In Montgomery County, 'tis the season for the toy patrol to make its annual rounds. And this year, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has declared that retailers who have been very, very good about ensuring toy safety will get a special seal of approval from the county.

Duncan said yesterday that retailers will be issued a "Safe Toy Partner" decal if they agree to identify and remove unsafe products from their shelves. The decals will be handed out as part of the county's annual "toy sweep," in which consumer affairs inspectors comb the shelves of cooperating toy stores, looking for products that have been recalled or deemed unsafe by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"We want to give consumers one less thing to worry about during the holidays," Duncan said.

Duncan (D) and other officials who took part in a news conference at the Zany Brainy toy store at Congressional Plaza in Rockville yesterday said most retailers do an effective job of ensuring that they do not sell toys that have been recalled.

But Ann Brown, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said Montgomery's program was a good idea because it helps promote greater awareness about toy safety at a critical time of the year.

"It raises people's concerns about these toys," she said, adding that few other local jurisdictions have similar programs.

Brown said that 14 toy-related deaths were reported to the commission in 1998. During the past fiscal year, the commission issued recalls and corrective actions for 95 toys and children's products.

Montgomery County has been conducting its voluntary toy store inspections since 1995, and each year, the majority of stores taking part were found to be free of recalled items. County officials could not provide details about the results of yesterday's inspections.

Last year, inspectors visited 28 stores and found two products that had been recalled--a battery-powered ride-on toy that could catch fire if the battery overheated, and a puzzle with parts that presented a choking hazard. Consumer affairs officials said both toys were immediately pulled from the shelves by the retailers.

"Toys do slip through the cracks and are out there, and that's what we're going to try to find," said George Rose, the county's consumer affairs chief.

Officials said anyone interested in finding out more about recalled toys or reporting potentially unsafe products should call the Consumer Product Safety Commission hot line at 1-800-638-2772, or visit the commission's Web site at www.cpsc.gov.

CAPTION: Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, right, inspects unsafe toys and equipment that the county collected from thrift shops and yard sales at the Zany Brainy toy store in Rockville.