Next summer, the Ellicott City volunteer fire company, the first one organized in Howard County, plans to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

According to some volunteer firefighters, the county's five other volunteer companies may never reach the centennial milestone.

The strains of Howard's unrelenting growth in the past few years are creating a rift between volunteer and county-paid firefighters, despite repeated assurances from high-ranking local officials of their support for the current dual system.

Earlier this month, the chairman of the county's advisory Fire Board resigned partly because of a disagreement about the future role of volunteer officers. The fire chief of the county's busiest fire district said morale is low among volunteers, who feel unappreciated and ignored by the county administration and who have seen their counterparts in Montgomery County forced into a new administrative system that reduces the control by volunteer organizations.

"There is a trend now in the fire administrator's office to bend toward the career system," said Fire Chief Ernest Foster of the 6th District, a volunteer who supervises three fire stations.

Foster said volunteers, a longtime backbone of Howard's firefighting service, are fast becoming more scarce because of a lack of aggressive recruiting, a growing number of professional firefighters and strong administrative backing.

After 18 years as a volunteer firefighter, including two stints as fire chief, Foster said he is discouraged about the future of the volunteers.

"I'm losing interest quick," Foster said. "This may be my last year in the fire service. That's the way I feel right now."

But County Fire Administrator Richard W. Shaw, who started his firefighting career as a volunteer, said the county is committed to a combined firefighting department. Shaw said that Howard has no plans to dismantle the dual system, which he said had become a "sensitive" issue in recent months.

"The combined fire service is not only cost-effective, but represents the best interests of the community," Shaw said. "We're working side by side for a common goal."

Howard saves about $1.8 million annually because of heavy reliance on volunteer firefighters, Shaw said.

County Executive Elizabeth Bobo told the Fire Board last month that she strongly supports Howard's combined firefighting system. However, she said, friction may develop between the two sides because "some decisions will tilt toward one side or the other."

Bobo said she would oppose any recommendations to set up a total county-run firefighting department, such as the one recently approved in Montgomery County.

Volunteers outnumber county-paid firefighters in the department. Currently, there are more than 120 full-time firefighters, including Shaw. There are about 400 volunteers, although only 250 are active enough to qualify for the county's pension plan, Shaw said.

However, more county-paid firefighters are needed to handle Howard's rapid growth, Shaw said. According to the county planning office, population has grown 35 percent in the past seven years, from 118,572 in 1980 to the current 160,000.

To meet the increased service demands, Shaw said, the county, with the approval of volunteer companies, has hired more career firefighters. In the past four years, the department has added from seven to 10 firefighters annually to keep pace with the growth, he said. Last year, seven full-time firefighters were hired along with several part-time employes, Shaw said.

A three-year plan drafted in January for the new Bobo administration recommends that the county hire 54 new firefighters by 1991.

Most of the new firefighters would be assigned to new fire stations proposed to be built in the county, fire officials said.

For example, 24 firefighters are planned for a proposed station on Rte. 1 near Rte. 175.

In addition, Foster said that volunteers are upset because their officers are slowly losing control over day-to-day administrative functions, a pattern that he claims could spell the gradual demise of the volunteer system.

In an Oct. 23 letter to the Fire Board, Foster asked the seven-member panel to clarify the chain of command for daily operations of a fire station.

At the volunteer-run fire stations, the volunteer fire chief and a district commander, a county employe, jointly run the facility.

Both officers report to Deputy Fire Chief Marty LePore.

But Foster wanted to delegate his authority to a deputy volunteer chief, who would dictate orders to lower-ranking career firefighters.

"Why can't I put a assistant chief as head of a fire station," Foster said. "If the commander is out, his lieutenant acts in his place. The lieutenant should listen to the assistant volunteer chief."

The Fire Board failed to act on Foster's request.

The board's chairman, Paul LePore, who served as the county's first full-time fire administrator and who is the father of Marty LePore, resigned about three weeks ago because of the board's indecision.

"The ability to furnish leadership and guidance slowly is being taken away from volunteers," Paul LePore said.

LePore, who represented the Sixth District on the board, said he quit because "he would not sit on the fence. I was not going to be a mediator."

Last year, the county approved a $20,000 study on the future of the fire department. The study has not been done yet, Shaw said, and might have to wait until next year. It would be the first comprehensive look at the dual system in 10 years, he said.

Foster said volunteers are not opposed to change that they know is coming to the county.

"We can accept change," Foster said.

"We knew there would be a time when the county would depend more on career people," he said. "But the fire administrator is pushing it now."

In the Oct. 23 letter, Foster urged county officials to act now to promote voluntarism.

If volunteer firefighters are phased out, Howard residents would lose some "special touches" that come from a sense of community spirit and involvement, he said in the letter.

"They {county officials} don't realize how big this issue will be," Foster said. "By the time they do, it may be too late."