IF THERE IS ONE greeting of the season most

of us would rather do without, it's that depressing rumble of the basement furnace gobbling up dollars by the hour. Still, there is comfort to be taken, not just in the warmth a working furnace provides, but in the knowledge that it is indeed working--because tens of thousands of families right in this region may not be able to keep their heat going this winter.

There are some signs that procedures for helping low-income families with heating emergencies may be improving. Not only has the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments been contributing valuable expertise and assistance over the last few years, but the various local governments themselves are preparing better.

In the District, for example, the local government has simplified procedures and devised some imaginative services to spread the word. This month, the city's energy office is taking applications for its Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program that provides financial aid to certain households to meet heating bills and is handling inquiries by telephone.

Next Friday, a new energy information center-- with displays and helpful tips for consumers on how to save energy and reduce utility bills--will open in the Lansburgh Cultural Center at 420 7th St. NW. On Dec. 15, applicants for emergency financial aid will have access to all facilities in the new center, including an "Energy Theater" where slide shows, films and workshops will be presented.

The true test of these programs, of course, lies not in how well any movies or displays are received, but rather in how efficiently and sensibly governments respond. Certainly there is a strong case for quick-crisis assistance to families in immediate distress, but that should be different from a program that distributes money to people whose fuel bills aren't being paid merely because they are paying other bills first and relying on the government to pick up the tab for heat.

Other steps that have been suggested by the Council of Governments include emergency shelters around the region, arrangements between governments and oil dealers for emergency deliveries as well as for different lines of credit, and requests for the cooperation of landlords. If these and other initiatives continue, the number of tragic stories and the degree of human misery could decline in heart-warming proportions.