It has been years since Montgomery County firefighters actually got in an argument over rank and authority at the scene of a fire. But some firefighters remember the chaos at the Gustin Garden Warehouse blaze in Gaithersburg in 1977, when the chief from the Gaithersburg department asked to relieve the lieutenant from the Laytonsville department and the two exchanged angry words as the chemicals burned.

Because the county's fire departments are autonomous--and at the time barely communicated among themselves--it was unclear whether a higher-ranking official from a neighboring district had authority over a lower-ranking officer from the district where the fire was taking place. The fire was finally extinguished under the lieutenant's command.

Since then, steps have been taken to bring order to the county's 16 fiercely independent fire companies and two rescue squads. Senior officers from several departments have been holding joint monthly meetings. But problems remain.

"They're trying to maintain a kingdom of sorts and there's friction," says Capt. Ray Mulhall of the county's Fire and Rescue Services headquarters in Rockville. "I've seen four departments at one fire. One chief gave orders and the three other departments free-lanced. It was a very confused arena."

The 18 autonomous, tax-exempt corporations are quartered at 30 different stations and headed by 18 chiefs. They are independent contractors, outside the county executive's direct control.

They comprise approximately 1,500 volunteers and 700 paid firefighters. While companies such as Bethesda and Chevy Chase are staffed primarily by paid, career firemen, Laytonsville has only five on the payroll and Damascus is all-volunteer.

The departments began as local volunteer groups, starting with Takoma Park, which placed its first order for a manually pulled and hand-pumped engine in 1895. (In 1919, Takoma Park purchased a Model T Ford pumper, the first in the county.)

As the county grew more urbanized and the volunteer fire departments evolved to mostly paid staffs of firefighters, the departments experienced growing pains. They're still maturing, but they haven't consolidated as their colleagues in other Washington jurisdictions have done over the years.

"It's always a boiling pot to see what faction's going to be upset next," says Charles Maier, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist. In 1980, the county executive created the seven-member Fire and Rescue Commission to try and bring order to the departments.

Gilchrist organized the commission with an eye toward allaying fears that the county was taking over. He appoints two members and five are elected by the firemen themselves. "It was a delicate dance," Maier recalls.

The county's Department of Fire and Rescue Services primarily trains firefighters and educates the public. Volunteer firefighters traditionally have doused attempts to consolidate fire services any more than that. They are joined by paid career officers in saying that local units perform better without government bureaucracy dictating rules and regulations.

"It's good to leave the local commander in charge," says Robert Wilson, a dentist and chief of the Gaithersburg Volunteer Fire Department who was elected last week to head the fire commission. "It's more important to know the building, streets, location of fire hydrants--information somebody from the outside does not have."

Some of the differences among departments are symbolic--uniforms of different shades, trucks of different colors, varying hours and pay schedules.

Other differences are mechanical. When two or more departments join forces to battle a blaze, electrical plugs are mismatched, and water hose couplings don't couple. This has never hampered firefighting ability, firefighters say, but symbolizes their differences. In fact, there are seven different electrical systems in use by fire departments in the county. Special hose links and electrical adapters are necessary when units from different jurisdictions arrive on the scene of a fire.

But critics within the ranks, including some chiefs, say the degree of independence results in inefficiencies and, at times, on-scene confusion. The question of who's in charge is common. To remedy that, an ad hoc group of senior career officers adopted an "integrated chain of command" concept in October 1982 that says the senior person in the district where the fire occurs has top authority.

But firefighters have been known to balk at taking an order from an officer from another department whose credentials they don't trust, according to Silver Spring Fire Chief Hunter Heltzel. Paid staffers also disdain volunteers who haven't logged the same classroom hours, he said.

"Politics and personalities come into play. We have requirements for age, experience and training, but not all departments are as strict," Heltzel says. "It opens a can of worms."

Top authorities can't even agree on how well the concept is working. Heltzel says "it's not as strong as it should be."

But Gaithersburg's Chief Wilson asserts, "It's not unclear . . . it's not unworkable. The fire service is a quasi-military operation. You have trained people working as subordinates."

The fragmented approach frustrates county budget analysts, working with Montgomery's fire and rescue services budget of $33 million for the current year.

"We lose the advantage of buying in volume," says Steven Magida, senior planner in the county Office of Management and Budget.

Ramon F. Granados, acting director of the county's Department of Fire and Rescue Services, agrees. "Toilet paper has to be bought 18 times by 18 different people," he says. "It doesn't take an economist to see you could save money by buying in bulk."

The departments buy smaller items individually, and other, usually larger items, through the county. Silver Spring Chief Heltzel believes all purchases should be made through a central warehouse.

"If I need a running coat now, I have to call another department and find one without a department name on the back, or go to a local supplier and pay $10 more than if we bought them in quantity and stored them," he says.

But Gaithersburg's Wilson believes the departments should handle all orders individually. A year ago, he says, Gaithersburg was authorized a new pumper, among five the county was ordering. It took the county six months to put in the order, he said, and by that time the cost had risen $10,000 per unit. " The county lost $50,000 on the deal," Wilson says.