For 15 years, the monthly trade journal Fire Chief has featured on its cover a photograph of the fire chief of the city that is hosting the annual chiefs' convention.

But the magazine cover this month -- when the convention is being held for the first time in 81 years in the District -- does not have a photograph of D.C. Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman. Instead, there is a picture of the Jefferson Memorial.

"Chief Coleman told me, 'I'm going to take the high road on this issue,' " said Fire Department spokesman Theodore Holmes. " 'I cannot demand that they put my picture on the magazine cover,' he said, 'but it certainly does raise my concern.' "

Once again, Coleman is at the center of controversy.

Coleman is hosting an expected 10,000 fire chiefs and emergency management workers from the United States and 25 other countries who are arriving for the 115th annual convention of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which begins tomorrow.

It has been billed as an event that will convert the Washington Convention Center into the "world's largest firehouse" with more than $100 million in fire and emergency equipment, including innovations in the industry. But the five-day conference also is expected to be Coleman's last hurrah.

Earlier this year, the chief came under considerable pressure to resign because of ongoing concern about acrimony within the Fire Department and the management of the city's ambulance service -- including reports that nine persons had died after ambulances were slow to arrive. In February, Mayor Marion Barry stripped Coleman of authority over the ambulance service, placing it under the direct control of City Administrator Carol B. Thompson.

Although Coleman lost control of the service, he remained as fire chief because he apparently had reached an agreement with Barry that he could stay through August of this year to preside over the fire chiefs' convention, according to sources within the Barry administration.

Coleman declined numerous requests for an interview for this story, but several sources close to him said that he now has no intention of stepping down right after the convention.

"Teddy won't want to feel like he was run out," said one source who knows Coleman and the workings of the city government well. "His strength is his hard-headedness. If he perceives that 'they win, he loses' if he steps down now, then he probably will resist it for a while."

"There was a lot of discussion about six to eight months ago about the chief going to leave after the convention," said spokesman Holmes. "But the chief also indicated that he had no plans at that time as to when his exact retirement date would be."

And from the head of the firefighters union: "I don't think Chief Coleman is going to go until Chief Coleman is ready to go," said Thomas N. Tippett, president of Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters.

Sources speculate that, rather than retire after the convention as expected, Coleman will step down within the next six months, maybe as soon as October. Although several Fire Department officials are possible candidates as Coleman's successor, the name that is most often mentioned is Assistant Chief for Operations Rayfield Alfred, a former spokesman for the department.

Also being mentioned as possible successors are Assistant Chief Maurice D. Kilby, Assistant Chief Hubert A. Clarke, Deputy Chief Joseph Quander and Battalion Chief McElson L. "Mac" Fleming.

Lately, Coleman's critics, including Tippett, have been uncharacteristically silent in their public criticism of the chief. Union officials said they don't want to create a bad impression of the city during the convention.

"There have been quite a few suggestions that this would be the opportunity to embarrass the chief," Tippett said. "We've discouraged that because it's not Teddy Coleman's convention, and any disruption would be a reflection on the Fire Department and the city of Washington and we don't want to see that happen."

However, according to some D.C. officials, the union has refrained from attacking Coleman because it knows that would just give Barry more incentive to keep him. At the height of the city's ambulance crisis, Barry told several of his advisers that he did not want to force the fire chief to retire because the departure of Coleman, who is black, would be seen as a victory for the firefighters union, whose most visible leaders are white.

Coleman, 61, a 35-year veteran of the force, has come under fire from the department's rank and file for years. After Coleman became fire chief in 1982, he consistently resisted any comprehensive response to the city's continuing ambulance troubles.

Coleman's critics also point to highly publicized incidents such as the night in February 1987 when, in an effort to clean snow away from firehouses, Coleman drove around the city and ordered his men to dump the snow into the streets.

The editor of Fire Chief magazine said that Coleman's reputation had nothing to do with the decision not to place his picture on the cover.

"We were told that he was not going to be the host chief," said Bill Randleman, editor of Fire Chief. "We were told that the {International Association of Fire Chiefs} was going to run the conference with the help of all the fire chiefs in the {Washington} area. I could not run the cover profile story on 10 or 12 chiefs."

No one apparently told Coleman he was not going to be the host. And the International Association of Fire Chiefs' own fact sheet on the conference states: Chief Theodore R. Coleman of the District of Columbia Fire Department will host IAFC 88. He will be assisted by the chiefs of the fire departments representing the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments."