New England has always been a hotbed of patriotism, and earlier this month this sleepy, blue-collar town of 38,000 people fired the first volley in the battle of the people vs. the Ayatollah.

With the help of the federal Action program and the tireless efforts of an army of local volunteers, Fitchburg has launched the nation's first citywide energy conservation program and is well on its way to the goal of "weatherizing" every house in town.

All over this town, everyone from school children to little old ladies are replacing air filters, sealing vents, cleaning refrigerator coils, and taking dozens of basic energy-saving steps.

By the end of next month, an estimated half of Fitchburg's 14,000 dwelling units will likely be weatherized, saving about 2 million gallons of home heating oil a year, according to a spokesman for Fitchburg Action to Conserve Energy (FACE), the umbrella group supervising this effort.

At that rate, Fitchburg residents' annual savings will reach $1.9 million at an average weatherizing cost of only $25 to $50 a home.

Although the project of weatherizing an entire city originally was undertaken to hold down fuel oil bills, recent events have given it added urgency.

"The problem of energy conservation has taken a more serious tone than we expected," said Mayor David Gilmartin at a press conference on Nov. 13, the day President Carter ordered a halt to U.S. purchases of Iranian oil.

"We've seen our national government tell Iran to keep its oil," the mayor went on. "Now it's up to us in Fitchburg to do something about that, and back up our federal government."

So that day Fitchburg decided to do something. Action Agency Directior Sam Brown led a delegation of Washington bureaucrats to Fitchburg to be receive a progress report.

Action had greased the skids for the Fitchburg project last month by cutting reams of red tape and getting Energy Department and Department Housing and Urban Development regulations waived in order to free federal funding for FACE. $ it took only five days, for example, for Fitchburg to receive an innovative grant from HUD to help pay for the materials needed to weatherize homes occupied by low-income or moderate-income families. "That has to be a new world's record," said one Action aide.

The federal funding generally covers the cost of materals for weatherizing, while local volunteers frequently donate the necessary labor.

"The young people in town have been wonderful," said Ellen DiGeronimo, executive secretary of FACE and vice president of Worcester North Savings Bank in Fitchburg. She told of scores of school children doing the weatherizing for elderly and handicapped persons.

In addition, more than 300 volunteers from Fitchburg State College have joined with skilled retired citizens to offer a formidable work force for FACE.

The army is run out of several neighborhood storefront centers, where homeowners also learn to do their own weatherizing. Special storefront centers serve the Spanish-speaking community.

Action officials say Fitchburg seemed a likely target for this program because of its heavy reliance an oil, and electric rates that are the highest in New England and third highest in the nation mainly because the local power company does not generate any of its own power but purchases it wholesale from other power companies.

Fitchburg's involvement in the program has trancended the actual weatherizing efforts and influenced almost every civic activity in the city. "It's akin to an old-fashioned barn-raising," said city Planning Director Tom Cunningham, who also serves as FACE's project director. "Everybody helps out."

Two 14-year-old girls staged a 10-minute skit called "Facing the Energy Crisis" at B. F. Brown Jr. High School last week, encouraging children to explain to their parents the need to weatherize.

The skit included a teacher who walked across the auditorium stage throwing dollar bills away at a window left open and at a parent who put off caulking a windy door.

In another demonstration of community involvement, residents at the Sundial Apartments, a senior citizens' husing project in Fitchburg, gathered that same day for a weatherization training session, then returned to their apartments to get to work.

"For six years we've been telling people about the energy crisis in Washington, Finally someone has listened," Brown said to an assembly at the junior high school after viewing those two events while on a tour of the city.

"We can talk all we want about consumption, but it takes you and your parents and your grandparents to do it," he continued. "We must start at home, and go one house at a time."

It takes this kind of extraordinary effort to make true conservation a reality, said local FACE staff coordinator Larry Casassa.

"Look, 75 percent of Fitchburg's housing stock was built before World War II, and they haven't been improved since that time," he said. "The steps toward saving energy are simple; the savings are great."

"In the long run, we know that the only way we can conserve energy will be to do it ourselves," said FACE's diGeronimo. "We can't count on the government to do that for us."