THEODORE COLEMAN -- Washington's firing-proof fire chief -- has been saved again. Marion Barry, who considers every criticism of the chief all the more reason to retain him that much longer, at least has had the good sense to relieve Mr. Coleman of further responsibility for the city's frighteningly erratic emergency ambulance service. The chief will remain free to continue impeding any efficient, responsive administration of other functions in the department, but those who have been trying to improve the ambulance services will report directly to City Administrator Carol Thompson. If Miss Thompson rises as well as she has to other responsibilities at city hall, better things should start happening when you dial 911 for help.

The mayor has also announced that the consortium of District of Columbia hospitals will take a greater role in training paramedics and dispatchers and will conduct field inspections of the ambulance service. In addition, Mayor Barry is declaring an "emergency procurement" to sign contracts immediately for dispatcher and paramedic training. He will ask the council for an easing of residency requirements for paramedics too.

The big shame, of course, is that it has taken this long to begin to do all these things -- thanks to a fire chief who refused to recognize the severity of his problems and who prefers to blame union leaders, the media, council members, doctors, lawyers and any other group that has looked and found big trouble. Mayor Barry has always turned a deaf ear to any suggestion that Chief Coleman should go and still refuses to associate the chief with any shortcomings in the department. Other department heads surely must wish they enjoyed the same administrative immunity. But perhaps they understand why it shouldn't be granted to anyone, which the mayor apparently does not.