IF WE MAY TURN back the pages of history -- and the thermostats as well -- to mid-january, you may remember that tens of thousands of families were frantic and freezing, unable to pay for fuel and without any notion of when or whether their weeks-old requests for government help would be answered. Uncle Sam, still recovering from another rash of regulatory complications, was too incapacitated to answer the alarms; and state and local governments were too busy picking up the pieces of another jigsaw puzzle of rules dropped on them by federal government. But today, for the most part, some help has made its way to families in trouble; and before springtime turns a young administration's fancy to other things, some decisions on the purposes of this aid program are in order.

That the "winter poor" need some help to keep from freezing is not in question. But the type of aid is open to debate: Should the federal assistance program concentrate on emergency help, or should it continue becoming more of an ongoing subsidy for people who have come to depend on the money? either way, because the amount of money available to go around is not likely to keep up with inflation and higher fuel costs, fewer people are going to be helped.

Already the rules have changed each year since the program began in 1977 with a one-time appropriation of $200 million to prevent utilties from shutting off heat in the homes of poor people who had not paid their bills. Administration of the program has shifted back and forth from Washington to the states and the allocation has run from too late to unusually quick -- leading a number of state admininstrators to say they would settle now for a year or two of stability.

Obviously there is a strong case for some forms of quick crisis assistance to families in immediate distress. But were the government to emphasize help merely to those threatened with heat cutoffs, it could wind up giving an advantage to those who put their fuel bills at the bottom of the household heap. Or, as a recent article by staff writer Dan Balz reported, continued emphasis on aid as a form of income security net amounts to another welfare program.

There is a third course that deserves serious consideration: phase out this program. After all, it began as a shock absorber to cushion those initial, sudden oil-price jolts. Now heat as one part of the cost of living should take its expensive place among the expenses addressed by traditional welfare aid. Coupled with continuing state and local efforts to meet sudden human emergencies, this approach would make much more sense than a constantly changing, heavily regulated -- and re-regulated -- federal fuel aid subsidy program that could take on a much-too-long and costly life of its own.