Heaven help anyone whose fate depends on the District of Columbia's ambulance service. A well-credentialed task force has taken a close look at the city's emergency corps and has found it a nightmare on wheels. It is inadequately staffed, poorly trained, ill-equipped, misdirected and all too often alarmingly catatonic. That's the condition reported by the task force of doctors, nurses and D.C. fire officials who conducted a survey after emergency room personnel from local hospitals expressed deep concern to Mayor Barry about the ambulance services. It is also a municipal outrage that no self-respecting mayor should abide for one more day.

What a hideous prospect: a life-or-death call to 911 -- which itself has been known to drop dead and switch to taped messages before providing any live assistance -- and then reliance on uncertified help. The report found that 42 percent of the ambulance workers surveyed did not have current CPR certification. And that's if you're lucky enough to get an ambulance; otherwise the fire department sends an engine company. These companies are manned by a 1,700-member force of city firefighters -- not one of whom, according to the study, had current CPR certification or training to give preliminary treatment. For that matter, 98 percent of the force was found not to have had training for even the lowest level required in the ambulance service.

The task force did find some explanation for the inept staff -- and it, too, is unacceptable: "Currently, individuals are being hired without appropriate medical experience . . . without appropriate personal screening interviews and without a minimum command of the English language." What's going on here?

There are the old excuses about poor pay for employees and abuses of the system by residents who call for services when injuries are minor. There's the one about the residency requirement, too, to the effect that not enough qualified people can be found living inside the District line. But these cannot be allowed to cover a failure of municipal responsibility. Talk about an emergency! Mayor Barry's got a Class-A, all-points disaster on his hands -- and this morning won't be too early to do whatever it takes to respond.