The D.C. Fire Department, long considered one of the city government's most racially imbalanced agencies, has approved an affirmative action plan calling for retroactive promotion of some black firefighters and establishing strict numerical goals for hiring and promoting minorities and women.

The plan, drawn up by department officials working with recommendations by the D.C. Office of Human Rights, was based in part on an in-depth statistical analysis of the agency's uniformed work force, which showed that minorities and women are underrepresented and underpaid at almost every level of the department.

Aspects of the plan were immediately criticized by the president of the firefighters union, who said the new procedures for promotions amount to "preference and set-asides and quotas."

The 228-page plan, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, was signed by Fire Chief Theodore Coleman Jan. 17 and took effect when it was approved by the city Human Rights Office two days later.

The long-range goal of the plan is to ensure that the percentages of minorities and women in the department are "equal to their group representation in the available work force in the District," the plan states.

According to the plan, which is based on fire department and city demographic statistics as of April 1, 1984, blacks account for about 64 percent of the District's population and make up 38 percent of the department's uniformed work force. Whites account for about 31 percent of the District's population and about 62 percent of the department's work force.

In addition, the plan states, about 51 percent of District residents are female, while slightly more than 1 percent of the department's uniformed workers are female.

To redress this "gross disparity between minorities/women and white males," the report says, the fire department and the D.C. Office of Personnel "will work to ensure that 60 percent of entry level firefighters are minorities and 5 percent are females."

In addition, to "rectify past patterns of discrimination," the plan calls for specific numbers of minorities to be promoted to the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain before October 1986, when promotional lists based on a 1984 exam expire.

Concerning the rank of sergeant, for example, the plan sets as a "short-range goal" the retroactive promotion of the five blacks who scored highest on a 1982 exam but were not then promoted. The promotions would be retroactive to 1984.

The plan also says that of 45 anticipated new sergeant's openings, the department's goal is to fill 13 with minorities, including one woman.

Yesterday, Tom Tippett, president of Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters, the bargaining agent for D.C. firefighters, said his organization plans to file a legal challenge to the "promotional preference aspect" of the plan.

"This is just preference and set-asides and quotas, and it's not acceptable," Tippett said. "We represent most of the blacks on this job, and we're certainly in favor of affirmative action, but this is not affirmative action . . . . This is racial preference. I'm afraid it's really going to damage race relations in the department, and we don't need that right now."

Tippett said the union "is not taking a position and never has" on the issue of numerical standards for hiring firefighters, "as long as the fire department hires people who are qualified for the job."

However, he said, as part of a 1980 lawsuit filed by the all-black Progressive Firefighters Association charging the city with unfair hiring and promotion practices, a special hearing examiner ruled in 1982 that there was no evidence of a pattern of discrimination in promotions. The examiner did find discrimination in the test given to new applicants.

Maudine F. Cooper, head of the city's Office of Human Rights, said yesterday that "technically" the fire department's promotional procedures "probably" are not discriminatory. However, she said, "If blacks and women and Hispanics are discriminated against at the entry level, then five years from now when they would be up for promotion , they are not there," which would leave minorities underrepresented in the upper ranks of the department. "We have to do something now or wait 20 years before we can ameliorate the problems" that exist in the upper ranks.

The affirmative action plan has been submitted to U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Richey under the terms of a consent decree designed to settle the black firefighters' 1980 lawsuit. The plan shows that minorities, primarily because they are concentrated in the lower ranks, are generally paid less than whites. It states that of the 146 employes who are paid more than $33,000 a year, 78.8 percent are white and 21.2 percent are black. In the lowest wage bracket -- salaries between $16,000 to $19,999 -- 33.3 percent are white and 62.2 percent are black, the plan states.