Lou Boozer knew going in he was qualified. He had the experience, the training, the college requirements and, as icing on the cake, his interview seemed to have gone well. But he was still surprised when he got the promotion to sergeant two months ago.

Boozer is a black firefighter and in Montgomery County -- where he had been passed over for promotion six times in 12 years -- there are few blacks being hired or promoted. Or women. Or Hispanics. Or other minority group members.

"It's 1987 and this is Montgomery County, supposedly one of the most liberal places in the country. That we are as far behind in affirmative action as we are is just terrible," said Boozer.

Less than 6 percent of Montgomery's 700 professional firefighters are black, 3.8 percent are women and 1.6 percent are Hispanic, according to September statistics compiled by the Fire and Rescue Commission. The county's police department, by comparison, is almost 10 percent black, 13 percent female and less than 1 percent Hispanic. The county government work force is 27 percent black, 42 percent female and 2.3 percent Hispanic.

"Frankly," said County Executive Sidney Kramer, "I am embarrassed by the low number and minimal effort given to minority hiring in the fire system."

But there is little that Kramer and the county government can do about the situation, officials said, because of the county's unusual hybrid fire system. The career firefighters are paid more than $40 million through county fire taxes, but they are actually employed by 18 private corporations that are volunteer-dominated and are not subject to the county's affirmative action plan.

Kramer is locked in a fierce battle with the volunteer companies over his plan to have the county take greater control over fire and rescue services. And the question of equity for minorities and women is emerging as a key issue in County Council deliberations that could lead to the county's assuming greater control over the fire system, a goal of county officials for two decades.

Critics of the current system, including the county NAACP branch, assert that the volunteers have perpetuated an old-boy network of white males being favored for hiring and promotion. Volunteers maintain that they abide by an affirmative action plan and have made progress on minority hiring. They angrily portray the criticisms as politically motivated, aimed at justifying a government takeover of their longstanding volunteer system.

Attracting minorities is a nationwide problem for a profession that traditionally has been white and whose rigorous physical requirements have made its ranks the domain of males. The District of Columbia's efforts to hire and promote more blacks has resulted in bitter feeling in the department and long-running court battles. Cities such as Cleveland and Birmingham have had to wrestle with the thorny question of when affirmative action becomes reverse discrimination against whites. Data on women and minorities in Washington-area fire departments was not available yesterday.

"I look at the bottom line and the bottom line {of the Montgomery fire service's hiring} is very dismal . . . . The good-old-boy system simply needs to be changed," said Isiah Leggett, the council's only black member, who supports Kramer's plan.

"I don't know where this came from, but it's nothing but a lot of crap," said David Dwyer, chief of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. Dwyer and Cabin John Park Fire Chief Victor E. Esch, among the strongest opponents of the proposed change, said that an affirmative action plan is in effect for the fire service and that if there are problems with it -- which is news to them -- the county and its recruitment efforts are to blame.

The NAACP was the first to focus public attention on the issue, asking county officials and the 18 fire departments for information on the number and rank of women and minorities. "Our concern is that there is a parochial provincialism in the volunteers, a kind of buddy system, that makes them insensitive to people not like themselves," said Roscoe R. Nix, president of the NAACP's Montgomery branch.

Countering that "I am not the chief of a good-old-boy social club," Dwyer said he and the other chiefs abide by a hiring plan that draws from county-prepared eligibility lists. "There is a system in place and we have goals," Esch agreed.

Critics, however, say the plan is not nearly ambitious enough and leaves too much room for violating guidelines. "It's a joke," said Council member Michael L. Subin.

The fire system's affirmative action plan, which is less ambitious than a separate countywide plan, has a target of 23 percent for women and minorities in entry-level jobs, according to Steven Davis, staff director of the county Fire Rescue Commission, which has limited authority over the fire companies. The plan requires each company to hire in rotating order a female, a minority, a volunteer firefighter, and the department's choice. The plan has resulted in minorities and women making up 17.4 percent, or 98, of the fire service's 565 entry-level positions.

While agreeing there has been minor success, County Personnel Director William P. Garrett pointed to the "startling" discrepancies between the affirmative action rules that govern the county and its employes, and those of the fire service.

The county's aim is that its work force reflect the makeup of the areawide labor force, not just the county labor force. The metropolitan area's work force is 32.7 percent black, 46 percent female, 4 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian American, according to county data. Montgomery County is about 14.4 percent minority, and 52 percent female, according to the 1980 census.

To achieve its goals, the county sets a 50 percent affirmative action hiring rate and a 50 percent promotional rate.

In the police department, the county has even more rigorous standards, setting aside 66 percent of its new positions for minorities and women. One reason for that, said Shirley Bailey, equal employment officer for the county, is that promotions are done in-house only, and it is important to have a large entry level pool of minorities and women.

The police department has 11 minority members and women holding rank higher than police officer, including two blacks and a woman who are lieutenants, said a police spokesman. The fire service's 31-year-old Sgt. Boozer, with the Hillandale Volunteer Company, is the highest ranking black in the fire service and apparently the only black to make sergeant, said Davis of the Fire-Rescue Commission.

Dwyer and Esch said that comparisons with the police department are unfair because there is more turnover in the police department, and they also contend that it is more difficult for women to qualify for the fire service because of the demanding physical agility test.

"The good faith is there" to hire women and minorities, but there is a problem recruiting qualified applicants, said Dwyer.

Garrett and other county officials agree, but there is a difference of opinion over who is at fault. Dwyer and Esch said that the county is responsible because it advertises the jobs and administers the tests. But Garrett said the county's hands are tied because the volunteer companies make all personnel decisions and traditionally have run their own recruiting operations. Bailey said the county also has limited authority to act on race and sex discrimination complaints.

"It bothers us," said NAACP's Nix, that "here is county money, but the county can't do anything at all about things that are obviously wrong."

The volunteer-controlled companies "had all these years to make changes and they didn't, so why should I think they will change in the future?" asked Leggett.

Davis said the Fire Rescue Commission -- which previously had been controlled by volunteers' appointments but has been reconstituted with members named by Kramer -- favors the firefighters becoming county employes. If that fails, he said, there still will be a revamping of the hiring plan. "It's the commission's fault {there aren't more blacks and women} . . . but that was the old commission. This commission will be aggresssive," said Davis.

Hillandale's Boozer sees the problem in broader terms: "Basically, you have a system that is run by people's likes and dislikes. So if you are a racist or a sexist or you just don't like someone, you can use that. I say this is the public's domain and we should make it so the likes and dislikes stay at home."