Two of the District's five emergency medic units were forced out of service yesterday because several employes called in sick and could not be replaced. The shortage left Southeast residents without a nearby lifesaving team to serve them, ambulance officials said.

The medic units that suspended service most of yesterday work from Southeast locations, but an ambulance service official said the city's three other units were "strategically rotated" -- or covering larger areas -- to handle that part of the city. Ambulances transport injured or ill persons to hospitals but do not provide advanced treatment.

"We were lucky Christmas was a quiet day," Danny Mott, assistant director of the District's ambulance service, said last night. "We don't want anyone to panic, because we spread out as best we could. We just couldn't find people to replace the inordinate number of those who said they couldn't come in."

Mott said the two medic units were out of service all morning and afternoon. He said one of the two units returned to service about 8 p.m. after operators in the Fire Department's communications office were asked to fill in.

That transfer, however, further depleted the staff of the communications office, which monitors fire calls and directs fire companies. Nine persons usually work in the office at night, but only five were doing so yesterday until four other employes were summoned from home about 9 p.m., officials said. One member of the office said the shortage would have been "very serious" if a major fire had occurred.

"Fortunately, we did not have a heavy workload," Capt. Theodore Holmes, spokesman for the D.C. Fire Department, said last night. "If it had been a normal Friday night, it would have created some problems."

Mott said the emergency service, which has been beset this year with criticism about ambulance response times and dispatchers' efficiency, was nearly forced to reduce the number of medic units available on Thanksgiving Day because of a shortage of employes. He said he plans to prevent yesterday's shortage from recurring New Year's Day.

Mott said the five D.C. medic units in service each day have two paramedics each, who are selected from four platoons of eight medics each. No one from that group of 32 was available yesterday, he said.

"We have a critical manpower shortage, and it seems like it is going to get worse before it gets better," Mott said. "It's not that we were jeopardizing lives yesterday, but we definitely had a situation where we were forced to downgrade service."

Holidays usually prompt increased requests for ambulances, Mott said, and they bring more sick calls from employes. "It's tough, but we're going to have these periodic problems until we can recruit more people, which we're aggressively trying to do."