HOWEVER SOPHISTICATED the fine art of firefighting may have become, there is still one basic thing you expect of a fire chief: that you can find him. Little wonder, then, that after Mayor Barry couldn't raise his own fire chief for the better part of a week, the chief is now the retired chief-- and each man is still burning.

Whatever personnel or chain-of-command problems Norman Richardson may have had with city hall, his disappearing act was childish and reckless, as well as an embarrassment to what is, by all national firefighting standards, one of the best fire departments in the country. No responsible city administration can tolerate vanishing Cabinet members, least of all a fire or police chief; certainly if they can't stand the heat, they should get out of the you-know-what--but not without serving notice.

It is true that police and fire chiefs, in their roles as front-line defenders of the public, may find themselves caught between their own sense of mission and commitment to their ranks and the orders or policy decisions of their superiors. But that's life in a command post--and so much for this latest melodrama. More interesting and significant is the next task of appointing a new fire chief who is able to withstand the pressures of intramural tensions in the ranks--and who will pick up the phone when the mayor calls.