Few of our public officials are as important to the safety and well-being of all of us as our police officers, firefighters and other public safety employees. They protect us from the threat of crime and the ravages of disaster.

Yet unwittingly, the District of Columbia has been driving away many of our most experienced public safety employees. Since 1980, the District has had a residency requirement that says no new safety personnel can be hired unless they live in the District. And no current employees living in the District can move out.

The aim was simple enough, and the objective was totally appropriate. The city government was concerned that city employees not be lost from the tax base. The thought was that if you work in the District, you ought to live in the District.

Unfortunately, the result has been a public safety disaster. D.C.'s highly skilled police and firefighting personnel have found it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing within the District's city limits (in a recent poll of D.C. police, only 13 percent said they could afford to buy a home in D.C.). Many have simply said enough is enough and left D.C. employment to find work elsewhere.

Those who stayed often have had to resort to setting up make-believe places of residence. In fact, an estimated half of the District's 900 police officers who list themselves as D.C. residents in reality live in Maryland or Virginia. Proceedings have already begun against 14 D.C. firefighters because they are not residents.

This situation is ridiculous. The spectacle of the District's sending out detectives to snoop around neighborhoods to check on police officers' and firefighters' places of residence is shameful. The residency requirement -- however well intentioned -- has clearly gotten out of hand.

Fortunately, there is an answer that can keep both the city government and public safety employees happy.

When I was a city council member in Baltimore, we grappled with this very same issue. The city wanted to maintain its tax base. We looked into a residency requirement -- which I supported. But ultimately we rejected it because of concerns about demoralizing public safety employees and depleting the pool of qualified applicants available for public safety jobs.

We opted instead for a residency "preference" system that brought about many of the desired benefits without the adverse effects to public safety. Residency preference gives those employees who do live in the city an advantage in job advancement over those who live outside it. But it doesn't put an absolute restriction on anyone. Employees can still choose to live where they want.

We decided against the residency requirement in Baltimore. I encourage the D.C. city government to do the same.

With the support of the 1,600-member D.C. Firefighters' Union and 3,600-member police union, I introduced a measure that was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, urging Mayor Barry and the D.C. Council to examine reasonable alternatives such as the residency preference system. We also urged them to drop any cases already pending against D.C. public safety personnel.

I am sensitive to the principle of home rule and the District's desire to run its own affairs. I recognize as well the unique relationship between the federal and District government. Where the interests and concerns of the two overlap, especially in the sensitive area of public safety, cooperation and coordination are essential.

My measure does not order the District to change its residency requirement. But I do hope the District government is sensitive to the threat to the public's safety, and takes the Appropriations Committee's encouragement to heart.

Maintaining the public's safety is one of government's primary responsibilities. The urgency of the situation is clear. -- Barbara Mikulski

is a Democratic senator

from Maryland.

note: signature should not be flush righ