IN AN EMERGENCY the telephone number to call is the same almost anywhere these days: 911. But as callers have discovered and others have read or heard, the response may differ dramatically from one jurisdiction to another. In the District of Columbia, a record of disastrous responses could be attributed to poor training of emergency crews and to retention of ambulance services under a fire chief who refused to acknowledge serious problems (and a mayor who refused to acknowledge his chief's shortcomings but who finally did find a way to work around the chief and still retain him, for reasons that escape us). But now other officials are moving to require better training, from paramedical skills to how-to-get-there drills.

Meanwhile, somewhat similar difficulties have caused grief in another local jurisdiction. A week ago, a Prince William County man died after it took 32 minutes for volunteer rescue personnel to reach his home and after the two squads that did arrive did not have anyone trained in the use of special life-support equipment, according to records. When the closest rescue squad did not respond to a dispatcher's call, a second squad was called. This procedure was repeated until six squads had been called -- two of which responded.

Earlier this month, the county's 911 system failed to function for 45 minutes. Residents also have complained that paid personnel are not on duty 24 hours a day and that advanced life-support help is not available in any consistent fashion. County Executive Robert S. Noe has designated the county's fire and rescue services a major issue for this year, and some of the county supervisors agree. The danger here is that the debate could degenerate into a classic volunteer-versus-paid-firefighter battle that gets nowhere.

Whether it's downtown Washington or the booming outskirts of the region, emergency rescue services have got to respond quickly and well -- without politically inspired excuses for failures.