The commander of the D.C. fireboats told fire department officials almost three years ago that some members of his staff needed swimming lessons, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

Fire Capt. H. Linden Cohee confirmed yesterday that two members of the fireboat staff cannot swim and said that "no action was ever taken" in response to a memo sent to Assistant Fire Chief Maurice D. Kilby in December 1984 requesting a training program.

"It should be mandatory that anyone assigned to the fireboat be able to swim," Cohee said in the memo. "A person who is apprehensive of the water because he or she cannot swim is of little or no help during water rescue operations. This person could, in fact, be a detriment during an emergency situation," he wrote.

The D.C. Fire Department, unlike many local public safety agencies, does not require that its members know how to swim. The fireboat unit operates two boats and has 23 members, eight of whom are qualified divers.

Cohee also requested in two 1984 memos to Kilby that the fire department provide fireboat members with training in water rescue, survival and lifesaving. No action was taken on these recommendations, he said yesterday.

D.C. Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman and Deputy Chief Ray Alfred, the department spokesman, declined to comment yesterday.

The fire department's 25-foot Boston whaler reached the scene of a fatal helicopter crash in the Wash- ington Channel on Aug. 21 within three minutes of the accident but lacked qualified divers and scuba gear.

A D.C. police patrol boat arrived moments before the fireboat did but had to return to its base to pick up diving equipment. Divers reached the scene about 20 minutes after the crash, which killed three passengers and injured the pilot.

Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. ordered a review of the department's response to the accident and will decide whether additional equipment should be stored on board the harbor division's five boats.

Cohee, who also asked for scuba gear last year, said yesterday that a rescue effort could be disrupted by a fireboat crew member's inability to swim. "I feel it's a danger to the individual {firefighter}. I feel a man who cannot swim will give his first thought to self-preservation and won't be able to devote his full attention to what he's supposed to be doing."

Cohee noted in one of the 1984 memos that the D.C. police department's harbor division requires all 23 members of its staff to be able to swim.

Many local rescue agencies have similar rules, authorities said. The

"I feel it's a danger to the individual {firefighter}."

-- Fire Capt. H. Linden Cohee

Virginia State Police, Maryland State Police and U.S. Coast Guard require all their members to pass swimming courses.

All members of Fairfax County fire department can swim or are learning to swim, a spokesman said.

National and Dulles International airports require all their firefighters and police officers to be able to swim. National employs 14 qualified scuba divers and sent three of them to the site of the helicopter crash.

"They have to swim," said William A. Halligan, chief of public safety for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has five rescue boats and has beefed up its water-rescue training since the Jan. 13, 1982, crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in the Potomac River.

"The people who can't swim we send to the YMCA to learn," Halligan said. The firefighters and police officers at landlocked Dulles are required to swim so they can be called to assist in any large-scale rescue effort similar to the Air Florida crash, which killed 78 people, he said.

D.C. Firefighters Association President Tom Tippitt said that some members of the fireboat unit would welcome remedial swimming lessons as well as training in water rescue, lifesaving and survival.

"It seems almost ludicrous to put yourself in a situation where you may have to rescue the rescuer because he or she can't swim," Tippitt said. "It borders on criminal that the department has neglected to address the problem," he said.