Janet Reno Speaks OutOn Domestic Terrorism & Radio Spectrum

In an exclusive interview with Firehouse® Magazine, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Associate Attorney General Raymond C. Fisher answer the questions America's first responders are asking about two important issues - our preparedness for domestic terrorism and the allocation of radio frequencies for use by fire departments and other emergency services.

Courtsey of the Department of Justice
Janet Reno

Janet Reno was sworn in as the nation's 78th attorney general by President Clinton on March 12, 1993. From 1978 to the time of her appointment, Reno served as the state attorney for Dade County, FL. She was initially appointed to the position by the governor of Florida and was subsequently elected to that office five times.

Reno was a partner in the Miami-based law firm of Steel, Hector & Davis from 1976 to 1978. Before that, she served as an assistant state attorney and as staff director of the Florida House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, after starting her legal career in private practice.

Reno was born and raised in Miami, where she attended Dade County public schools. She received her B.A. in chemistry from Cornell University in 1960 and her LL.B. degree from Harvard Law School in 1963.

Raymond C. Fisher was appointed associate attorney general by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate in November 1997. As the third-ranking official of the Department of Justice, he oversees the Civil, Civil Rights, Antitrust, Tax and Environment & National Resources divisions.

Courtsey of the Department of Justice
Raymond C. Fisher

Fisher received his B.A. degree in 1961 from the University of California at Santa Barbara and received his LL.B. degree in 1966 from Stanford Law School. He was a law clerk to Justice William J. Brennan Jr. at the U.S. Supreme Court and to Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In 1995, Fisher was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission and was elected president in 1996. From 1984 to 1989, Fisher was a member of the Los Angeles City Civil Service Commission.


Law enforcement, fire, EMS, health care providers and hospitals have all said they are the first line of defense. How do we equal the playing field and listen to each of the concerns and financial needs of these different services?

RENO: All these services are correct. Law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical service personnel, hospital and health care workers, as well as other emergency response personnel such as those from public works agencies, all form a community's first line of defense. These and other services come together, along with the state and local public officials, to form a community's response to any emergency, including a terrorist incident.

State and local jurisdictions have, for years, been the first responders to countless emergencies. They know more than anyone that the only successful responses are those that are unified, integrated and communitywide. They also know that the key to successful responses is planning and continual communication and dialogue among all responsible agencies and public officials. To a very large degree states and local communities have been very good at emergency planning and could probably teach federal officials several lessons.

At the federal level we need to clearly define the appropriate federal role, and be very realistic in our assessment of what federal agencies are, and are not, able to do following terrorist incidents. All of us clearly understand that in the critical hours immediately following a terrorist incident, it will be local, and perhaps state, agencies that will be called upon to respond, assess and manage the scene, and make the critical decisions as to resources. From the Justice Department - particularly the department's new domestic preparedness initiative - we can help state and local jurisdictions be better prepared if such incidents occur. Through the domestic preparedness initiative, administered through the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), the Justice Department can offer state and local agencies and officials training to assist them respond, funds to acquire needed equipment, and technical assistance to work with them in addressing specific issues and planning for potential incidents.

As you know, the department, through the OJP's Metropolitan Firefighter and Emergency Medical Service Training Program, has provided critical training to nearly 80,000 firefighters and emergency medical service personnel in awareness, incident management, tactical considerations and command. OJP will continue these efforts through the current fiscal year and into fiscal year 1999.

OJP has also recently released the program solicitation for its new $12 million State and Local Domestic Preparedness Equipment Support Program. This program will assist a number of jurisdictions acquire much-needed equipment to support their response to terrorist incidents. And as of this past June, OJP has opened the new Center for Domestic Preparedness at Fort McClellan, AL, to provide both classroom and hands-on training, including "live agent" and real-time field exercises, to first responder personnel. Such training will be customized to the needs of individual services and jurisdictions. OJP's efforts, including training, funds to buy equipment and technical assistance, will continue - and most likely at substantially higher levels - during the next fiscal year.

But throughout this process, OJP is committed to listening and working with state and local jurisdictions and especially the individuals in those jurisdictions who are on the front line of any incident. We have always said that we will administer the domestic preparedness program based on listening to and talking with the first responders themselves.

The best way to equal the playing field is to listen to and involve all services, all participants and, beyond that, to encourage these various services to talk to each other. This will be especially important to do but with the jurisdiction - and that jurisdiction's emergency services agencies - as a single group with a shared and mutual mission. As part of that process, OJP hosted a meeting of representatives from the first responder community during the last week of August. This meeting provided first responders with the opportunity to discuss their needs directly with federal government representatives and among each other.

Further, OJP is continually discussing the planning and implementation of its domestic preparedness initiative with representatives of the first responder community such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Emergency Managers Association.

Training is proceeding for the largest 120-130 cities in the country. Smaller cities and towns are also scheduled to receive training. How do the small cities and towns, who face the same potential as their larger counterparts train, react, equip and prepare for a possible attack?

RENO: Assisting small cities and towns - especially rural communities - to enhance their capabilities to respond to incidents involving chemical and biological agents and nuclear and explosive devices is of critical importance to the Justice Department.

The ability of these communities to respond either individually or on a multi-jurisdictional basis, or through a state-level capability, is a primary objective of the Justice Department's domestic preparedness initiative. As you know, that initiative is being administered through the OJP.

Currently, OJP - through its Metropolitan Firefighter and Emergency Medical Services Training Program - is providing training to firefighter and emergency medical services personnel in the nation's 120 largest jurisdictions. However, OJP is also reaching rural jurisdictions by providing that training through state fire academies and to individual firefighters and emergency medical service personnel through correspondence courses handled through the mail.

As OJP moves forward to expand its domestic preparedness initiative through its equipment acquisition program, its various training programs, including training conducted at OJP's Center for Domestic Preparedness at Fort McClellan and through technical assistance, OJP will continually incorporate the needs of smaller and more rural jurisdictions. For example, OJP plans to incorporate both tele-conferencing and distance learning capabilities into its program delivery plans.

Such mechanisms are but one example of how OJP will move beyond the nation's larger urban communities in assisting all jurisdictions to enhance their capabilities to respond to incidents involving chemical and biological agents and nuclear and explosive devices.

Besides training, preparation, purchasing special protective equipment and detection equipment, and stockpiling medical equipment, is there anything else the fire and emergency services can do to stay ahead?

RENO: Critical to this effort is the need to both plan and coordinate, particularly on a jurisdictional basis, across the various first responder services including fire, law enforcement, medical services and other emergency response agencies, and across jurisdictions to work with surrounding communities and counties, as well as with state and federal agencies.

Any response to an incident involving chemical and biological agents and nuclear and explosive devices is out of necessity a jurisdictional response. Further, that response will eventually include both state and federal resources. Local fire services, along with law enforcement, emergency medical service personnel, public works officials, government officials and other emergency response agencies, all form a community's first line of defense against such incidents. They are supported in that effort by their state and federal counterparts. The ability to plan well, and to coordinate both planning and response, including the use of live "mock" exercises, will be crucial to the success of those efforts.

Is more federal money to be budgeted over the next few years for training, personal protective equipment and medical provisions for first responders including local police, fire and EMS personnel?

RENO: The administration has clearly identified the enhancement of state and local capabilities to respond to incidents involving chemical and biological agents and nuclear and explosive devices as a key and critical priority for the federal government.

The Justice Department has requested $100 million for these efforts in fiscal year 1999 and will make an additional request in fiscal year 2000. The Justice Department, through OJP, has committed to a multi-year domestic preparedness initiative aimed exclusively at providing state and local first responders with critical equipment, training (including the use of situational live exercises) and technical assistance.

Further evidence of this commitment is the establishment of OJP's Center for Domestic Preparedness at Fort McClellan, which became operational on June 1. Within its first four weeks of beginning operations, the center provided instruction to over 300 local first responders. When fully operational, the center expects to train over 10,000 first responders annually.

This is just one aspect of the Justice Department's initiative which is being designed to directly meet the equipment, training and technical assistance needs of the nation's first responder community.

Will the federal government provide this equipment to the smaller cities and towns across the country?

RENO: Providing the nation's smaller communities and rural areas the ability to respond to incidents involving chemical and biological agents and nuclear and explosive devices is a crucial component of the OJP's domestic preparedness initiative.

One of the first tasks of that effort is to assess the needs and capabilities of those smaller and more rural areas to determine how the components of the domestic preparedness initiative, including the acquisition of needed equipment, can best be of assistance.

Approaches under consideration include working with states to provide state-level response units, which will be deployed as needed, and working with smaller communities and rural areas to develop countywide or regional response capabilities.


The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 approved by Congress requires the reallocation of 24 MHz of spectrum for public safety use, but that may not take place until television broadcasters complete their transition to digital broadcasting mandated by Dec. 31, 2006. It also allows for extensions beyond 2006 if digital television service in a given market is not at 85 percent. What if anything can be done to help to overcome, relieve or solve the public safety radio crisis today, not eight years from now?

Also, can Congress look at the suggestion of the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee to allow 2.5 MHz immediately to address interoperability needs on the VHF and UHF band between 138 and 512 MHz; 25 MHz in the short term; and an additional 70 MHz by 2010?

RENO: I recognize that the safety of all Americans depends on the ability of law enforcement and public safety officials to communicate quickly and effectively with each other. I am strongly committed to the department's doing whatever it can to improve that communication at the federal, state and local levels.

The final report of the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) concluded that meeting the current and future spectrum needs of state and local public safety agencies and achieving interoperability across federal, state and local agencies will require new spectrum allocations. Some of this need may eventually be met by the 24 MHz provided to public safety by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. In addition to the 24 MHz, the PSWAC report identified the need for up to an additional 70 MHz of spectrum for state and local agencies and a need for 2.5 MHz of spectrum to support interoperability across federal, state, and local agencies. The Department of Justice is committed to seeing that these important recommendations of the PSWAC report are implemented.

We are promoting a public education campaign to help members of Congress, regulatory officials and the media better understand how vital spectrum is to the saving of lives and property. It is important for all of us who impact how wireless spectrum is allocated to explain that this is not just a technical matter dealing with radio frequencies, but rather a matter of practical concern for firefighters, rescue personnel, law enforcement officers and the public they serve. The entire public safety community can play a role in educating and providing information to our decision-makers in Congress and in state and local government.

We need to emphasize that, in the end, this isn't a technical issue; it's about the child stuck in a burning building, the elder citizen who has suffered a stroke and the single woman with a would-be robber beating down her door. Seconds do matter and proper allocation of wireless spectrum is about those seconds.

Unfortunately, for too many public safety agencies, shortages of spectrum are coupled with shortages of the funding that is critical to implementing and maintaining wireless communications systems. The Vice President's National Performance Review initiative called for the creation of an interagency working group to come up with innovative mechanisms to fund public safety wireless communications. The Department of Justice has taken the lead in coordinating this group with the departments of Treasury and Commerce and with the Federal Law Enforcement Wireless Users Group. A number of other federal agencies and the Federal Communications Commission have participated as well.

We are optimistic that by bringing together the right people from the right agencies that we will be able to help address the dramatic need for funding that state and local public safety agencies are facing.

I have appointed Ray Fisher, the associate attorney general, to be my senior-level advisor on public safety wireless communications issues. Ray is well-acquainted with how vital wireless communications are to public safety and can answer any specific questions you may have.

A major concern for public safety providers is a limit to the number of radio channels that can be used for dispatching and on-scene use. Will the availability of additional spectrum on the 764-806 bands help the local police, fire and EMS departments in their everyday responses?

FISHER: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plays a key role in this arena. The FCC is in the midst of a rule making that will result in determinations about how the 24 MHz of spectrum on the 764-806 MHz bands will be used. I am meeting with the chairman and the commissioners of the FCC to relay some concerns of the public safety community. I intend to stress that this 24 MHz is a good start, but that additional spectrum will still be needed, as was detailed in the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee report.

Exactly how this spectrum will be assigned is up to the FCC. However, I think it is safe to assume that in many areas of the country, the availability of the additional 24 MHz will result in additional channels for dispatching and on-scene use. This, of course, assumes that a given public safety agency has or is developing a system capable of operation on that band.

When Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which provided for the 24 MHz, however, there were provisions inserted which could delay the availability of the 24 MHz in many areas of the country. Analog television stations currently occupy this spectrum in certain, primarily urban, markets. Under the provisions of the Balanced Budget Act, the television broadcasters will be able to continue to broadcast on those analog channels, in addition to the digital channels they have been given, until the penetration of digital television technology reaches an 85% threshold. In the affected markets, this spectrum will not actually be available to public safety until that threshold is reached. This may delay the availability of this spectrum indefinitely.

Was the additional use of spectrum on the 764-806 band designed specifically to allow police, fire, EMS and other government agencies to interact on major incidents or disasters, not for the day-to-day operations? How do we address those needs?

FISHER: Again, the FCC is the arbiter of exactly how the 24 MHz will be used. In its initial notice on the rule making for the 24 MHz there was strong indication that the FCC was looking at providing a significant amount of the spectrum for interoperability purposes. I would anticipate that the commission will account for needs related both to first responder interoperability during critical incidents and day-to-day interoperability.

Interoperability is one issue that is at the top of the Department of Justice's list. We have a great need to interoperate with state and local public safety agencies. As one example, it is not unusual for us to have only one or two agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI assigned to a very large geographic area. These agents, of necessity, must rely greatly on the support of state and local public safety agencies to carry out their missions. We also regularly operate in task force settings with a diverse group of state and local law enforcement agencies. Of course, as a part of the broader public safety community, we are also very concerned about interoperability during the first hours after critical incidents. The Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombings are frequently cited examples where public safety communications systems were unable to adequately meet the important need for interoperability of first responders.

In the short term, the public safety community needs to concentrate on plans and procedures for dealing with such incidents. In the longer term, we need to continue to seek additional spectrum dedicated to interoperability adjacent to the bands on which we currently operate. We also need to examine participation in shared systems. Properly planned and implemented, shared systems could assist us in addressing all facets of interoperability.

The cost to public safety departments will be astronomical in converting existing equipment to bands they do not operate. Wouldn't it be more logical and make more financial sense to find space on spectrum bands from 150 to 170 MHz, where 65% of fire and 73% of law enforcement operate?

FISHER: The Department of Justice itself faces enormous cost as we convert our radio systems to narrowband operation in compliance with a federal mandate, so we are well aware of the costs of these systems. My understanding is that spectrum on the bands you reference is very heavily used. To make room for one user, another user must be relocated.

As part of the transition to digital television, the FCC was able to free 24 MHz of spectrum on the 764 to 806 MHz band for public safety without dislocating a significant number of other users. Unfortunately, building systems in the new spectrum will be expensive. This is one of the reasons that the attorney general coordinated the interagency working group investigating innovative mechanisms to fund public safety wireless communications.

With regard to seeking spectrum adjacent to existing public safety bands, it should be noted that the PSWAC report identified the need for 2.5 MHz of spectrum for interoperability located proximate to the majority of current public safety users. This is something that the department continues to seek.

Does the Department of Justice have any suggestions to improving interoperability and overall public safety radio communications?

FISHER: We do. As the attorney general stated, one of the things we're focusing on is public education. As part of this effort, in conjunction with the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) - a program chartered under the auspices of the Vice President's National Perfor-mance Review and which was co-managed with the Department of the Treasury - and the National League of Cities, we recently published a user-friendly layperson's guide to public safety and radio spectrum. We have distributed the guide to every member of Congress. Soon, we will complete a layperson's video guide to public safety and radio spectrum. The video primarily will be directed to state and local public officials. We hope to get these officials focused on the need to plan, design and fund public safety wireless communications systems that are both interoperable and spectrum efficient.

The PSWN program continues to lay the technical groundwork for resolving the interoperability problem at the federal, state and local levels. The ultimate goal of the PSWN program is to develop a plan by 2001 for achieving national interoperability. The program is engaged in a number of case studies focusing on individual regions and testbed demonstrations of interoperability equipment.

The program also recently mailed an interoperability questionnaire to a randomly selected 25 percent of the approximately 3,400 state and local fire and emergency medical service providers. This fire/EMS interoperability study is a companion to an earlier Department of Justice survey of the law enforcement community. The results of these surveys should provide very valuable information to help us overcome the public safety interoperability problem. Your readers who received a copy of the survey are encouraged to participate.

The entire public safety community can assist in making decision makers at all levels of government understand this issue. Once the issue is understood, we are confident that the decision makers will ensure that our nation's public safety agencies receive the spectrum and funding necessary to enable them to carry out their critical missions.

(Readers can receive copies of the layperson's guide by calling 800-851-3420 and asking for the "Public Safety and Radio Spectrum Guide." Readers can learn more about the PSWN program at the PSWN World Wide Web site www.pswn.gov.)