Howard County officials, under pressure from their own human rights board and the local NAACP branch, have begun stepping up efforts to increase the hiring and promotion of blacks and women in county government.

But Howard, a fast-growing county with a progressive reputation, is learning some of the same painful lessons that have resulted in longstanding legal battles in the District and engendered bitter feelings among police and firefighters in the Maryland suburbs, particularly in Montgomery County.

"Whatever you do, someone is not going to like it," said Willis Gay, president of the county's NAACP chapter. "It's going to attract attention."

In recent months, the county has established long-range affirmative action goals and plans to revise its 14-year-old policy for recruiting and hiring minorities and women.

Tonight, the Howard County Personnel Board is to vote on a proposal from the county administration to scrap the current two-year promotional list with the names of 34 eligible police officers, and institute new testing for annual eligibility lists.

This will be the second time the advisory board has considered the controversial policy change, which drew fire from police and firefighter unions, as well as the president of the minority officers association, when it was announced in November. The unions complained that it would force already qualified officers to take the test again, and the minority association said the action would stigmatize any black officer promoted under the proposed new system.

Personnel Director Janet P. Haddad said the switch to one-year eligibility lists would give women and minorities earlier and more frequent opportunities for promotions.

Haddad said no minority police officers and just one female officer scored well enough on a July sergeant's exam to be ranked on the present two-year promotion eligibility list, which expires in 1989.

Currently, minorities and women make up 11 percent of the 222-member county police force. Of 31 sergeants, two are black men and two are white women. There is one black male lieutenant among the 10 lieutenants on the force. The county population is about 14 percent black.

The policy switch also would apply to promotions for county firefighters seeking the rank of lieutenant. No minority or female employees were eligible to take the most recent firefighters exam, so they are not on the current promotion list.

Of the 124 county-paid firefighters, there are 10 black male firefighters and five white female firefighters, including one white female lieutenant. There are no black female firefighters, and the highest ranking black man is a firefighter first class.

County officials were scheduled to meet this morning to decide whether to push for the one-year eligibility list or recommend an alternative at tonight's board meeting. The County Council would have to approve the proposed change.

In the past two weeks, Haddad has held private meetings with union officials and police officers who would have to requalify for promotion if the new proposal is adopted.

Reactions from participants at the meetings have been mixed. Sgt. Herman Charity, president of the Howard County Association of Minority Officers, said the discussions were "encouraging."

The police union's president, Dave Etheridge, was less enthusiastic. "I don't know how productive it was," Etheridge said, adding that he expects the administration to stick by its one-year promotion list proposal at tonight's personnel board meeting.

County officials, who concede that they were surprised by the intensity of the opposition, may be looking at a delay.

Last week at her monthly news conference, County Executive Elizabeth Bobo said she still wants to change the promotional tests for police and firefighters. At issue, Bobo said, "is when to do it -- now or later."

The county's proposal to revamp the promotion policy touched off an uproar among rank-and-file police officers, even though newly appointed Chief Frederick Chaney publicly said he supported annual eligibility lists.

Etheridge called the proposal a "political sucker punch" that would hurt morale on the police force. He said the county plan was not fair to the 34 officers who passed the sergeant's exam in July.

Charity, head of the county's minority officers association, said he agrees with Etheridge that the county should wait until the current list expires in 1989 and then institute annual eligibility lists.

Affirmative action administrator P. William Herndon, who called the controversy over the eligibility lists "unfortunate," said Howard plans to beef up its affirmative action program in the next few months.

Last month, Herndon unveiled three-year affirmative action goals for most county departments, although he has concluded that some county agencies -- including the police and fire departments -- may not be able to meet the parity targets by 1990. The goals, for example, seek to have minorities make up 15 percent of the police department by 1990, and 33 percent of the department eventually.

In addition, Herndon said he plans to revamp the county's 1974 affirmative action plan to broaden recruitment of minorities and handicapped persons.

Herndon credits the local NAACP with focusing attention on minority hiring and promotion in the police department. Last year, the county's Human Rights Commission, after a two-year investigation, issued a final report criticizing the department's efforts as inadequate.

"We were getting started in that direction," Herndon said. "The {NAACP} complaint pushed us a little faster because of the additional pressure," he said.

Herndon said Howard has not been the target of a lawsuit challenging its affirmative action plan. In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed to rehear two cases that have tied up hiring and promotions in the District fire and police departments for five years.

Also, Howard officials are hoping that they can avoid a bitter squabble such as the one in Montgomery County over efforts to increase minorities in the volunteer-dominated fire department.