We don't care what they try to tell you -- that 911 emergency phone system in the District of Columbia is still an electronic disaster. You might do as well yelling out your window. Yesterday, a 911 caller got the following response: 1) six rings; 2) then the impersonal tape recording that says hold on and your call will be answered "in turn"; 3) nine more rings; 4) a repeat playing of the tape -- finally followed by the voice of a person. Come on!

True, the new system does automatically provide those real people with the telephone number and address of the caller. But if operators can't whip up those phones any faster, what good are a row of screens with phone numbers and addresses flashing to nobody in particular? Yes, this information is recorded for reference and eventual call-back, but eventual is exactly what emergency callers to the police hotline don't have time for.

There's no question that the volume of calls to 911 has been challenging -- more than 1.2 million a year, half of which are not emergencies. But here, too, a new system that's supposed to fix that needs adjustment: when the 911 operators do get a call that is not urgent, they have been switching it to the new nonemergency line: 8-DC-HELP. They should just announce this number quickly and let the caller do the dialing. It wouldn't be a bad idea, by the way, for the city to have a public information campaign concerning the right number to call for nonemergencies. A call to 8-DC-HELP does seem to get a quick and friendly response.

Now back to basics: whatever it takes, find enough operators to cut out that tape on 911. When people are desperate for help, there's no comfort in screaming at a tape and not knowing how long it is between right now and "in turn," which is when somebody real may answer your plea. The whole 911 system is only as good as the people behind it -- and on it, live and lively. And this, city hall should be advised, is an emergency.