ONE OF the longest-running administrative atrocities of the Marion Barry administration is the chronic inability of the D.C. ambulance service to Get There in a Hurry. People have waited in pain and/or died while far too many minutes have elapsed between calls to 911 and the arrival of proper help. Almost every conceivable bureaucratic excuse has been trotted out by officials over the years -- many of them followed by flow-chart reorganizations, training programs and even maps for geographically ignorant drivers who have been known to lose their way as well as their would-be patients. The latest tales of horror came to light in reports by WUSA-TV's Dave Statter in which one patient died and another waited in pain for nearly two hours for an ambulance.

The first incident occurred on Oct. 8 in the 3500 block of Rittenhouse Street NW, where a woman was suffering an asthma attack. The time elapsed between the original call to 911 and the arrival of an ambulance crew was 36 minutes. The woman died that night at Sibley Hospital of complications resulting from the attack. Last Tuesday night a Northeast woman waited in pain with a stomach ailment for nearly two hours before an ambulance arrived.

Inexcusable as each of these incidents is, there's no stopping the flow of excuses from city officials. The latest move -- made after last week's death -- changes the way the fire department responds to high-priority emergency calls. Dispatchers are now required to send a fire engine, an advanced life-support unit and a basic life-support unit to these calls. The idea, apparently is to make sure that trained paramedical help gets to the scene. This assumes, of course, that the priorities are established reasonably accurately and that the crews can figure out how to get to an address quickly.

Fire Chief Ray Alfred also said last week that a mistake involving the department's new computer-aided dispatch system caused the long wait in Northeast. That may be, but as any competent computer might tell you, human programming has more than a little to do with computer error.

What Mayor Barry never could accomplish -- ensuring efficient, competent responses to emergencies -- should be a matter of urgent attention for the next mayor. Whatever else is on the agenda, making 911/ambulance service work is nothing less than a matter of life and death.