In the summer of 1977, we were told that the District's budget would have to be trimmed a bit. Nothing spectacular.Certainly nothing that would interfere with vital services.

Our Fire Department, for one could shut down three of its units and have their functions taken over by others that weren't very busy.

So we shut 'em down and saved money, exactly as planned. There has been only one small problem. A lot of people have died as a result.

Washington Post staff writer Mike Sager told us about it in yesterday's Post. By combining the firefighting and rescue squad duties of three units, we saved $1.1 million a year. But in the areas served by the double-duty units, death rates soared to four times the city-wide average.

Why? Sager quotes a Fire Department study in these words:

"In the special companies -- called combination units -- one group of five men is responsible for manning both an engine company (a pumper truck and a hose truck used to extinguish fires) and a rescue company (a squad wagon equipped with heavy-duty rescue equipment and resuscitators for rescue in fires, auto accidents and other personal injuries). Of the four rescue squads in the city, three are combination units.

"Thus, the report says, while the Fire Department lists total manpower as 54 companies, it has personnel to man only 51. In effect, then, the department has covered its shortage of manpower by assigning 15 men on each shift to do the work of 30 in the three special units." The bottom line, says the report, is that "we are dealing with lives, and combination companies have reduced our service." Because the combination units are often needed in two places at the same time, "critical problems ensue." One engine company, for example, "was unable to respond to about 43 percent of its calls because of its combination duties."

So there you are, trapped in your automobile, which has been struck broadside and turned upside down by a drunken driver. You can smell the gasoline that is gushing out of your punctured gas tank and, as you wonder where the hell the fire department and the rescue squad are, you can console yourself with the thought that the city saved $1.1 million last year by depending upon three Fire Department units that exist on paper only.

Now if we could just get outselves a fleet of atomic missiles that exist on paper only, think of the money we'd save. The Russians wouldn't dare attack us because we wouldn't tell them that our nuclear arsenal wasn't for real. They'd think we were ready for war, so they'd behave.

But can we get fires and accidents to stop happening because they believe that our paper rescue squads and firefighting units really exist?

If you think we can, tune in tomorrow at this time when we'll bring you the story of Three Bears. Until then, let's concentrate on three questions: t

1. Is there a worse way to save tax dollars than by failing to maintain adequate personnel in a city's Fire Department?

2. Instead of eliminating three units and saving $1.1 million, should we eliminate six units and save $2.2 million? The saving would be about $3 a year per resident, or less than a penny a day.

3. Do you think we ought to begin by eliminating the unit that serves your neighborhood?

The District of Columbia once had the finest fire department in the United States. That was before the politicians began saving us money, God help us.

Mr. Mayor, is there any issue before you that is more important than protecting the lives of the people you serve?