WITH APPEALS to nostalgia, glorified legend and selected down-home short stories from bygone days of purely volunteer firefighting, Montgomery County today has become saddled with the most unusual, decentralized, entrenched -- and costly -- fire system in the metropolitan region. And though longtime supporters of this antiquated and expensive arrangement deny that the structure has institutionalized an old-boy network for hiring and promotion, the result has been the perpetuation of a mostly white male force. Of the county's 700 professional firefighters, less than 6 percent are black; 3.8 percent are women. This does not measure up well against a county government work force that is 27 percent black and 42 percent female. For all these reasons and still others, too, the system should be improved -- and County Executive Sidney Kramer has had the courage to take it on.

Taxpayers and county council members who examine this system should be cheering the effort. Under the current odd setup, career firefighters are paid more than $40 million through county fire taxes, but actually are employed by 18 private corporations that are volunteer-dominated and not subject to the county's affirmative action plan. In addition, these firefighters have been declared by a court to be eligible for overtime pay after 40 hours a week, which would cost taxpayers an estimated additional $6 million in the next year, unless -- as Mr. Kramer is proposing in legislation before the council -- they are converted into formal county employees and thereby become eligible for overtime only after working 53 hours a week.

In defending the county's 18 independent companies, the volunteer groups that run them like to talk about personalized service -- from getting cats out of trees to pumping wet basements or checking out noisy washing machines. The county has no direct authority over these operations. Under Mr. Kramer's plans, which were drawn from a study commission he appointed in May, full-timers would become county employees. They would still answer to the volunteer chiefs, but these chiefs would answer to county-employed district chiefs, each answerable to one top, county-paid chief.

This need not kill the spirit of volunteers or tie the hands of those who know and do a little about old-time personal service. What it would do is bring some semblance of control to the overall administration of -- and payments to -- the firefighting system of a major urban/suburban/rural county. It is a reasonable as well as a long-overdue compromise that every council member should support.