THIS METROPOLITAN REGION is lucky to have two very impressive emergency medical treatment centers - the Maryland Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore, affiliated with the University of Maryland Hospital, and the Shock Trauma Service in the District, a part of the Washington Hospital Center. Both, according to reports from the American Academy of Surgeons, are fully equipped to perform complicated treatment; both rate high on the national scale for emergency medical services. The care that each provides is crucial to saving critically injured people - treatment that is most often measured in minutes. So what would you suppose is a major problem for these units? Quite simply, which treatment unit ought to receive the people who are severely injured on the roads of Maryland.

At present, critically injured people picked up by Maryland State Police Medevac helicopters on any of Maryland's roadways are flown to Baltimore for care. The only trouble is that people injured on Maryland roads close to Washington are also sent to Baltimore - even though they may be less than 5 minutes away from the Washington unit. As an example of what this actually means, a critically injured person on Wisconsin Avenue, just over the District line in Bethesda, would be taken by Maryland State Police helicopter to Baltimore for treatment - even though it takes 15 minutes more to get there than to the Washington unit. And, severely injured people in Charles County, Md., will be flown to Baltimore rather than Washington, though it takes more time. The reason for all this is that the Maryland Shock Trauma Unit, which controls the emergency service helicopters, wants all of its resources to be used in the state. So, it does not allow the Maryland State Police helicopters to take patients anywhere but to the Baltimore unit.

It strikes us that there is a rather simple solution to this problem. Decisions about where to send critically injured persons should be made on the basis of geography, and the closer facility should be used whenever possible. That approach should eliminate any unnecessary delay in transporting patients who need immediate treatment. No doubt there will be some matters that the state legislature will need to iron out if the geographic approach is used. As an example, interstate licenses would have to be given to the helicopter staff so that it could treat patients on the way to either facility. But such matters shouldn't be a real stumbling block. If there is going to be shock trauma treatment on a regional basis, this jurisdictional squabble must be resolved. The entire region - Virginia, Maryland and the District - rely heavily on both these centers. They need to figure out how to share patients. It's a matter of life and death.