Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department Chief J. Wayne Hardesty will never forget the 1985 fire that killed three Calvert County teenagers.

The terrible December blaze, ignited from cigarette embers, left three dead and eight injured. But the worst part of it for Hardesty is that he believes it might have been prevented: An unopened smoke detector was found amid the smoking debris in the home's garage.

Hardesty is in charge of coordinating a free smoke alarm giveaway and installation program in Southern Maryland, one of two areas in the state participating in a federally funded study of the efficacy of smoke alarms. Western Maryland is also part of the study, as are areas in nine other states.

"We're targeting areas that could have possible fire hazards. One of the objectives of this program is to reduce fire incidents," Hardesty said.

Fire department volunteers and other emergency personnel will be distributing and installing 5,000 smoke alarms in homes throughout Southern Maryland over the next few months, Hardesty said.

The units will be monitored twice yearly over the next two years to see if they are working properly, said Steven Hill, an assistant administrator with the United States Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We want to see how many units are still working, how many fires were detected by these units and if these units reduced fire injuries and death," Hill said.

The $750,000 study was mandated by Congress in the 1999 budget. Hill said it involves 10 states with high residential fire rates--Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont. It is the largest single federal smoke alarm study to date.

"We suspect that with 10 states participating and over 100,000 smoke alarms, we will get a pretty good picture about whether smoke alarms work," said Maryland State Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele. Empirical evidence, Gabriele said, suggests smoke alarms do work: The state had 145 fire deaths in 1982, compared with 78 in 1998, a decrease resulting largely from more widespread use of the devices.

Gabriele was on hand earlier this month as Hardesty and other volunteers installed a free fire alarm in the home of a Prince Frederick woman who narrowly escaped serious damage to her home from a chimney fire. Her son had spotted the blaze after her smoke alarm failed to sound because of a dead battery.

To receive a free smoke detector in Calvert County, call Chief J. Wayne Hardesty at the Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department, 410-535-9875. For a free smoke detector in Charles County, call Tommy Swann at the La Plata Fire Department, 301-934-9201. In St. Mary's County, call Denise Hanson at the Bay District Volunteer Fire Department, 301-863-8790.