As an urban planning major at Virginia Commonwealth University, Andrew Snead once studied whether municipal fire service could be improved by placing city fire departments under private management.

The answer was no, but that's not all Snead learned about firefighting.

"I thought it was an area ripe for professionals with budgeting and management experience," he said. "I figured if I could get in, I could make a mark."

That was 3 1/2 years ago. Today, Snead, 26, is a Fairfax County firefighter. He has gone through basic training, coronary care school and hazardous materials school and now works with fire department administrators on minority recruitment.

"Fairfax County is one of the fastest growing areas of the country," he said. "I knew coming here was a grand opportunity to move up in the ranks."

Snead is one of a new breed in the Fairfax County Fire Department. Over the past five years, this traditional blue-collar occupation has become an increasingly attractive career for college graduates as well as others looking for a steady job and rapid advancement, according to fire officials.

When the county announced its latest round of entrance exams last fall, 1,100 people expressed an interest in the test. More than 700 showed up to take it, from as far away as the Midwest.

"We never had that many show up before," said Ralph Dulaney, a county personnel investigator.

Today, the department has a waiting list of potential recruits that contains more than 400 names. About one quarter have college training or a college degree, officials say.

Nationally, the story is much the same. The trend has been caused in part by a gradual transition from volunteer to paid professional fire departments. The move has boosted pay and increased the number of jobs with career potential in such fields as administration, finance, fire prevention, research and planning and education.

Television shows about firefighting and the related emergency medical services field have helped glamorize the job, while new, sophisticated equipment and techniques have made it more challenging.

Fairfax County, however, is considered one of the most attractive places to work in this increasingly popular field, largely because of factors unique to the local department.

"Not many departments are hiring as quickly as we are. We get inquiries from all over the country," said Dulaney. "It's amazing to see the time and money people put themselves through to get here."

"I was offered jobs in Atlanta, Newark, N.J., and closer to home outside Richmond, but I chose here, overall, because it's a progressive department," said Snead.

"Fairfax the whole time was my first choice," added Randall K. Schwartz, 26, a graduate of Clarion State College, who was a captain in the Army stationed in Baltimore.

"As a volunteer reading through trade journals, I learned about the Fairfax department," said the Philadelphia native. "I knew I was taking one heck of a pay cut to become a firefighter, but I hope to go into administration eventually," he said.

Duane M. Dodwell, 29, another college-educated recruit, was working as a business analyst with Dun & Bradstreet when he decided to apply. "After five years of doing what I was doing, I was ready for something else," he said. "I looked at different things, but this is something I enjoy."

The department has one of the highest starting salaries in the nation -- $18,600 a year for a rookie firefighter -- plus benefits that include a 25-year retirement plan and college tuition reimbursement.

Top scale without promotions is $27,500 a year, but average salary falls in the midthirties, and firefighters can earn close to that in as little as five years with promotions and regular pay raises, said Dulaney.

Its system of shift work is also unique. Firefighters work a 24-hour shift every other day for three shifts. Then, they are off for four days.

"It's very popular with the men. You never work more than one day or one weekend in a row. It gives them a lot more time with their families," said Dulaney.

The county's rapid growth has also made the department a fast track for career advancement. The first big wave of hiring occurred in the early 70s. Since then, the department has doubled in size, according to officials.

"When I joined the department in 1968, the pay wasn't that attractive. At the time, at least in this area, it was more of a custodial type job. I didn't have to wait at all," said Gary A. Mesaris, deputy chief of administrative services.

About 950 of the department's 1,015 employes work in uniform at 31 fire stations. A new station, which means 18 new jobs, is set to open soon on Pohick Road in Newington Forest in the southeastern part of the county.

"After the first of the year we will be trying to fill positions for the new station, which will mean another round of hiring," said Dulaney.

The current class of 17 recruits is about to complete 14 weeks of basic training. Officials hope to start another 15-member class before the Christmas holidays.

Of the 700 people who took the last entrance exam, 554 passed. That number has been pared down to 400 eligible candidates. After passing the exam, recruits, who must be at least 18 years old, had to undergo a polygraph test, a physical exam, agility and stress tests and a background check.

All recruits begin their careers riding one of the department's 30 engine trucks or 12 ladder trucks. After two years, they can become drivers, a first-level promotion, or branch off into emergency medical services, the fastest growing section in the department.

The emergency medical service has 10 mobile intensive care units and 23 ambulances stationed around the county. Coronary care technicians, the highest nonsupervisory positions, are trained to administer drugs and a number of medical procedures, said Mesaris.

Dodwell, who has a degree in sociology, wants to join the emergency medical service. "I don't think my college was wasted," he said. "Being a sociology major, I was taught how to work with the community and to work with people."

One of the oldest and still one of the biggest benefits is being able to provide an important community service, say recruits.

"I love it; it's the greatest job in the world," said Andrew C. McMahan, 23, a recruit.

"There's no greater feeling in this work than going out and helping someone through some very terrible times. It's just a great feeling."