Prince George's County police officer Stephen Hiltabidle heard the explosion, jumped from his patrol car and ran toward the courtyard of an apartment complex that was filling with smoke.

"It wasn't us," a man called to the officer from inside an apartment in the complex across from Prince George's Plaza shopping center.

It was midnight Dec. 31. Over a radio came the strains of "Auld Lang Syne." The blast came from fireworks, and Hiltabidle did not stop to argue about who had ignited them "Happy New Year," he called back, and returned to his car.

Officer Hiltabidle was assigned to patrol on New Year's Eve, a time when police know that while they may not celebrate with their families and friends, they will nonetheless attend many parties.

They are sent by the police dispatcher, who reported hearing Sunday night and yesterday morning from "several hundred" complaining county residents.

"We get most of our calls soon after midnight," Hiltabidle said. "People who celebrate at midnight want to go to bed and don't get along with their neighbors who want to stay up partying."

As Hiltabidle drove through the rainy night, his car radio was a crackling cacophony of calls for "loud party," and "loud music."

The officer said his wife was attending a New Year's Eve party.

"By the time I get home, she'll be asleep," he mused aloud. "But I'm not worried about missing one night at parties."

As it turned out, none of the party calls that constantly flowed across the police communication channel was for him. If was not his lot to be asked to dampen high spirits and reduce the decibel level of revelry.

But his work was not untouched by the rituals and attitudes of New Year's Eve.

"I was in the blue car trying to make a turn and this guy pulled into me and hit my car here," said the girl in ski jacket and jeans in a shopping center in College Park. She pointed to a hole in the right front fender of her car.

She and the driver of the other vehicle, a 19-year-old youth, spent the next hour in Hiltabidle's patrol car while the officer wrote an accident report and issued a traffic ticket to the youth.

"This is a heck of a way to spend New Year's Eve," the youth said.

Hiltabidle returned again to the rain-splashed streets.

"help me out," asked the man in the three- piece suit who emerged from the white Cadillac. "I been riding around for an hour and I can't find my party," the man said. "I never been lost for an hour before."

Hiltabidle began to give directions, then stopped. "Follow me," he said.

"Thanks a lot man," the lost partygoer said. "Happy New Year."