SOMEWHERE in the depths of police headquarters there's a sadistic bureaucrat -- or maybe it's a computer that got dropped on its head -- responsible for coming up with the worst idea of the year: hooking up the emergency 911 to a recording. That's got to be the ultimate heart-thumping jolt for prospective victims desperate for emergency help: a recording telling them -- would you believe -- to "hold on and your call will be answered in turn." Hold on? And then what -- the Mantovani Strings playing music to be murdered by?

This, we're being told, is a new "state-of-the-art" system called "Enhanced 911." But judging from people's reports so far -- like the hair-raising account of Carol Richards on the opposite page today -- you're talking state of panic. Worse yet, the whole thing was started without a peep of a warning. And why a tape instead of a real person?

Under the new system, the origin of every call to 911 -- phone number, location, name of listed occupant and any information on previous calls from the number -- shows up on screens in the room where the phones are supposed to come on only if the call isn't picked up within two rings. How comforting!

And how unacceptable. Whatever it takes, a live voice should pick up the call. People in emergencies want help, not recordings. Why can't there be enough crack officers, live and poised to snap up those phones, find out what's needed and dispatch help within seconds? It's not a matter of live or recorded; it's a matter of life or death. Either fix it or forget it.