IT IS FRIGID -- and more than 50,000 families in this region are frantic, at wit's end, without money for fuel and without any notion of when or whether their weeks-old requests for government assistance will be answered. The reason for this frightening uncertainty is as old as winter itself: the inability of government -- that catchall word for a can of bureaucratic worms -- to get its act together. But winter won't wait. Is there no official sense of emergency?

Federal assistance for the "winter poor" has been little and late before; but last year, for a change, there was some sense of urgency in both the administration and Congress about getting fuel assistance out to the states before winter set in. Congress allocated direct grants to recipients of federal Supplemental Security Income -- aged, blind or disabled poor people; and with unusual speed, the administration mailed out some four million checks. So why not this year?

Start with Congress, which voted last summer to earmark money from the new windfall profits tax on oil for the fuel aid plan and, at the same time, shifted administration of the program to the Department of Health and Human Services and tossed in a new set of sliding payment scales for the states, which make distributions according to applications from their local governments. Summer went away before the federal government issued new regulations for the states, which were required to submit "implementation" plans by Dec. 15 (when, in some parts of the country, the air can get pretty nippy even in a mild year).

The states, too, turned out to have "processes" to put in place to carry out the congressional intent. Because the federal regulations were so much more complicated this year, administrators explain, the state and local computers haven't been able to belch out "benefit tables" and other data with any promptitude, either.

How many empty oil tanks and freezing families will it take to shake up any man, woman or machine in government that can get those checks out? If Uncle Sam is too incapacitated to answer the alarm, then state and local governments -- along with fuel companies, bankers and anybody else with an ounce of feeling and a capacity to help -- have to rise to this emergency.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which has contributed valuable expertise during previous fuel emergencies, already has lists of possible sources of local financial help, public and private, to meet emergency oil payments for the poor and those on low fixed incomes. Other steps include getting emergency shelters ready, seeking arrangements with oil dealers for emergency deliveries and different lines of credit and enlisting the cooperation of landlords.

It is too late -- and too cold -- for any more paper-shuffling.