AFTER SAYING repeatedly that he had no plans to leave the job, D.C. Fire Chief Donald Edwards has formally announced his intention to retire. It is a decision Mayor Anthony Williams eagerly accepted. The District's fire department is a troubled agency that, despite improvements, desperately needs turning around.

In August, a quarter of the District's 16 ladder trucks were out of service, awaiting repair or replacement. Recently the D.C. Fire Department was forced to turn to Prince George's County for boots when the city couldn't find the right sizes for its own firefighters. And after a period of 13 years in which there were no deaths, four D.C. firefighters have died in the past two years. This isn't a record that does the city or the fire chief proud.

A report to Mayor Williams found that the fire department had an inadequate procurement planning program, a weak inventory control system and a poorly supervised procurement staff. Those shortcomings may help explain why the fire department has failed to replace faltering equipment in a timely fashion, even when money earmarked for that purpose was available.

The problems, however, are not limited to faulty firefighting apparatus and outdated communications equipment. The response time and quality of the fire department's emergency medical service need improvement. And the department has also come under fire for not following through on safety recommendations made more than a year ago.

Many of today's problems preceded Donald Edwards's appointment as chief. The city's slow-moving Chief Procurement Office only added to the fire chief's woes. But Chief Edwards is a 30-year veteran D.C. firefighter who was well aware of the department's longstanding deficiencies when he accepted the position two years ago.

Mayor Williams is said to have grown dissatisfied with the pace of change in the department under Chief Edwards's leadership. The mayor now has the chance to appoint a chief with stronger managerial skills who will also approach this critical job with a can-do spirit and a sense of urgency. The fire department and the public deserve no less.