This is a plea for a sign. Its absence didn't cost a life this time. But there's always a next time, and things might go differently then.

The star of the proceedings is Russell Tobias of Silver Spring, who stopped one recent night at the rest area along Interstate 95 just north of Laurel.

"A motorist nearby asked me if I had a fire extinguisher. Apparently his engine was on fire," Russell writes.

"Having none, I did what the fire department says to do -- call 911 . . . . I reported an automobile fire at the southbound rest area on I-95."

"'What milepost?' the dispatcher asked.

"'I'm at the rest area--I don't know what milepost it's near. It's close to Laurel, if that helps.'

"'That's in Prince George's County, isn't it?'

"'I'm an out-of-towner. How should I know what county I'm in?'

"'OK, we'll send the fire department,' she reassured me."

Happily, that proved unnecessary. Another motorist in the rest area was carrying a fire extinguisher, and he sprayed the fire into submission.

But Russell doesn't know what to make of his conversation with the 911 dispatcher, for the service area in question is in Howard County.

Presumably he reached a Howard County dispatcher. Is it possible she wasn't familiar with the rest area? After all, as Russell points out, "there is only one rest area in each direction on that section of I-95, a likely location for motorists to call for help."

Part of the confusion may stem from the fact that Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties are all within three miles of the service area. According to fire officials in all three counties, calls to 911 placed from the I-95 rest area will sometimes ring on their switchboards when Howard County's lines are busy.

As a result, officials say, it is entirely possible that Russell's call reached a non-Howard County dispatcher. However, officials in the other three counties say that all their dispatchers should be familiar with the I-95 rest area. It's the source of a lot of business, they say.

But there's a simple way to ensure that confusion never gets a foothold, regardless of whose dispatcher answers.

Erect a sign beside the bank of pay phones at the rest area that reads: "You are calling from Milepost Whatever, on I-95, near Savage, Md., in Howard County." That way, no dispatcher would ever flounder.