The refrigerator is a noble beast -- strong, realiable and undemanding.

Once thought of as just a place to store leftovers and keep food cold, the refrigerator has gained new stature. Today this versatile appliance not only saves time, energy and money, but it could save your life. For example:

What if you were suddenly taken ill? You call for help, but by the time it arrives, you are unable to give the medical information vital to your survival. a

This situation could be a disaster for anyone with severe allergy, diabetes, a heart condition, any chronic illness requiring special medication, or for someone living along.

But with the help of the mighty refrigerator, and a program called "Vial of Life," these fears can be alleviated.

Churches and hospitals across the country, as well as many police departments and rescue squads, are encouraging participation in a program which leads rescuers quickly to the vital medical data -- the vial -- in an emergency, even if the victim is unable to respond.

The Vial of Life program is voluntary service active in communities in more than 24 states, including Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Participants are asked to follow these steps:

1. Fill out a medical-history form for each member of the family.

2. Put the information in a small vial such as an empty pill container.

3. Tape the vial to the underside of the upper right-hand shelf of your refrigerator.

4. Cut out the "Vial of Life" logo and tape it to the outside of the refrigerator door.

Emergency health-car services are being alerted to look for the vials of life when called to enter a home to give aid.

And now for some other practical ways to use your refrigerator.

Many people keep a checklist of information and location of documents in case of emergencies. What better place to store that critical list than the safe, easy-to-find place, and virtually fireproof refrigerator?

The checklist should include everything the family, friends or the executor of your estate might need. For example:

Bank accounts : Name of bank, location and account numbers of all checking and saving accounts.

Wills : Location of copies, names and addresses of executors.

Lawyer : Name, address and phone number.

Insurance : Broker's name, address, phone number. Company's name and all policy numbers.

Social Security numbers : All household members.

All credit card numbers .

Veteran information : Including discharge papers.

Name of cemetery, location and deed : Instructions for burial; list of:

people to be notified, with addresses and phone numbers.

Since the freezer is virtually fireproof, it can also be used as a safe. With the price of gold and other precious materials skyrocketing, the freezer makes an excellent hiding place for jewels and flatware. What self-respecting burglar (unless he's reading this) would rummage through chicken legs and pizza looking for loot?

The refrigerator is a place for raising bread overnight, chilling wine, stashing perfume, for chilling lipstick and underwear on hot summer days, and for keeping a snowball year-round.

Artists keep paint and partially completed canvases in the refrigerator to save them from drying out. Authors often hide copies of unpublished manuscripts; fishermen store bait to keep it alive; and photographers know that the low, even temperature makes the refrigerator the perfect place to preserve film and photographic paper.

Out mothers and grandmothers kept dampened laundry on a refrigerator shelf until ironing day. Women, today, freeze pantyhose to lengthen their life. Nonsense? It works.

And while you await November and tulip-planting time, ground those bulbs temporarily in the cool darkness of your refrigerator.

If you're into organic gardening, you can store hybernating ladybugs on a shelf in a plastic bag. When aphids attack indoor plants, instead of using poison sprays or powders, just warm up a few ladybugs in the sun and let them feed on the pests.

So take another look at the moble beast in your kitchen. If all it holds are a few containers of yogurt, a jar of wheatgerm and a secret stash of chocolates, be creative.

It could even help you live longer.