There's an old joke about a man who, at trhe depths of despair, cannot get friends or family to pay any attention to him. As a last resort, he calls Dial-A-Prayer -- and gets put on hold.

The story came to mind the other day with the news that people calling the District's emergency 911 number during a busy time would get a recording telling them they had reached the police department and that their call would be answered "in turn."

City officials had a variety of explanations for why this approach to emergencies was an improvement.

A police spokesman said it was "to let people know that the line will be picked up."

That's nice to know. Of course, in other area jurisdictions they let people know by actually picking up.

In a call to 911 in the District on Tuesday at 3:45 p.m. -- which police say is the slowest time of day for such calls -- the phone rang five times, the two-sentence recording was completed, the phone rang three more times and finally a man answered. Calls to 911 in Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties at the same time got answers from humans in one or two rings.

City officials explained that the recording is part of a new, advanced $1.5 million system that automatically displays a caller's telephone number and address on a computer screen in case of cutoffs. Fairfax and Montgomery counties have these systems but do not use a recording.

But the issue of the recording actually begs the real question: Is the District's response time all it should be?

D.C. City Administrator Thomas Downs said last week that it is impossible to answer every call on the first or second ring.

Officials of the Fraternal Order of Police, the police officers' union, dispute this, saying that the District has made conscious decisions on manpower that have undermined even the advanced 911 system.

"No matter what kind of a system you have, if you don't have the people and if they are not trained properly, it won't work," said Jim Connell, FOP chief shop steward in the communications division. "They put a brand-new engine in an old rusted-out Ford."

Inspector Donald H. Christian, director of the D.C. police department's division of communications, disagreed. "Manpower is not an issue," he said.

The 13 positions for phone answerers is enough, and more would not make things better, Christian said.

"Irrespective of how many positions you have, you could never have enough to take all the calls," he said. The difference between the city and the suburban response time is a result of the volume of calls in the District compared with the other areas, Christian said. He added that if there were 20 positions, many of the answerers would be sitting around doing nothing much of the time.

However, Connelly said that it is not unusual for only three or four persons to be staffing the 911 lines. All the spots were filled last Thursday when reporters were brought in to look at the new system, because employes were asked to work double shifts for compensatory time, he said. Christian denied this, saying that all those working Thursday had been scheduled to work then.

Another personnel issue the FOP raises is whether police officers or civilians should staff the 911 lines. Connelly and Gary Hankins, FOP labor committee chairman, said that an effort to replace police officers with civilians on the lines started in 1979 when Mayor Marion Barry visited the operation and said he wanted to see more of those officers on the streets.

Hankins argued that police officers who know what it is like on the streets are more capable of assessing emergency situations and determining how to respond to them. The civilians are not trained like police officers, and using civilians was in part an effort to save money at the expense of quality, he charged.

"The problems began when politicians got involved," Hankins said.

Christian estimated that there are about three police officers for every two civilians staffing the phone lines. But he argued that the civilians can do just as good a job as police officers, if properly trained. The benefit of police experience on the street is a "valid point," he said, "but some civilians have brought themselves to the same level" by training and experience on the phones.

Civilians manning the phones may make about $16,000, compared with around $30,000 for a police officer, Christian said.

D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who used the 911 number several years ago when he was stabbed, called the recording idea "absolutely ridiculous" and said that getting a recording would have exacerbated the shock of his attack.

Downs, on the other hand, said he would be more comfortable getting a recording "than waiting for the third ring."

But so far, anyway, the real question is whether people in crisis are having to wait too long to hear a voice of any kind.