EVEN THE most concerned parents may not realize that the No. 1 killer of children aged 14 and younger in the United States is not disease, but preventable injuries. It's a chilling toll: more than 8,000 children are killed and at least another 50,000 are disabled by events that didn't have to happen. This doesn't soothe any parent after the fact, but it has become a subject of intense concern in medical as well as lay circles. Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, has observed that "if disease were killing our children in the proportion that accidents are, people would be outraged and demand that this killer be stopped." To that end, Dr. Koop is now chairman of the National Safe Kids Campaign, an effort to curb these tragedies by prescribing some basic preventive measures.

One of the top killers is fire in the home, which takes the lives of 1,200 children a year while injuring another 11,400 -- at a proportionally higher rate than that of adults. About 65 percent of these young victims are under the age of 4. The statistics also are worst for children in poorer urban and rural areas and show that black children of all ages are three times more likely to die in a residential fire than white children, which is a subject of special concern to the Safe Kids project.

So what can be done beyond educating families about fire danger? There's a two-word answer: smoke detectors. Herta Feely, executive director of the national campaign, notes that these devices can and do mean "the difference between life and death for many children." The numbers here are startling: about 90 percent of the children who die in residential fires are from homes without working smoke detectors.

While the District continues to struggle with alarming rates of infant mortality and the effects of drugs and diseases on its children, the least that parents everywhere can do to stop the deaths and injuries caused by fire is to obtain, install, test and maintain smoke detectors. That ear-piercing scream of a reliable detector can be sound advice of the most critical kind.