THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT doesn's seem to hear it, but in one out of every three dwellings in this area, the sound of winter is ominously audible in the basements -- where oil furnaces have started humming and guzzling through expensive gallons of fuel. Many homeowners, as well as apartment-dwellers, know only too well that it is just a matter of weeks before they will be confronted with fuel bills they can't afford. But must they freeze before Congress and the administration respond with emergency assistance?

There is still no clear indication of when or if the administration will untangle its energy proposals, or how aid will be made available around the country by the federal government, let alone by the local jurisdictions. But if the latest reports on last year's help to the poor are any indicator of what's in store, state and local governments had best redouble their efforts to get aid out before tanks go empty and heat is shut off. Meanwhile, federal allocation formulas need a closer look: llast year's bore little relation to the final distribution of aid. In this area, poor families living in the wealthier suburbs had better luck getting federal help with heating bills than families from poorer neighborhoods.

More than one-fourth of the federal grants for emergency heating assistance in this region went to Montgomery County, where fewer than one-tenth of the area's poor families live. Families in the District, which houses two-thirds of the area's poor, got less than half of the emergency aid given out locally. These contrasts reflect varying degrees of efficiency among local poverty agencies, as well as some unrealistic federal timetables for spending U.S. assistance money.

But time is up. It's too late for any more slow and complicated federal assistance formulas that compound the problems of local governments. Those tanks of oil are going to cost maybe twice what they did last year. The alarms should be sounding now -- not when that first sad story of a freezing family breaks.