Howard County is planning to abandon its usual procedures for promoting police officers and firefighters in an effort to increase opportunities for women and minorities, an action that has angered police, firefighters and their unions.

Now, candidates for police department promotions are taken from a list of officers ranked by how well they scored on an examination. That list is valid for two years.

However, the county said that no minority officers and just one female officer scored well enough on the most recent examination for police sergeant, meaning that no women or minorities would likely be promoted until the list expires in 1989.

The county is proposing that the list be valid for only one year, increasing the chances that a minority officer taking the next exam could be promoted in 1988, county officials said. The county council must approve the change.

The switch also would apply to promotions for county firefighters seeking the rank of lieutenant, although the current list of seven candidates is set to expire just a few months after the new policy would take effect.

The police union's president, David Etheridge, said yesterday that the change would be "a slap in the face" to the 34 white officers who passed a sergeant's exam in July and were told that their names would be on an eligibility list good for two years.

"It really boils down to a matter of trust," he said. "The county told us this was a list for two years, and four months after it was born, they are trying to dissolve it.

"They want a quick remedy to the situation, but a lot of these officers have worked 12 to 14 years to get on this list. This is not an overnight success issue. It's going to take some time," Etheridge said.

The dispute is the latest twist in an ongoing debate over the lack of women and minorities in top positions in Howard's police department. Last year, the county Human Rights Commission issued a report criticizing the department's efforts to hire and promote women and minorities as inadequate. The issue was considered integral in the selection of a new police chief.

Police Chief Frederick R. Chaney said yesterday that when he took office in August, he pledged to improve his department's affirmative action record, and he intended to keep that pledge. He added that he would support keeping a promotions list in effect for longer than a year if women and minorities are represented on it.

Of the 222 officers on the police force, there are two black male sergeants, two white female sergeants, and one black male lieutenant. The county is 14 percent black.

Personnel Administrator Janet P. Haddad said the county wants to begin testing another round of candidates by next summer because the current list does not rank any women or minorities high enough for consideration. Of the people on the list now, 33 are white males, and the single white female who passed is ranked fairly low.

"We've been saying for some time that the reason we don't have more minorities promoted is because we don't have a pool of qualified applicants. We now feel we have people qualified to take the test while we didn't last year, and we'd like to take advantage of that," Haddad said.

The firefighters union also has come out against the change. There is one female lieutenant and no black lieutenant in the department.

No minority or female employes were eligible to take the firefighters' most recent test and so were not on their promotions list. Eligibility requirements include a certain number of college credits and time served on the force, depending on the rank sought.

Sgt. Herman Charity, who heads the 20-member Howard County Association for Minority Police Officers, said his organization also favors waiting until the current list expires in 1989 before the administration changes its policy.

"In all fairness to everyone, that's really the only choice," Charity said. "They could have gone to a one-year list before July or made it clear to the officers who took it then that they were considering it."

Haddad said that the administration did not have such a plan in mind when the officers took the test and although she understands their frustration, the policy change is still the best way to increase the number of women and blacks at the rank of sergeant and above.

"This is not a case where one side is right and one side is wrong," Haddad said. "I wish it were that easy."