No government service is more important than emergency response. When you call 911, you need and expect the fire truck, squad car or ambulance to arrive immediately. And yet in the District, it is not uncommon to be put on hold.

Last year 190,145 calls to 911 were abandoned because callers could not get through promptly. That's almost one in five calls.

A fatal fire near Dupont Circle at dawn on Jan. 15 has given us a close look at the 911 system, which is operated by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. The problem, disturbingly, is not limited to chronic understaffing or somewhat antiquated technology. Rather, it extends to the leadership of the police department.

At a D.C. Council hearing last month, D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey said:

* His department never hired the 15 civilian operators he previously had testified had been hired.

* The department never has had more than 86 call takers even though he has stated in the past that it had 106. Currently, only 76 operators are on the job.

* The average time 911 callers were on hold to report the fatal Jan. 15 fire was 60 seconds.

* According to phone logs, only five operators were taking calls at the time of the fire.

A professional analysis of the 911 system last year advised that 98 call takers would be needed to prevent 911 callers from being put on hold. That study also recommended a staff of 11 call takers for the shift during which the Jan. 15 Dupont Circle fire occurred. On Feb. 4 Ramsey told the council that 13 call takers were on duty during the shift in question. Two weeks later he told a community meeting that only seven were taking calls. Records produced the following week showed that only five operators were on the phones when the first three calls came in. Each of those calls was abandoned. One of those abandoned calls was from a next-door neighbor, who was disconnected while on hold when the fire burned through his telephone line.

The day after the fire, police advised Mayor Anthony Williams that emergency response took four minutes. In fact, it took almost 10 minutes.

The police waited weeks to interview people who called 911 that morning and were put on hold; they have never interviewed most of the residents of the house that burned. Nor did police bother to obtain phone records until after council members demanded them. Police also waited almost a month to obtain a videotape of the street front on which the fire occurred.

Between 5:58 a.m. and 6:04 a.m. on Jan. 15, 11 calls were made to 911 to report the Dupont Circle fire.

What happened?

According to Ramsey, five of the 13 call takers were simply "unplugged," and three others were on "authorized" breaks. On Thursday, the chief finally fired five police officers and two civilians who were among those on duty when the fire began -- but not before he had left D.C. citizens on hold for nearly 50 days before taking action.

Another delayed response. Is anyone surprised?

-- Phil Mendelson

is an at-large member

of the D.C. Council.