Burglaries in the United States soared to more than 3 million in 1980 -- That's one burglary every 10 seconds. In 60 percent of the cases: the targets are houses and apartments.

Last year, Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County residents reported a total of 9,148 burglaries to their homes.That represented an increase of nearly 1,800 residential burglaries over 1979, when the three jurisdictions reported a total of 7,354. (Residential burglaries in Alexandria actually dropped slightly from 2,841 in 1979 to 2,607 in 1980, but in Arlington rose from 1,440 in 1979 to 1,529 in 1980 and in Fairfax County from 4,033 in 1979 to 5,012 in 1980.)

In the past few years, some Northern Virginians have decided to fight back -- through citizen crime watch programs. In one neighborhood, Potomac Hills in McLean, citizens are conviced that their watch program is the primary reason for a dramatic drop in burglaries there.

Potomac Hills residents decided to organize their program in December 1979 after they learned some startling facts: In the last three months of the year, police estimated 10 of 12 homes in affluent Potomac Hills were being burglarized every month.

"At a . . . meeting of our citizens' association we decided to face the problem head-on and form our neighborhood watch program," says Ray Clarke, president of the Potomoac Hills Citizen Association and a principal organizer of the program.

By the end of last year, Potomac Hills residents were pointing to results: In 1980, only eight burglaries; in the last five months, none.

The program is modeled after the National Neighborhood Watch, started nine years ago by the National Sheriffs' Association with a grant from the Justice Department. The association estimates that 20,000 U.S. communities now have watch programs.

"This prgram," said Ferris E. Lucas, national director of the association, "was initiated because the security and safety which old neighborhoods once provided has disappeared. Americans don't know their neighbors as well as they used to. The watch program is bringing neighbors in contact with each other again for a common purpose -- to make our homes and streets safe."

The cornerstone of the program is a group of trained citizens who, under the supervision of a police liasion officer, learn what to look for and what to do if watchers see something unusual. A major purpose of the training is to make sure the groups do not acquire a vigilante sterotype. Police say they have received no complaints that any of the watch groups have overstepped their bounds.

"These trained citizens," says Warren Carmichael, a spokesman for Fairfax County police, "are the eyes and ears only. Never are they authorized to take any action on their own. They are in no sense of the word vigilante groups, nor do they substitute in any way for police action."

The first official watch program in Northern Virginia began in 1979 in Fairfax County. Since then, more than 100 neighborhoods have started programs, including 66 in Fairfax and 40 in Arlington. Currently, the only active watch program in Alexandria is at Warwick Village, although police say programs are on the drawing boards in several other neighborhoods.

In Potomac Hills, the first step in starting the program was a meeting with local police who outlined the problem.

"Most residence burglaries take place during the daylight hours . . . said Lamont Yancey, the Fairfax police officer who is the liaison between police and watch groups in McLean. "Most burglars are young, between the ages of 16 and 21, and are familiar with the neighborhood."

To begin with, residents learned how to prevent burglaries; upgrading locks, improving lighting, making arrangements to have mail and newspapers picked up when they were on vacation.

Next, they started getting to know their own neighborhood: What cars actually belonged next door? Who was on vacation? Should the moving van really be at the house across the street?

Finally, the police gave citizens some guidelines for what to do in case they say anything unusual. The major point was simple: Never do anything yourself. Always call the police.

Once they had the basics, Potomoac Hills residents set up with has become one of the most sophisticated watch programs in Northern Virginia.

Every day community members patrol the streets in cars outfitted with portable CB units and with a large sign on the car door identifying it as the Watch Patrol. Any time patrol members see something unusual, they report it to another volunteer in the community's "base station," which includes a CB transmitter and reciever set up in a neighborhood home. The base station operator, in turn, reports to police.

"They (patrol members) always travel in pairs, one driver and one observer," says Dan Pollock, the Potomac Hills resident who coordinates the patrols. "Those on patrol never leave the cars. They never engage in any confrontation whatsoever. They simply observe and report back to the base station . . . When warranted, this information is called into the McLean police station, and the police respond and take all necessary action."

Potomac Hills also has set up a system to identify cars that should be in the neighborhood, through special bumper stickers that residents are given free.

All the watch programs are financed with donations from residents or grants from local community groups. In Potomac Hills, all donations are voluntary and no one is forced to participate in the program. But community leaders say few people among the 447 homeowners have passed up the chance to join the program.

Clarke says the beauty of watch programs is that "each neighborhood fashions their's according to their own special needs and resources."

For instance, although the Potomac Hills residents focus primarily on residential burglaries, other watch groups have directed their attention to specific community problems such as vandalism.

For Potomac Hills resident Mary Prendergast, the program has had an unexpected reward: ". . . where we were only 'residents' up until a short time ago, we have now become neighbors in the true sense of the word, neighbors who know and care about one another."