Some Fairfax County firemen call it an identity problem. Others say it's just a petty rivalry.

But when the volunteer firemen at the Navy-Vale Fire Station in western Fairfax County ordered their new fire engine in a shiny white and blue color scheme to match their squad car and ambulance, other county firefighters yelled foul. After all, they said, county fire engines are supposed to be red.

"The career firefighters have enough of an identity problem now, with uniforms that do not distinquish us from bus drivers or sanitation workers," said Glenn P. Benarick, president of the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters, an association of full-time firefighters. "Now there are going to be all different colors of fire engines riding around."

Color isn't the real issue, argued Lt. Thomas Shreve of the Navy-Vale Fire Station: "It's just a petty rivalry . . . the paid firemen are afraid the volunteers are about to get their way on color for a change."

And as for Fairfax fire department officials, Deputy County Fire Chief Alfred Savia said: "We don't care what color the engine is, as long as it's capable of doing a job."

Some county officials say that this is just another skirmish in the long-running feud between the county's paid firefighters and its volunteer units. Thirteen of the county's 28 firehouses are owned by volunteer units. In recent years, the county has been increasing its financial and manpower assistance to the volunteer units in an effort to upgrade firefighting services throughout Fairfax. This has widened the riff between paid and volunteer forces.

"If the county is buying the pumper, it should be painted the color of the rest of the county apparatus," said Benarick, who also protested having "the words 'Volunteer Fire Department' plastered all over the sides" of the new fire engine.

Although county officials have approved the white-and-blue color scheme for the new fire engine, which isn't scheduled for delivery for almost a year, they did insist on stenciling "Fairfax County Fire Department" on the doors of the engine, said Richard A. King, deputy county excutive for public safety.