in group activities to still be involved in a meaningful way.

Incorporating also gives a perception of legitimacy.   Whether it is local policy makers, the media, public safety and service workers or the local general population, an incorporated entity will almost always “sound” more legit than not.    “Captain Bob and his freedom fighters”   will cause folks to roll their eyes, while the “Anytown Mutual Assistance Group, Incorporated” sounds like a professional organization.    Appearance of legitimacy is crucial for maintaining good civil affairs with local populations.

Incorporating is not without its own set of issues.

First, to do it properly, they cost money.   While not costing a fortune, incorporating usually requires filing paperwork with the state.   There may need to be regular tax filings, and there will certainly be mandatory board meetings.   Some of these requirements can be completed with online law services such as Nolo, or Legal Zoom, but because of the unusual nature of a defensive group incorporating, it may be worth it in the long run to consult with a lawyer, and accountant in the local area.

If a group is incorporated as a “non-profit” there are some additional regulations governing what the company can and can not do

There is also the fact that the board members should be a matter of public record.   That may or may not be an issue, depending on the members perceptions on the role of government in business, and personal security.

Finally there is always the possibility that as new members join, and old ones leave, the make up of the board will change reflecting the membership.   The board may one day take the group in a direction that was not originally envisioned by the groups founders.   Some people do not want to loose that control.

Incorporation is simply a tool in the tool box.   It may or may not be a good fit for any group.    It does help in large public groups maintain continuity, but may be too cumbersome or compromising for smaller groups.  Each group will need to decide if that tool is useful to them.