THE COUNCIL and Mayor Williams have a chance to correct a D.C. law that confers inferior status on survivors of a firefighter or police officer killed in the line of duty. Actually, city leaders had an opportunity to resolve the inequity months ago. But as Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), principal sponsor of corrective legislation, put it, "balls were dropped."

Mrs. Debra Carter knows how unfair D.C. law can be. Her husband, Sgt. John Carter, died in 1997 fighting a fire in Northwest. That's when she learned that her survivor's annuity would be 40 percent of her late husband's salary, or approximately $15,432 per year.

What she didn't know is that the amount would have been 100 percent had Sgt. Carter been a firefighter in Baltimore, Boston or New York City, according to Raymond Sneed, president of Local No. 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. That's because those cities rightly believe that the survivor of a firefighter or police officer who perishes in the line of duty deserves special recognition and support. Ironically, if Sgt. Carter had retired in the District on disability in 1997, he would have received an annuity of about $29,435, or 66 2/3 percent of his salary.

Last July, council members Ambrose and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) proposed to raise the survivor's annuity to 100 percent. The bill, offered late in the legislative session and during an election year, went nowhere. Now, two more firefighters have been killed while doing their jobs, leaving behind families to face an unjust law.

Give Mrs. Ambrose credit for trying. She reintroduced her bill in January with several co-sponsors. But it's stalled. The council can't take further action without a D.C. Retirement Board actuarial study of the bill, and the board says it can't act unless it's asked by the mayor and given money to do the work. On Jan. 14, the council asked Mayor Williams to get the retirement board started. Nearly five months have passed. In response to an editorial page inquiry on Wednesday, a mayoral appointee said, "The letter will be sent today." The mayor also issued a statement reaffirming his support for the bill's benefits, which are retroactive to Dec. 31, 1996. The study may be completed within the next three weeks. Then the council can act. Meanwhile, widows and survivors wait.