CHALK IT UP to a bad connection, but for a good 13 years now, we have been reading any number of baffling reports about the inability of Ma Bell and America to make 911 the national emergency telephone number. What on earth could be so complicated about hooking up such a system? Yet only this week comes news from Northern Virginia -- the missing link in a system operating in the District and the Maryland suburbs -- that efforts there have collapsed. The explanations are marvelous in their mystery:

According to one official of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Virginia, "Local jurisdictions in Northern Virginia weren't confident of the willingness and ability of C&P to be a full partner." A news report also notes that "officials close to the 2-1/2-year-old project" in this region were claiming that Alexandria's recent decision not to join "created a domino effect that led to Fairfax County's rejection of the system Monday." A Commerce Department spokesman blames American Telephone & Telegraph for the delays nationally.

The story gets worse -- with Northern Virginia officials charging that C&P sent 17 different representatives to regional meetings on 911, but not one was there from the first to the last session. But C&P is claiming an unswerving committment to 911, even if its efforts to reach out didn't touch anyone in the local governments. The same people who can offer you a castle full of princess phones, touch-tone dialing, conference calls and loudspeakers that let everyone in the other person's office her you when you think you're on with only one, these same folks just can't swing a 911 agreement.

Someone has to generate a sense of emergency of 911 proportions.