There was a great deal of urgency in August when County Council President Rose Crenca called her colleagues back from their vacations.

A U.S. District Court judge had just issued a ruling that could cost the county millions of dollars. The judge said the county's 700 career firefighters, while paid with county funds, were employed by private fire companies and, as such, could get overtime after 40 hours a week and not the 53 hours that apply to county employes.

Make them county employes, County Executive Sidney Kramer told the council. And, he urged, do it quickly. The meter is running. Each week of no action costs county taxpayers an estimated $50,000 in overtime.

That was the message of Emergency Bill 42-87, which Kramer submitted to the council. The council has displayed less urgency than the executive. It has twice delayed a vote on the bill, with the latest scheduled for 1 p.m. today.

What Kramer said he had hoped would be a logical and simple solution to an emergency has been caught up in the emotional tug of war between county officials and some of the volunteer-controlled private companies over who should run the fire-rescue system.

And, his decision to inject urgency has created for him an extra burden. Instead of the four votes that usually are required to enact legislation, five votes are needed for an emergency bill.

Kramer -- who apparently has the support of four council members for Emergency Bill 42-87 -- is holding out for the fifth vote because emergency legislation would take effect immediately, instead of after the 91-day waiting period of standard legislation. That translates into an estimated $600,000 savings for the county.

Emergency legislation, however, has another, and perhaps more important, payoff. The fifth vote, if Kramer can get it, would provide some protection against a likely challenge of the legislation through a voter referendum.

If the bill were enacted as standard legislation and if -- as Montgomery politicians speculate -- the volunteers forced a referendum on the issue by collecting 15,000 signatures, the legislation would not take effect until voters had affirmed it at the polls in the next election, which would be November 1988.

As emergency legislation, the bill would take effect immediately and stay in effect, unless voters overturned it in a referendum.

Devin Doolan, the Chevy Chase attorney hired by some volunteers to lobby their case, said it is too soon to talk about whether his clients would resort to a referendum.

"Whether it would happen is anyone's guess," county budget chief Robert K. Kendal said of a referendum, but he added his hope that a fifth council member becomes inclined to vote for the pending legislation.

It has become increasingly clear that the executive views council member Michael L. Gudis as its best bet for that fifth vote and that Gudis is, more than ever, on the hot seat.

The issue has placed Gudis more at odds with the county branch of the NAACP, which supports Kramer's proposal and lists, among its reasons, the fire service's dismal record on affirmative action. Gudis' vote during the summer to appoint John P. Hewitt to the county planning board angered the NAACP, which had questioned Hewitt's role in racially segregated worker facilities in area parks. During that fray, the NAACP had asked Gudis to resign as chairman of a county task force designed to promote better understanding between races and cultures.

Gudis, who early in the week said he was leaning toward approval of the bill if certain compromises could be worked out, said he is concerned about affirmative action and wants the fire service to improve its effort and performance. He said he is distressed that his relations with the NAACP have suffered but that he cannot allow that to unduly influence him. "It doesn't stop me from doing what I think is right," Gudis said.

Hanley J. Norment, an NAACP vice president, said, "Mr. Gudis placates the black community with talk and then acts in a manner so inclined, but we have reached a point where that is not enough . . . . We are insisting on some positive action."

Will there be a sequel to last year's budget battles among the executive, the council and the school board? Or how about a property tax rate increase for county residents?

At a recent breakfast with the council, Kramer advised members to be prepared for some difficult times. Kramer told the council that to provide the same level of school services will cost an estimated $49 million over the current budget, including $30 million for already negotiated salary increases.

Crenca said she wanted to be the first in line to speak out against a tax increase. But, council member Isiah Leggett said that to suggest otherwise is to paint an unrealistically rosy picture.

"I wish I could argue with you, but I can't," Kramer told Leggett, but he hastened to add that it's still too soon to see how the budget will shake out.