The May 17 Maryland Weekly reported on the decline of volunteers in the Montgomery County fire and rescue services, giving the impression it was a new trend {"Fire Officials Tackle Decline in Volunteers"}. Yet it had begun long before I became a member of the newly formed fire and rescue commission 10 years ago.

Historically, several things contributed to a viable volunteer service. The person who volunteered lived and worked in the community. In many smaller communities of our state they still do. Workers would leave their employment, without penalty, to answer calls when the firehouse siren blew. The firehouse was also the center of social activity for the community.

By the early 1970s Montgomery County's population mix had changed, and all fire and rescue departments were unable to maintain service only with volunteers. There were varying degrees of volunteer staffing, but most needed paid personnel for day work and to supplement night and weekend volunteers. This left much to be desired. By 1980 only one department, Damascus, was all ''volunteer.'' However, most of its volunteers were off-duty firefighters from other departments. Soon even Damascus sought county funds for paid personnel.

Instead of then seeking additional paid personnel to meet service needs, volunteer leaders preferred gimmicks. One endangered personnel by allowing companies to respond with undermanned equipment. Others left gaps in coverage when insufficient volunteers were available to respond to calls.

An intriguing gimmick was to use -- at minimum wage, to keep budgets low -- what was called ''casual labor.'' These were trained volunteer or paid firefighters, usually from other departments, interested in picking up extra cash. The latter practice was outlawed as the county government took over greater supervision of the fire service, and it was seen for what it was, a subterfuge to avoid admitting that more paid personnel were necessary to maintain the proper level of service.

Although coordination of the fire and rescue service has grown, there are still problems and waste of tax money, while the mythology of a volunteer fire and rescue is kept alive. Montgomery County has outgrown the day of the neighborhood firehouse with neighbors standing ready to douse simple fires or provide rudimentary first aid while taking a neighbor to a doctor or hospital.

NED DOLAN Garret Park