There you are, suddenly thrust into a life- and-death emergency, with telephone in hand: what number do you punch on the Touch- Tone? If you answered, "911," don't forget to have a book or a crossword puzzle on hand to pass the time after the first seven rings or the busy signal, whichever may come first. 911 is coming up zero around the area: we're hearing about far too many callers who either are not getting through or are being left in limbo. Please remember that this is the number we are meant to call with life-and-death emergencies.

Talk about a cruel hoax: no amount of technical or fiscal explanation for these conditions can excuse the failure of the system. It is true, for example, that callers tend to overload the 911 circuits with nonemergency calls. Yet some occurrences may be emergencies in the eye of the caller if not in those of the dispatching crew. And if everyone with a nonemergency call is supposed to use "regular" police and fire phone numbers, why are these number combinations always so forgettable? Why not have an areawide nonemergency number, say, 111?

By and large the human dispatchers behind 911 do their best to respond once you get through to them. But here, too, there have been instances around the region of callers being asked to "hold on" by voices that never return; or of being asked everything from name, rank and serial number to how to spell "H Street" ("That's S as in Sam . . . T as in Time . . . R as in Roger . . .").

There is machinery that works -- and jurisdictions around the region are installing it. Not only does it ensure that a 911 call ends up in the correct jurisdiction; it also displays on a screen the address and telephone number of the phone being used and indicaes what emergency police or fire units are closest and available.

Installation can't come too soon. Every local government should go for this new equipment. But in the meantime each must make the current system work. Bellyaching about how hard that is shouldn't be permitted, let alone regarded as a substitute for competency: there is just no adequate excuse for what is going on.