More than 50,000 needy families who have applied for funds to heat their homes in the District, Virginia and Maryland have been kept waiting during this month's cold wave because of government red tape.

With temperatures running 20 degrees below normal, local officials have been deluged with frantic calls from needy families, some of whom have been waiting nearly a month to receive their checks. Last night's forecast called for lows of 14 in the city and 5 outside the Capital Beltway, marking the fifth straight day the temperature has remained below freezing and adding to the problems faced by those unable to pay their fuel bills.

In the District, Maryland and Virginia at least 70,000 households have applied for funds to buy fuel but only 16,000 checks have been sent out. Most of the $67 million allocated for the three jurisdictions remains unspent because of complicated changes in the law that state officials must administer. b

In Maryland, between 5,000 and 6,000 of the 28,000 applications for fuel funds recieved by Jan. 2 had been processed as of last week. In Virginia, 10,000 of 38,000 had recieved checks or had them sent directly to vendors as of yesterday.

In the District, 2,000 households have applied but no checks have been sent because the city has yet to receive the $5.7 million in allocated federal funds. Even if it had the money, it could not distribute it officials said, because the District government has yet to approve its contract with an outside computer firm to process the applications.

County officials in Maryland are blaming the delays in processing applications on state computer foul-ups, while state officials say the new federal regulations are at fault. The U.S. Department of Healt and Human Services, which oversees the grants to the states, in turn points the finger at Congress, which last summer changed the way in which emergency fuel funds are administered.

"All day long today, I've got nine phones ringing," said R. Hal Silvers, director of Prince George's County's office of emergency preparedness. "People are calling asking, 'Please get me assistance for gas . . . oil' -- people who've already filled out applications, people who've been waiting since Dec. 1."

Of 1,160 applications submitted by needy families in Prince George's as of last Friday, Silvers said, only 235 have been processed. The problem prompted County Executive Lawrence Hogan to warn the state that, "if immediate action is not taken" this winter's home heating assistance program "will soon become a total disaster."

"Basically, there have been delays in getting the program going at all levels," said Maryland Secretary of Human Resources Kalman R. Hettleman. l"What we have is a completely new program. The federal guidelines the whole scheme of benefits and administration is different."

In the past, emergency fuel funds came from the Department of Energy and the Community Services Administration to the states, which basically turned the money over to local governments to pay out. Everyone who qualified by income received the same amount, and the money came from the general treasury.

Last summer, however, Congress voted to earmark funds for the new windfall profits tax on oil for the program. At the same time, Congress shifted its administration to the Department of Health and Human Services, and in place of a flat sum created a sliding payment scale to make more money available to the most needy. The money went to the states which took over the distribution, although applications still are accepted initially by local governments.

Under this year's program, states are authorized to grant up to $750 per household, but the amount varies from state to state and also depends on the kind of dwelling and fuel. The most the District will pay, when it begins its program, will be $500. In Maryland, the figure is $325, while Virginians can receive up to the full $750.

To be eligible to receive any fuel funds in Maryland and the District, a family's gross income cannot exceed $4,910 for one person up to $27,000 for nine. In Virginia, the eligibility limits are 10 percent lower.

The federal government issued its new regulations Oct. 1 and required the states to submit their implementation plans for approval by Dec. 15. "The states were put in a pretty awkward position," said Rose Lapore, the program's regional administrator. "They had to put a lot of processes in place to make sure the intent of Congress was carried out."

"It's considerably more complicated this year, as a result of the federal statute and regulations," said Hettleman. "We didn't write the rules for it but we have to administer it."

The new regulations made the program to complex for local governments to administer, Hettleman said. "In order to manage 120,000 [expected] applications statewide," he said, "we needed some form of centralized data processing controls. Given all that, we've worked very hard on very short notice."

"It's a big complex program to bring up in a very short period of time," said Ray Goodwin, deputy commissioner of the Virginia Health Department, which has also experienced computer delays. "We had a delay in feeding documents into the computer, and we had to assign vendor numbers, which took time. We had some benefit table problems. We're in the process now of catching up."

In shifiting it from one federal agency to another, Congress also changed the program's philosophy, officials said. Instead of providing a grant of "emergency" funds, in effect a handout, it was to provide a "benefit" to help people pay their bills.

States are allowed to use a small percentage of federal funds for emergencies, but according to Silvers, the Prince George's official, it's not nearly enough to meet the demand.

The difference may sound semantic, but not to all.

Theresa Augustono, director of the District program, says that many applicants confuse this year's program with last year's and assume they can receive emergency assistance to avert shut-offs.

"People have had a rude awakening this year," she said.