Seventeen white battalion chiefs in the racially troubled D.C. Fire Department filed a formal complaint yesterday charging that a black battalion chief was promoted to deputy fire chief over 19 white battalion chiefs with more seniority.

The complaint was the second controversy with strong racial overtones in the department since Mayor Barry took office Jan. 2. Both involved promotions, and both involved the union that endorsed Barry's candidacy in last year's mayoral campaign.

About one-third of the fire department's 1,481 members are black. Of the top 100 jobs, 15 are held by blacks.On a number of occasions in recent years, blacks and whites in the department have traded charges involving black representation in the top positions and fears by white firefighters taht some advances by blacks were due to irregularities in testing or other procedures.

The new controversy concerns the promotion of Norman Richardson, a 22-year veteran of the department, to deputy chief in charge of the training division. There are six deputy chiefs in the department, and only assistant chiefs and the fire chief rank higher.

Richardson's promotion, along with four others, was announced Wednesday by Fire Chief Jefferson W. Lewis and was to become effective Sunday. Because of the complaint, which was filed with the department's equal employment opportunity officer, the promotion will be temporary until a decision is reached on the complaint.

Conflicting versions of the events and procedures leading up to the promotion and the role of Barry were given by the union, the fire department, the mayor's press secretary, City Administrator Elijah B. rogers and the black firefighters group.

Unlike lower level departmental promotions, the selection of deputy chiefs is not made from a list based on civil service test scores and service on the department.

All 99 persons who hold the rank of captain or above are eligible. City Administrator Rogers said that he and Lewis looked at a sizable list of persons eligible and finally decided on Richardson, at Lewis's suggestion. "I advised the mayor [of the choice]). That was all the mayor's role," Rogers said.

The complaint by the white battalion chiefs refers, however, to a list of upper-level officers based on seniority. On that list, the battalion chiefs said, Richardson is 20th. He also is the highest ranking black on the list.

"We don't like the system," said Battalion Chief William H. Phillips, a spokesman for the 17 battalion chiefs who filed the complaint. "We feel the top man should ger the job, unless he is not qualified and that should be said." Phillips said he was second on the seniority list, but added, "That's not my complaint."

Phillips charged that the promotion of Richardson was an act of "blatant racism. This man is no more or no less qualified than other men higher on the list," he said.

Fire Chief Lewis, who announced the promotion on Wednesday, could not reached for comment. City administrator Rogers said Lewis would not be available until next week, and Alan Grip, the city government's press secretayr, said Lewis was "on leave [vacation]."

Barry was in West Virginia attending a bankers' conference. He said through his press secretary, Florence Tate, that criticism of the appointment was "racist-inspired."

William N. Hoyle, president of Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters said, "We are saddened that these seniority-be-damned, send-me-a-black' negative and regressive philosphy seems to prevail in the District Building. . . I have no axe to grind with Norman Richardson" If it was a white man that was 20th, it still would have been unfair."

Jerry Junior, vice-president of the black Progressive Firefighters Association, said, "Let's face it. They [the union] don't want any blacks in the upper echelons. Any time a black man is promoted on the job, they've got something to say about it."

Phillips, the battalion chiefs' spokesman, said they believed that battalion chief Alphonse Torre had at one point been chosen by Lewis for the job and that he already had taken a physical examination required for promotion. Torre was fourth on the list, Phillips said.

He said the promotion of Torre later was overruled by Barry and that Richardson was promoted instead.

Hoyle, president of the union, said union officials were told by members of Lewis' staff that Lewis and senior department officers unanimously had agreed upon Torre.

Lt. Ray Alfred, and active member of the black firefighters group, said that seniority list never have played a major role when deputy chiefs were chosen.

"Every fire chief in the past has done this [chosen persons not highest in seniority]. This is nothing new," Alfred said.

Rogers, the city administrator, said race was not a consideration in the of Richardson. "The main thing was a sensitivity to working with people and getting along with a wide variety of people with diverse backgrounds," Rogers said.

The complaint will be first reviewed by Lt. John B. Lockwood, a fire department equal employment opportunity counselor, and Battalion Chief Jesse L Cropps. the department's senior equal opportunity officer. If Lockwood and Cropps do not satisfy the complaint, it can be appealed through the District's Office of Human Rights and the federal Office of Personnel Management. A suit ultimately could be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In February, the mayor's office investigated accusations by the firefighter' union that cheating may have been involved in the administration of a departmental promotional examination on which the top 12 scorers were black. In the past, few blacks had finished among those who scored highest on the exam.

The fire department complaint follows by less than a month a discrimination issue within the D. C. police department.

The Metropolitan Police Officials Association, whose 200 members include officers ranked lieutenant and above, voted in late May to file a complaint charging Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson with discrimination against white officers eligible for promotion. Jefferson is black.

However, the association's board of directors rescinded the vote a week later, ruling that too few members had voted on the issue. The board is expected to call for a new vote at a meeting next week.