When it starts snowing in Washington things like the summit, Nicaragua, nuclear waste or whatever is the worry of the moment tend to take a back seat. That's because the people who are paid to worry about such things start worrying instead about how they are going to get to work and, more important, how they are going to get home.

Although many private-sector types panic as much as any federal worker, the attention always centers on how the government -- our town's primary employer -- copes or (more likely) fails to cope with sleet or snow. For that reason Uncle Sam is going to try a new approach this snow season, because nothing in the past has worked to everybody's, or hardly anybody's, satisfaction.

The new thing is called a zoned offense. It works like this:

If it snows or continues to snow once the workday has started, government offices will try to keep people at their desks until normal quitting time, or at least until there are enough buses and trains to handle an early dismissal.

If Uncle Sam decides to send workers home, when they leave will depend in most cases on where they live, not where they work.

For purposes of this exercise everyone is either a Zone 1, Zone 2, Zone 3, or Zone 4 person, regardless of rank or political affiliation.

Those who live farthest from the District of Columbia will be sent home first, with city dwellers left to turn out the lights when they get the okay to go.

Under the dismissal plan, Zone 1 people will be the first to go. They are those who live in Frederick, Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel, Calvert, St. Marys, Charles, Stafford, Prince William, Fauquier or Loudoun counties.

Zone 2: Anyone who lives outside the Capital Beltway in Montgomery, Prince George's or Fairfax counties.

Zone 3: Anyone who lives inside the Beltway (but outside the District) in areas such as Alexandria, Falls Church, Arlington, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, College Park, Takoma Park, Suitland and Forest Heights.

Zone 4: The last to be sent home will be people who live in the District.Health Insurance Deadline

Federal workers have one week to pick a health plan. At 1 p.m. tomorrow on WNTR radio (1050 AM) Walton Francis of the Washington Consumers Checkbook will answer questions about best buys for workers and retirees.

Protest Hot Line

The American Federation of Government Employees union has arranged with the telephone company to send protest telegrams to member of Congress. The idea is to swamp Capitol Hill with telegrams from federal workers and retirees who are worried about budget-cutting plans that range from reducing retiree cost-of-living adjustments to freezing within-grade pay raises for workers.

AFGE's Social Security local in Baltimore says that federal workers, or anyone else, may call (800) 257-4900. Ask for Protest Hot Line Operator 9292. Tell them your beef and who you want notified. The cost is $4.50 for the first mail-a-gram (a telegram delivered by mail), and $4 for additional messages. The hot line will be open until Dec. 16. Members of Congress may not like it, but the union and the telephone company thank participants in advance.