As demonstrated by the death of a Prince William County man last week, rapid growth there is tugging at a deeply ingrained tradition and forcing many county officials to question their dependence on a predominantly volunteer fire and rescue service.

Prince William, the second-largest locality in Northern Virginia, is the only major jurisdiction in the metropolitan area without a paid fire and rescue staff on duty 24 hours a day. Paid personnel work 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, with weekends and holidays off.

County residents rely primarily on 12 volunteer fire and rescue companies. With about 700 members, the companies have seven times the manpower of the paid county personnel and operate mainly outside county government control, appointing their district chiefs and largely drawing up their budgets.

Many consider the system a "throwback to 20 years ago," when Prince William was a largely rural community and its needs were less complex, said Dr. Thomas Ryan, medical director for the county's western section.

According to some county leaders, the outdated nature of the system could not have been more evident than last week, when James Overman, a 47-year-old federal worker, died of a heart attack after it took 32 minutes for a volunteer rescue team to reach his home.

Overman had the attack just after 6 a.m., when paid rescue teams were off duty, and half a dozen calls were placed to volunteer teams before two responded to the emergency 911 dispatch. In part, say county administrators and volunteers, the slow response was attributable to inadequate staffing at a time of rapid county growth.

The county population has increased by 55,000, to 200,000, in the past 10 years. In that time, rescue personnel responded to 4,300 more calls, and firefighters had 640 more dispatches. However, the number of volunteers has remained about the same during the 10 years, sources said.

County Executive Robert S. Noe Jr., who designated emergency services one of the major issues of 1988, has called for an examination of the system and more involvement by county officials in budget oversight.

Noe's efforts are being eyed suspiciously by some of the volunteers, a fiercely independent group that is emotionally attached to the volunteer tradition. Some volunteers, especially those who have lived in the county since the days before thousands of newly arrived commuters transformed the county into a bedroom community, consider their work "almost a religious experience," Ryan said.

"The exhilaration of going into what is an extremely hazardous situation and bringing it under control -- it's a rush," said James Stokely, 39, the owner of an insurance company and a 15-year member of the volunteer service in neighboring Manassas. "I think everyone wants at some point in their life to be a major factor in someone's life."

County administrators concede that volunteer participation is crucial, because the county would be unable financially to replace the hundreds of volunteers with paid personnel. And even if the funding were there, the strong social tradition of volunteer services and the voting clout of the volunteers and their supporters represent a substantial roadblock to county efforts to absorb the fire and rescue services.

"You like to be in control of your own destiny," said George Buchanan, chief of the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department and a volunteer firefighter for about 10 years.

The volunteers say the system may have shortcomings because of county growth, but they insist that government involvement would add unnecessary bureaucracy and that the structure to address the needs of a changing community exists.

For the most part "the system works well, extremely well," said Billy Spicer, chief of the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton (OWL) Volunteer Fire Department, in an interview before Overman's death. "I see no issues. They {the county} want to control what we are doing, no matter how good we are," said Spicer, a volunteer for 28 years.

Sources familiar with the county fire and rescue operations say the changing needs of the county have led to several problems:Advanced life support. The units, with personnel trained to monitor heart rhythm and administer lifesaving drugs, are not consistently available when paid personnel are not on duty. Five of the county's 14 rescue stations do not have advanced life support capability. Staffing. The number of volunteers has not kept pace with the booming population. Additionally, although the system is said to have 700 volunteers, some say they believe that far fewer are actively involved. Service gaps. Paid staff members are not on duty during high-demand rush hour periods. In addition, fewer volunteers may be available during these times as they commute to and from work. Response time. Delays such as that which occurred in the Overman case have occurred before, sources said, though they added that the problem is not widespread. Training requirements. The training time for emergency personnel has increased, straining volunteers in particular.

Ryan and Dr. Rodolfo Lopez, his counterpart for the county's eastern end, say that they are not criticizing the volunteers but that it concerns them that advanced life support service is not consistently available after the paid personnel leave for the day.

Spicer and other volunteers say they are attempting to address concerns such as service gaps and advanced life support needs, which they say make up at most 10 percent of their calls. Buchanan and Spicer indicated that they planned to investigate the response time in Overman's death. Buchanan said Friday he is considering proposing that county staff operate on staggered shifts to take care of the time gaps. They emphasized that efforts to address the problems had been under way before Overman's death.

Prince William is not the only locality with growing pains. Officials in Howard and Montgomery counties recently have experienced tensions between their paid fire and rescue personnel and volunteers who want to maintain their autonomy.

As people's life styles have changed, the nature of volunteer service has altered as well. "The guy working in Potomac Mills can't run out and say to his boss, 'I'm going to fight a fire,' " said Ray Mulhall, a spokesman for Montgomery County's paid fire staff.

Prince William officials such as Deputy County Executive Connie Bawcum emphasize that they want the volunteer system to remain viable but say that the county must take steps to fill service gaps.

Noe's report calls for a committee to develop policies and procedures for fire and rescue operations, and a uniform tax to fund them. A preliminary budget request proposes to nearly double the paid fire and rescue staff. Sources said that 24-hour paid personnel for rescue services has been discussed. Some of the volunteer chiefs say they will oppose a uniform tax on grounds that they know best what their jurisdictions need, and they remain skeptical about the other proposals, including the calls for greater county staff oversight. Ryan said the debate is political but "the bottom line is that the service has to be provided."