A generous retirement option offered when Montgomery County transferred volunteer firefighters to county employment prompted 73 senior firefighters to quit, creating a massive hiring opportunity that officials said could dramatically increase the numbers of minorities and women on the force.

County officials have imposed strict hiring quotas for filling the vacancies in the 700-firefighter department. Besides the positions of the firefighters who left under the provisions of the changeover, the department has 20 entry-level openings. Ramon Granados, director of Montgomery's Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said that one-third of the total vacancies will be reserved for minorities and another third for women. The rest will be open to white men.

"Everybody who retired was a white male," Granados said. Consequently, the county "will use the formula as to such time as we can make up for past imbalances."

The mass retirements occurred Jan. 15, the day that the firefighters, who had been employed by the different volunteer-controlled corporations but whose salaries were paid by the county, became county employees.

The controversial change, which was approved by the County Council in October, was pushed by County Executive Sidney Kramer in an effort to make the firefighters subject to all rules and regulations of the county government. Kramer argued that the county would save money under the transfer because the overtime limits would be higher, that training and safety standards could be imposed, and that the county could better control and institute hiring quotas for minorities and women.

Under a county law that became effective on that date, the jobs in the separate fire corporations were eliminated and were re-created in the county merit system. But firefighters who opted to retire rather than to switch to the new system got a 5 percent pension increase because of a county personnel law that awards pension bonuses to county employees whose jobs are eliminated.

A 20-year firefighter, for example, would have received only a $12,800-a-year pension if he retired under normal circumstances and would have had to wait five years or until the age 46 before he could receive benefits. However, the county's discontinued-service law enables him to collect $18,000 a year and to start getting the payments immediately.

Granados said he had no estimate of what the early retirement option has cost the county. He acknowledged that the situation has created a staffing crunch for the department, but he said that each fire station remains fully staffed with firefighters working on overtime.

Granados said that in the past the department has sought to increase the proportion of women and minorities in the department to 23 percent but has fallen short of that goal.

Under the old system, each volunteer station was independent and hired its own firefighters, but each was supposed to ensure that 23 percent of all entry-level firefighters were minorities and women, Granados said. However, only 92 firefighters, or 18.6 percent, in the various corporations were minorities or women.

Granados and other fire depart- ment officials cautioned that the new quotas may be hard to meet. They noted that the department has had trouble recruiting women and said that several of the female applicants have not been able to pass a strenuous agility test that includes carrying 150 pounds of hose along with 60 pounds of equipment up and down ladders.

The fire commission has increased the frequency of entrance exams to as often as twice a week to try to boost the number of eligible minority and female candidates.

Also, the county is mounting an aggressive campaign to increase the numbers of minority and female candidates by sending recruiting teams into neighborhoods to encourage applicants. But the county's fire academy has space to train only 40 applicants at a time. As a result, Granados said, the county has asked other jurisdictions in the Washington area to train candidates.

"We realize it will be difficult to find enough qualified minorities in a short period of time," he said. "The crunch is here. We need to get out and recruit and recruit from other jurisdictions."