"Oh, please! Oh God, come quickly! My husband just had a heart attack! 1224 Montgomery."


Obviously, this is a situation where seconds count. Obviously, when they get such a call, rescue personnel in the Washington area will get there as fast as possible.

But in much of the area, emergency phone calls like the one above result in frustration - and death - much more often than necessary. The reason is that many homes don't have numbers on them, and many streets have ambiguous, difficult or duplicated names.

Take the fictional lady whose husband has had a heart attack. It would not amuse her to know that, in Montgomery County:

There are six Montgomery Avenues.

There are five 1224 Montgomery Avenues.

There are 12 other pieces of pavement named Montgomery - terraces, streets, drives, whatever.

And of those 12, six contain an address of 1224.

So to tell a dispatcher "1224 Montgomery" just won't do. Yet it happens - everyday.

David R. Hudgel Jr. is one of six men in the area whose job is to unstick such messes.

A clerk for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Hudgel's mission is to ride herd on numberless homes in Montgomery County and to see that streets have names that are different and distinctive.

By general agreement, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties are the biggest house-number and street-name disasters in the area. Both are former farm counties that have become suburbanized over the past 40 years in patchwork fashion. As one fire official put it, "It sometimes looks like each developer didn't talk to the others on purpose."

The results would be funny if they weren't so sad.

Within Montgomery County, very close to one another, lie Andrew Court, Andrew Drive and Andrew Street.

That by itself would not be impossible to overcome, or even be unprecedented. After all, in L'Enfant's perfectly-plotted Washington, Woodley Road and Woodley Place intersect, to name just one puzzler.

But in the case of the Andrews Sisters, many of their numbers are identical. Thus, 11901 Andrew could be Street or Court - and the ambulance driver is left guessing.

In Montgomery County alone, there 432 instances of such duplication.

One special Montgomery earsore consists of two streets in Potomac, Karen Drive and Charen Lane.

Many people, used to "chaos" and "chasm," pronounce Charen the same way they pronounce Karen, even though Charen is pronounced Sharon by most residents.

But that's the least of the troubles. Most of the house numbers on Karen and Charen are identical, and each street is served by the same fire dispatcher.

Hudgel decided to solve this one last year by changing all the house number on one street or the another, as he is empowered to do. But which street?

Citizens' association on both streets objected to any change, citing the inconvenience and expense of reordering all their credit cards and personal stationery. Hudgel finally threw up his hands - and the ambiguity exists to this day.

The dangers occasionally play themselves out, too.

Just two months ago, in a rural part of Burtonsville, a $100,000 home with out a number began burning on Aitcheson Lane. The owner ran half a mile to his nearest neighbor to call the fire department.

The trouble was that the neighbor's phone fed into the Baltimore switchboard. Luckily, the operator knew there was nothing that sounded like Aitcheson in her area, so she passed the call on to Montgomery authorities.

But Aitcheson became Etchison in translation. So as fire enginess screamed off to Etchison Drive in Gaithersburg, the Burtonsville home burned to the ground.

The same thing could easily happen tomorrow at any of Montgomery's "doubleheaders."

They are pairs of streets that sound very much alike - Shadow and Chateau, Market and Marquette, Osage and Old Stage. In Montgomery County alone, Hudgel estimates, there are at least 100 obvious "doubleheaders," plus many others that invite confusion, particular if a foreigner or a proud southerner is speaking.

While Hudgel can change house numbers, he does not do so without consulting the people affected, and neither do his counterparts on other jurisdictions. But proposed number changes are often met with the same enthusiasm as on Karen and Charen. And to get a street name changed requires action by planning and zoning boards in the suburbs and the City Council in Washington. In other words, months.

House numbers are a less pressing problem than street names, although they are potentially just as deadly.

The big sinners in the Washington area are house numbers that appear in script rather than as numerals, and numbers that are the same color as the background on which they are mounted. But they are fast being joined by another wonder: house numbers that are covered by trees, plants or shrubs.

In Montgomery County, anyone with an obscured or unreadable house number could be fined $100, or be jailed for 30 days, for each day the offense occurs. Penalties are the same, or similar, elsewhere in the area.

But Hudgel has never prosecuted anyone for this offense in his 14 years on the job, and neither have his counterparts. Their approach is to try to persuade the homeowner that, as Hudgel puts it, "It's him who loses when you can't read the numbers."

Hudgel admits that, in the more developed and more orderly parts of his county, a missing or illegible house number runs little risk of being fatal in an emergency. If next door neighbors have their heads and remember how to subtract," Hudgel said.

By law, "I could go out there with a hammer and a bucket of paint," Hudgel said. But he doesn't do that because hammers and buckets aren't in his budget. And if any private citizen is tempted to do what Hudgel won't do, Hudgel reminds him that "providing" your neighbor with a number can get you arrested for defacing private property, or trespassing.

Hudgel and his comrades admit they sometimes feel as if their fingers are in a rickey dike. "But we've got to do it," Hudgel said. "Difficult as it is, we have to make it work."

By and large, they do make it work. It would just be nice if Hudgel and Company got a little cooperation once in a while from the very homeowners and stationery-owners they're supposed to be helping.