In the course of the last two weeks, Paul Irvin has gone from being a lieutenant in the Alexandria fire department to being a newly hired recruit in the larger District of Columbia fire department to the unemployment line.

Irvin, a lifetime District resident, said the District government's personnel office called him March 13 and told him that he had been hired as a D.C. firefighter -- the job he always wanted. Irvin said he was told to report for a training class on Monday, so he quickly gave the Alexandria fire department his two weeks' resignation notice.

But three days ago, Irvin was again called by the D.C. personnel office. There had been a slight mistake, he was told, and he really didn't have the District job yet. He merely had passed the written examination and qualified for further testing. Besides that, he was told, the April 6 class was indefinitely postponed.

"It's like a kick in the teeth," said Irvin, who tried -- unsuccessfully -- to retract his resignation letter from his superiors in Alexandria. "I am a victim of somebody's error."

That "somebody" was a low-level clerk in the D.C. Office of Personnel, who telephoned Irvin and 23 other prospective District firefighters and offered them jobs. The clerk was simply supposed to inform the prospective firefighters that they had passed their written examinations, the first step in a long process, and to see if they were still interested in jobs sometime in the future.

"It's an embarrassing thing," said Assistant Personnel Director Robert Storey. "It's a question of a breakdown of communications.

"The clerk was told to telephone the top 100 people as to their availability," Storey said. "There was a garble between the supervisor and the clerk, who told them [the 24] that they, in fact, had been hired."

Storey said he personally knows of three persons, including Irvin, who quit other jobs on the assumption that they had been hired by the city. He said that there could well be others. "We're frankly distressed about the whole thing," he said. "We're going to try to do the best we can to ease the burden of those who may have jumped the gun and left other jobs."

That bureaucratic fiasco began a series of events this week throughout the District government, including a high-level meeting between personnel and fire department officials, a verbal reprimand for the clerk, and the formation of a top-level task force that will study the entire affair and report its findings on Monday to acting Personnel Director Jose Gutierrez.

Meanwhile, City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers and Fire Chief Norman Richardson insisted yesterday that none of the 24 persons called were actually offered jobs -- still another version of the story that doesn't square with what the would-be firefighters and officials from the personnel office are saying.

"No one was offered a job," Rogers said yesterday.

"I was told I had the D.C. job," said Irvin.

"They were not actually offered a position," said Richardson.

"In conversations with the people, [the clerk] told them they were hired," Storey said.

The confusion is supposed to be cleared up by Monday with the task force's report. For now, all that is certain is that none of the 24 persons contacted has yet been hired, although they, along with 76 others, are all still eligible for one of the 24 vacant firefighting positions that are being filled now. Storey said the earliest they could be officially offered jobs is in about a month, if everything moves swiftly.

While this debate continues, the fire department is strugging with 80 vacancies in its ranks, a struggle that Richardson said is costing the department hundreds of dollars a day in overtime to keep firehouses staffed.