SEVENTEEN WHITE battalion chiefs in the C.C. Fire Department have filed a complaint because a black battalion chief was promoted to deputy fire chief over 19 white battalion chiefs with more seniority. But however much they may resent this promotion, it is not - and should not have to be - a matter of seniority. Unlike lower level appointments, the selection of deputy chiefs is not made from a list based on civil service test scores and service in the department. All firefighters holding the rank of captain or above are eligible. This freedom of selection for the upper echelons of a city department makes sense - for no administration should be automatically saddled with top aides merely because they have the most years in grade.

The battalion chiefs say they believe that Chief Jefferson W. Lewis actually had picked another candidate and was overruled by Mayor Barry. But that's not what Chief Lewis, City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers or the mayor are saying. Mr. Rogers says the selection of Norman Richardson, a 22-year-veteran of the department, had to do with finding someone with a "sensitivity to working with people and getting along with a wide variety of people with diverse backgrounds." If that happens to include the fact that Battalion Chief Richardson is black, it is germane.

Besides, the other battalion chief's arguments in favor of a hiring list pale when they cite the colleague whom they believe was the chief's original choice - for that man was fourth on the list, not first. They also overlook other promotions over the years that did not follow any straight lists, but may not have caused such a stir since all involved were white. It is one thing for employees of a government department to criticize a promotion. But turning it into a complaint of racial discrimination is a serious matter - and in this instance, lacking foundation.