THE AREA'S FIRST real chill this weel caused shudders of a second kind for those who face the frightening prospect of fuel oil bills they won't be able to afford when the real winter cold comes to town. What will happen to people in apartments and homes who cannot meet the strict payment schedules of distributors and suppliers? Just as a city finally acts to help a desperately ill man lying on a sidewalk grate, governments in this region should be ready to rescue residents who may be freezing inside their dwellings.

There is no telling when or if the Carter administration will untangle its energy proposals, or what amounts of federal aid may eventually be made available. What is certain is that whatever federal money is appropriated will not reach local governments until late in the winter season. Fortunately, the local governments in this area, through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, are not waiting around to see what Congress and the administration do. They have gone ahead with work on a coordinated plan to prepare for the impacts of heating oil price increases.

At a meeting this week, representatives of every local government in the region agreed on a number of initial steps. First, they will draw up a list of possible sources of local financial help, public and private, to meet emergency oil payments for the poor and those on low fixed incomes. Officcials also will identify and prepare emergency shelters and seek arrangements with oil dealers for emergency deliveries and referrals for homewoners and landlords.

Rockville Major William E. Hanna Jr. also proposed that instead of area governments' trying to establish various different lines of credit for assistance, the region should set up a single fund to make payments. The local governments each would contribute; then, once the eligibility of residents or landlords is established, payments could be made efficiently, Fairfax County Supervisor John P. Shacochis also noted that the dwellings of residents evacuated even temporarily to shelters may suffer expensive damage. Provisions to get oil quickly to these units also should be made.

This kind of planning is important, since about one-third of all housing units in the area use heating oil. A single-family house may use 900 to 1,000 gallons a year, an apartment unit about half that. A problem of these dimensions cannot be set aside until the federal government responds.That is why the Council of Governments' response deserves the urgent attention and participation of every member jurisdiction.