Ask Richard Amity about rabies and he'll tell you about his telephone. It hasn't stopped ringing since the outbreak began last year.

Amity is Fairfax County's animal control director and his 21 wardens and trappers are shock troops in the Washington area's war on rabies, a battle complicated by continuous requests for trapping and testing of suspicious animals.

"When I say 'requests', I'm being kind," says Amity. "Some people go berserk."

There was the elderly woman who telephoned tearfully to report a rabbit hopping across her front lawn. (Rabbits rarely get rabies.) The woman who rang up in a panic because her trash bags had been licked by a raccoon. (Dried saliva won't transmit the virus.)

And Bob Callahan, who called one recent morning to report a raccoon, "moving pretty slow, I'd never seen one that sluggish" across his Springfield lawn. By the time Warden William F. Tanner arrived, the raccoon had vanished down a storm sewer, only to pop up again several times before the day was out. (Raccoons, the wardens say, use the storm sewers like superhighways.)

The raccoon's return appearance prompted several more telephone calls and at least one midday neighborhood posse. "We've all got little kids out here," said Callahan that morning as Warden Tanner searched in vain for a pair of beady eyes underneath a back yard tool shed. "Of course we're worried."

There's reason to be worried: Fairfax and Montgomery counties are in the middle of the worst rabies epidemic in memory. They lead the nation, followed distantly by Loudoun County and Frederick and Washington counties in Maryland, in rabies cases reported this year. The number of confirmed cases, mostly in raccoons, is, according to an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, "just the tip of the iceberg." Animal wardens say the problem is likely to worsen by midsummer when raccoons begin delivering their litters.

In Fairfax alone, Amity and his staff have trapped and tested more than 1,500 animals for rabies in the last 1 1/2 years. Nearly a quarter of those animals had rabies. That's enough to make wardens come quickly when someone like Daniel Bacon of Great Falls calls to report that his short-haired mutt, Starsky, has been chomping on a dead fox.

The fox turned out to be rabid, and Starsky is now doing time--the 90-day quarantine mandatory for dogs with a current rabies vaccination. Starsky was lucky. In Fairfax, unvaccinated dogs who have been exposed to rabies are killed at the animal shelter.

Despite the problems, health officials say residents needn't panic. Contact with rabid animals is avoidable if adequate precautions are taken: being aware of rabies' warning signs and keeping family and pets away from wild animals, they advise, can virtually eliminate the chances of exposure. Not everyone is listening.

Warden Tanner and his colleagues say that household dogs and cats with and without vaccinations still are running loose in many neighborhoods. And there are still some people feeding raccoons table scraps from the back door.

"People have to realize that all animals aren't God's gift to their families," says Kenneth L. Crawford, chief of the veterinary division of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "I'm very worried about what's going to happen in two months when children get out of school and start going into parks and alleys--children who haven't been warned that that cute little raccoon is not a friend. We've got wall-to-wall subdivisions and a rabies problem side by side. This is a very real threat to public health."

Cruising those wall-to-wall subdivisions five days a week in Fairfax County, in a spotless white van outfitted with aluminum cages, heavy gloves, extender poles, several cans of Purina pet food and a coffee can for catching bats, is Warden Tanner.

On a recent day he picked up one dead raccoon, inspected one squashed skunk too flattened to be bagged, pried a sickly bat loose from a screen, and caged a squirrel with a leg fracture. The squirrel (the animals rarely get rabies) died before making it back to the animal shelter.

Tanner, a 26-year-old rookie from rural Orange, Va., has never been attacked by a rabid animal, but his colleagues have been charged by raccoons, chased by skunks and chewed out by pet owners who don't believe Fido should have to suffer through a rabies vaccination regardless of the current epidemic.

The reluctance to take precautions is baffling to animal wardens but somewhat understandable given the history of rabies in the Washington area. Until recently the region was relatively free of the rampant raccoon and skunk rabies that have plagued Georgia, Florida and parts of the Midwest for decades. The current outbreak is thought to have arrived with the transport of rabid raccoons from Georgia by hunters a few years ago.

With the exception of Alexandria, rabid animals, especially raccoons, have been found from Glover Park to Prince George's County. Health officials say that a jurisdiction without reported cases simply may not be testing.

While almost any warmblooded animal can catch and transmit rabies, it may be some comfort to know that not all animals are equally likely to succumb.

Wolves and foxes, for example, are highly susceptible, as are raccoons and skunks. Oppossum and woodchucks are much less so, although both Maryland and Virginia have reported a few rabid woodchucks this year. Rabbits and rodents, like squirrels, almost never catch the disease, nor do wildfowl. Bats are so susceptible, however, that they are considered rabid unless proved otherwise. Man has about a 15 percent chance of catching the virus if exposed, but that 15 percent can be deadly.

In the Washington area it is the raccoon, quasidomestic, cute, curious and a longtime marauder of back yard trash cans and dogfood dishes, that is fueling the rabies epidemic. Fairfax, which had no reported cases of animal rabies in 1981, has reported 132 so far this year, all but 5 of them in raccoons. Montgomery reported one-fourth of all the rabid raccoon cases in the nation last year.

According to epidemiologist Kenneth W. Bernard of the Centers for Disease Control, the following precautions should be observed:

Any animal bite, whether from wild, stray or domestic animals, should be reported to a local health department as soon as possible, as should any nonbite exposure--contact through an open wound or mucous membrane with wet saliva from a potentially rabid animal.

Wild animals exhibiting unusual behavior--too friendly, too slow or simply out at the wrong time of day--should be reported to the local animal warden. "If a skunk walks up to you in broad daylight, chances are it's ill," says Bernard.

Because some infected animals do not appear ill, contact with any wild animal should be avoided. Pets and domestic animals should be vaccinated and pets should not be allowed outdoors unsupervised.

"The way things are now," says Warden Tanner, "if I had a dog I'd never let him out of my sight."