The D.C. Fire Department's new affirmative-action plan, which calls for strict numerical goals in hiring and promotion, is similar to many plans around the country that have resulted in lengthy lawsuits over whether such goals are a legal means to increase minority representation.

The U.S. Justice Department is trying to abolish the numerical goals, or "quotas," as a way to increase minority representation in discriminatory government agencies and is currently a party in five lawsuits seeking to stop "preferential" affirmative-action plans.

"The Justice Department sees a problem in granting a preference based on race or sex, which is itself discriminatory," a Justice official said. "The department's position is that courts should eliminate discriminatory practices so people can come in freely and be promoted freely without regard to race, sex or national origin."

That stance has come under criticism from civil rights' advocates who believe that Justice is basing its position on an "expansive" interpretation of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and federal judges have continued to uphold numerical goals as a legitimate way to remedy past discrimination.

The 1984 high court ruling involved a black Memphis firefighter who was laid off despite his appointment under a court-approved affirmative-action plan.

The court ruled against the firefighter, saying he was not a victim of discrimination because he was a junior member of the department and was laid off in accordance with a seniority system.

Justice believes that the ruling makes court-ordered "quotas" illegal, while civil rights' advocates argue that the court did not overturn its previous rulings in favor of affirmative-action plans.

Some feel that the District's affirmative-action plan will become caught in a legal tangle that could delay hiring in the fire department.

"The plan for the D.C. Fire Department will likely be caught up in the substantial amount of litigation that has been caused by the Reagan Justice Department's attack on affirmative-action plans," said Barry Goldstein, a lawyer for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. "If we are going to remedy past discrimination in our lifetime, we have to use carefully designed race-conscious relief."

The D.C. Fire Department plan states that 60 percent of entry-level firefighters should be members of minorities and 5 percent females as part of a long-term effort to mirror more closely the available pool of applicants in the city.

Yesterday, Tom Tippett, president of Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the bargaining agent for D.C. firefighters, said he was concerned that possible legal challenges may slow city efforts to rectify the department's severe manpower shortage.

The D.C. Fire Department currently has 114 vacancies in the fire-fighting division, and three times in the past 16 days an engine company in Southeast Washington has been closed because of a lack of firefighters, Tippett said.

"What worries me is that someone will challenge this [the entry-level goals] and slow up the hiring process," Tippett said, referring to civilian applicants. "We needed people on board yesterday. We don't need it to drag out longer."

Tippett said the union plans to challenge the "promotional preference aspect" of the plan, which calls for specific numbers of minority members to be promoted to the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain, on the basis of a 1982 finding that promotional procedures in the department were not discriminatory.

Fire department spokesman Ray Alfred called Tippett's concern about possible civilian lawsuits "speculation . . . The plan was well thought out and put together.

"I hope no one would see this [the plan] as an effort to discourage whites from coming on the job. It's just an effort to correct . . . the vestiges of past discrimination," he said.