THERE ARE all sorts of bureaucratic explanations for the Prince George's County government's mid-session dismissal of 14 fire department trainees. But they all come down to what the authorities call an "administrative error" and we would call an inexcusable blunder - or a series of blunders - that will require a considerable effort to set right. As one of the men put it bluntly, "They just messed up 14 lives." If these dismissals stand, the consequences could well "mess up" many more careers, not to mention the state of race relations in the county.

We hasten to note here that, contrary to the impression initial reports may have given, the dismissals were not connected with any official affirmative-action program - though the practical effect is that men from an all-white training class are being dismissed to make way for a group that is likely to be predominantly black. Here's how we're given to understand the situation.

The county had 22 vacancies to fill in its fire department from several pools; men who had taken a merit examiniation, others under the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (a federally financed program under which unemployed people are given a chance at county jobs) and 28 other trained men already working and paid with federal funds. Though there were no quotas, the county government intended to tap each of these sources to fill its class.

But thanks to some witless moves by the paperpushers, the county tapped only one source, the exam list, and wound up with 22 trainees, all of whom happened to be white. That was deemed unfair to those men in the other categories. So officials came up with a cruel solution: Keep eight of the trainees with the highest exam scores and kick out the other 14. Never mind that the men being dismissed had left jobs in other towns to realize lifelong goals of becoming firefighters, had been accepted for training and had completed four weeks of the 14-week course. The county's consolation was to offer to hire these men as jail guards at slightly higher pay and see if eventually there might be vacancies for them in the fire department.

That, pure and simple, is a disgraceful failure of the country to keep its commitment to the 14 men. By compounding its mistakes, the government now has succeeded in unfairly treating all of the men involved - black and white.

The reasonable remedy, in our view, is to reinstate the dismissed men and take whatever steps are necessary to add the men who were unfairly left out. Sure, there are budget limits and hiring freezes - but the county government has to accept the fact that people's careers and livelihoods are at stake. With some fiscal imagination and some down-to-earth compassion, surely a solution can be found that would be preferable to the personal damage and costly litigation that the county's dismissals are sure to cause.