Seventeen years ago, when Judith Brewer became the nation's first woman to be a firefighter, most of her colleagues at Arlington's Fire Station 4 bunked down in their skivvies at night. She modestly slept in full uniform.

Brewer no longer has to worry about privacy and embarrassment. With her new rank of battalion chief, she has her own bathroom and dressing room in the fire station. As for what she now wears to bed, "It's nobody's business," she said.

The 41-year-old firefighter, who gained her new rank this fall, is among a handful of women nationwide in the top echelons of their departments. Among the six firehouses under her command is the one in Clarendon where her career had its controversial start.

In addition to the firefighters who fought Brewer's entrance into the department 17 years ago, saying she didn't have the strength to do the job, their spouses also were none too happy about the prospect of a woman in the firehouse.

"The wives were upset about their husbands bunking with a woman," said Brewer, who said she tried to dampen their fears by looking as plain as possible. "I'm still here, so obviously the concern died down eventually," she said.

Even today "every department goes through the same process when it hires its first woman," said Terese Floren, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Women in the Fire Service, an advocacy group for women in the profession. "It doesn't really matter that it's 15 years later."

Of all the public safety professions, firefighting has been slowest to admit women. Today they comprise only 1 percent of the 250,000 professional firefighters nationwide.

By contrast, women make up 9 percent of the officers in municipal police departments and 18 percent of prison corrections officers.

"In some cases it used to be part of the job description: 'White male 18 or older,' " said Angela Withers, a spokeswoman for the Department of Fire and Rescue Services in Montgomery County, which employs the highest proportion of women of any department in the nation, including one who is a battalion chief.

"Women didn't even have the opportunity to start up the ladder."

The 17 years it took Brewer to reach the rank of battalion chief is not unusual in the Arlington Fire Department, Brewer and other fire officials said.

Although Arlington, where seven of 270 firefighters are women, was the first department in the country to hire a woman, it took six years for the county to hire a second.

The long interim "gave guys a chance to get used to the idea," said Quentin Tabscott, president of the firefighters union. He attributed the low rate of women in the department to a dearth of applicants, but acknowledged that "it may be the feeling that they are not wanted, so they don't apply."

Some women say unnecessarily stringent physical entrance requirements keep them out.

Arlington's standards, which are typical, require recruits to carry a 120-pound mannequin down three flights of stairs, hoist a 35-foot ladder, carry a 40-pound section of hose 100 feet, wield an eight-pound sledgehammer while hitting a chopping block 56 times to simulate opening a roof -- all while wearing 40 pounds of fire-resistant gear, including a face mask and an air tank.

Although Arlington's test tries to approximate real-life situations, advocates for women firefighters say the tests don't always reflect the actual demands of the profession.

"Tests should adequately and accurately measure what the job de-

mands: aerobic and cardiovascular capacity, rather than brute strength," Floren said.

Brewer, who is 5-foot-5 and weighs 128 pounds, said she failed her test initially and needed three months to prepare for a second try.

Today she keeps up a regimen of calisthenics and stationary bicycling with other firefighters to stay in shape.

Many of the 2,000 women firefighters in the lower ranks of the profession say they still occasionally face opposition from their peers.

And Floren's group is continually involved in addressing a variety of issues affecting women firefighters, from maternity policies many women deem inadequate, to the amount of privacy in the fire station, to uniforms and gear usually designed for the male physique.

Brewer said she pursued her dream of being a firefighter with intensity, but there were unhappy moments.

When she joined the fire department, she was Judith Livers, married to another firefighter. That marriage and a subsequent one failed -- victims, she said, of shift work that is part of the profession.

"It's difficult to keep a marriage," she said.

But Brewer and others said that firehouse life often can provide some of the support and nurturing of home life.

"It's like being in a large family," she said.

Some women, such as Jennifer Lollar, 25, who has worked for Arlington County for three years, say a firefighter's schedule is ideal for combining family and career.

"Work one 24-hour shift, then one day off, work another day, and off for the next four days," she said. "I get to spend a lot of time with my baby."

Whatever their difficulties in gaining acceptance from male co-workers, many women firefighters said that public resistance has never been a major problem.

"Even if you're the biggest chauvinist in the world," Withers said, "you're not in the position to turn down assistance from a woman if your house is burning down."