AT SOME POINT, D.C. public safety officials will get their story straight. As of now, much confusion still surrounds what went on in the city's communications center, where 911 calls are handled, while Christopher Duncan Smith suffered fatal burns over his entire body during an early-morning rowhouse fire last month. Pinning down the number of operators on hand that morning hasn't been easy. This much is known: For a period of two minutes and nine seconds after the first emergency call about the fire, operators apparently were available but not answering the phone. "That is just unacceptable," Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey told a community association meeting on Friday. "I guarantee you that I'll get to the bottom of it." The chief must be held to that promise. If members of the first-response team are nowhere to be found when they're needed, what does that say about the state of emergency preparedness in the nation's capital?

What is the real story? First we were told that 13 police operators were working on the morning of the fire and that all were busy when the first calls came in at 5:58 and 5:59. As a result, the callers were put on hold, and eventually they hung up, officials said. But then the police department released a statement acknowledging that calls had not been answered in a timely manner but saying that the center "had 11 call-takers available" that morning. Next, Chief Ramsey, in the department's latest version, told Friday's community gathering that 14 operators had been on hand but only six operators were actually answering 911 calls at the time. But get this: Two of the remaining eight, scheduled to get off work at 6 a.m., had "unplugged" five minutes early, the chief said. Two other operators were on authorized work breaks, he said. As for the remaining four? Chief Ramsey suggested they were on duty but not taking calls. So what were they doing?

Yesterday, police Inspector Ira Grossman, the communications center's fifth director in five years, told this page that he has launched an investigation that will answer all questions surrounding the center's handling of 911 calls that morning. His report, which he expects to complete in less than 30 days, will be sent to Chief Ramsey for review. The chief, in turn, should make public the findings and the steps he will take to clean up a long-festering problem in his department. Until then, the public is left to wonder whether the promised self-examination will lead to corrective action and self-improvement or -- once the furor dies down -- a quiet acceptance of clock-watching operators too self-absorbed to answer the phone. The answer is in Chief Ramsey's hands.