The Oxon Hill fireman said he was accustomed to driving the station's shiny red engine to fires by himself because Prince George's 423 career firefighters are so thinly spread though the county.

But one night last year he made what was almost one "undermanned" run too many. The occupants of the burning garden apartment were so angry when only one man came to their aid that they threatened to beat him up, and he had to run inside the burning building to protect himself.

"These people haven't got a lot of money and they don't have apartment insurance. If their $2,000 stereo is on fire they're gonna get upset and jump on you. And I can't blame them," said the fireman, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid administrative reprisals.

The county fire department says that between 10 and 12 percent of all initial alarms are answered with less than minimum recommended manpower, and that percentage is rising. Undermanned responses vary, from one or two men on a truck to no response at all from a station. When an engine leaves the station undermanned or a station is unable to respond, however, backup companies are automatically called.

The Oxon Hill apartment burned the ground, although no one was injured. To bring down an undermanned-response rate of 60 percent at the station, since last October it has been staffed around the clock by a second firefighter. Two additional officers were added to the day shift in January.

Still, there are usually only three men on duty at Oxon Hill Station 42, one of the busiest in the county. This means that when the ambulance is called, requiring two men, only one is left to answer a fire call. And every fourth day, there are only two men on duty at the station.

According to firefighters' union chief Ron Milor, this situation is common on the day shift at most Prince George's stations because the volunteers, on which the hybrid career/volunteer system depends, usually do not serve during the day.

The union is lobbying the Prince George's County Council to increase the number of paid firefighters so that an engine company such as Oxon Hill would have at least four men at all times.

County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has asked the council for money to hire 25 new firefighters and 11 ambulance personnel, but Milor says that would not be enough to meet the minimum manpower recommended in a 1979 County Council task force report.

That report called for four men on each engine and five men per ladder truck. Current county minimum is three per engine and four per truck. The report notes that in some parts of the United States, the standard is six men per unit of equipment.

The council is currently wrestling with Hogan's $519 million budget, which, despite raising property taxes to the maximum allowed under TRIM, will require either severe cuts in the schools budget or the shifting of some funds to make ends meet.

While both the police and fire departments are calling for manpower increases larger than what Hogan has offered, they are aware that the strength of the education lobby could jeopardize even those gains.

Milor has amassed an armload of statistics to support his union's case. Compared with the surrounding jurisdictions of Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Fairfax counties, Prince George's has approximately half the number of career firefighters per capita and spends about half as much per resident on fire protection. For example, Montgomery, with a slightly smaller population and approximately the same land area, has 709 career firefighters manning 33 stations. Prince George's has 423 firefighters at 46 stations.

In Prince George's there have been 45 fire-related deaths during the last five years, compared with 29 in Montgomery and 36 in Fairfax. Last year Prince George's reported more deaths (19) than the other three counties combined (15). But the death statistics vary widely from year to year, and not even Milor blames the fatalities on a lack of manpower.

"I don't see any relationship between the number of fire deaths and the number of firefighters. I think what we had (in fire deaths last year) was a fluke," said Prince George's Fire Chief Marion (Jim) Estepp. The chief pointed out that several of the fire-related deaths, two of which were homicides, were beyond the control of firefighters.

"We are concerned about a pattern of increasing undermanned responses," said Estepp, who conceded that there are times when only one man rides an engine to a fire.

"It hasn't resulted as yet in any deaths, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't," Estepp said. "Correcting the problems at Oxon Hill pretty well exhausted all my reserves."

Estepp said that Prince George's relies on the largest force of trained volunteer firemen in the metropolitan area--approximately 1,000. He agreed with Milor, however, that more paid firemen are needed because the growth in the volunteer force has not kept pace with increased demand for services, and because the distribution of volunteers has shifted with the changing county demography.

Calls for service have increased 15 percent since 1972, from 61,019 to 70,343 last year, while the number of volunteers and career firefighters increased less than 11 percent in that period.

The manpower shortage is aggravated by an uneven distribution of volunteers. Some stations, such as the Silver Hill Company 29, are well staffed with volunteers, while other inner-Beltway stations have few or no volunteers.

Many of the newcomers to these growing suburban areas are transplanted city dwellers, people who "expect fire protection and don't expect to provide it," according to Anne Arundel Deputy Fire Chief Burton W. Phelps, who also has experienced a shortage of volunteers in his department.

Estepp said the greatest staffing problems have been in the Chillum, Hillside and Oxon Hill areas.

Oxon Hill Engine Company 42 is perched atop a hillside of low- to moderate-income garden apartments and other multiple-unit buildings. Last year the company answered almost 3,000 fire and ambulance calls, usually with three men on duty but with only two men working every fourth day. According to one fireman, the station has little volunteer support, and the few volunteers it has lack training.

Two weeks ago week, as the second company due on the scene of a fire at the Brinkley House Apartments, Company 42 responded with two men on the engine instead of the minimum three, as did the first due company, Oxon Hill 21. Assistance from the next closest responding station did not arrive for 12 minutes, and a "special" unit, Silver Hill, had to be called down from Marlowe Heights.

A 90-year-old man died in that fire before firefighters arrived. The dead man's 78-year-old wife was rescued by an off-duty District of Columbia fireman who was passing by.

Firemen say that although back-up assistance is usually available for fires, the timing and extent of the help are uncertain.

"You learn not to count on anybody anymore, because 'anybody' might not show up," said one veteran fireman. "When you go out on a call it's just you and your lonesome."