THE STRUGGLE against racial discrimination in the city's fire department is a continuing story. In the early '50s, District commissioners bucked opposition on the Hill and ordered integration of the department. Ten years later that gradual process was completed, and since then black and white firefighters have served in every unit of the department. Discrimination did not end with segregation, though, as many black firefighters who served 20 years ago remind us. Now there is little of the overt racism -- separate sleeping quarters, even kitchen utensils -- that characterized the early days of integration. But black firefighters, now 38 percent of the force, still believe they have a legal and moral right to a larger share of the jobs and promotions in the department.

Important steps have been taken by the city in recent years to encourage more minority representation on the force. The entrance exam has been rewritten, and no one alleges that it is biased. More than three-quarters of the minority applicants who take the test pass it. A succession of black candidates has been promoted to chief of the department. An old rule requiring firefighters to live within 25 miles of the Capitol has been changed to require residence in the District. These policy decisions have produced results: The percentage of minorities in the fire department has been increasing slowly but steadily since they were adopted. In the years 1981-84, 68 percent of all firefighters hired for entry-level positions were minorities.

What more should be done to encourage the hiring and promotion of minorities in the department, and what can be done, constitutionally, that will not institutionalize a preference system that discriminates against whites? These are the difficult questions that will be before Judge Charles R. Richey Saturday morning when he holds a hearing on a proposed affirmative action plan for the department. There is much that is good in the plan. Cadet training, for example, is to be set up in 25 D.C. high schools, and the minimum firefighter age will be reduced to 19. Both steps are designed to attract youngsters in the predominately black public schools in the city and help them gain entrance to the department. Training programs will be offered to all employees with the special objective of helping women and minorities prepare for promotion exams. These are legitimate and effective affirmative action tools.

The proposed plan, however, also mandates quotas -- they cannot be called simply goals -- for employment and promotion. Because it requires that 60 percent of all new hires be minorities and 5 percent women, and because it sets the exact number of officer slots that must be filled by minorities in the next 18 months, the plan has provoked strong opposition, not only within the fire department, but in the Justice Department, which has sued to block implementation. Keep in mind that current hiring practices produce a higher percentage of minorities at the entry level than this order would require. These quotas are bad policy -- for whites who will be denied jobs and promotions because of their color, for minorities whose real accomplishments will be diminished by charges of preference, and for the department, where high morale, comradeship and group loyalty are absolutely necessary. Rigid quotas based on race erode all of these. A more flexible plan must be devised to accelerate minority progress in the department without relying on this controversial and divisive tool.