The Justice Department filed suit in federal court in Baltimore yesterday alleging that the Cambridge, Md., fire department has discriminated against blacks and women in allowing persons to join its 400-member volunteer force.

The suit alleges that the Rescue Fire Company Inc. has pursued "an intentional policy and practice" of discriminating against blacks and women by not making membership applications available to the general public and by requiring applicants to be sponsored by a member of the department.

John R. Cannon, president of the fire company, denied the allegations. "We have not discriminated in the past, and we will not in the future," said Cannon, who declined to say how many blacks and women are members of the fire company.

Until the Justice Department notified the city in September, the suit says, all of the fire company's members in the last 100 years have been white men. Since September, two black men have been accepted, said Gregory Meekins, president of the NAACP in Dorchester County.

Of the fire company's 400 members, only 75 are authorized to fight fires, according to the suit. Because more than 300 members do not fight fires, Meekins said, the perception is that the fire company also serves as a social club and should be open to anyone who wants to join.

"It's been an unwritten rule that blacks and women would not be welcomed," Meekins said. "Anyone who has lived here knows that.

"I really don't see what the problem is. You're not going to have everybody and their grandmother knocking on the door wanting to join."

The Justice Department told city officials that the suit would be filed unless the department changed its alleged discriminatory policy and publicized the changes. The policy was formally changed during meetings between fire company officials and local black residents, but officials declined to notify the public, the suit says.

"It's very unfortunate that the city will have to spend money on litigation," said Meekins. "Having already made the formal change, making it known to the public would be a simple step. They don't see it that way."

The fire company's policy also denies residents equal use of public facilities, the suit says.

The fire company occupies the second floor and most of the first floor of the Cambridge City Hall, according to the suit, and city residents are not allowed into those areas -- including game and television rooms -- unless they are members or guests.

"It's the first time to my knowledge that the Justice Department has challenged the use of a city hall on a racially and sexually segregated basis," said Paul Hancock, an assistant for litigation in the department's Civil Rights Division.

Cambridge, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has a population of 11,703, according to the Maryland Research and State Data Center. Women make up 54.6 percent of the city's population; blacks, 40 percent.

The Justice Department first heard of problems with the fire company during its investigation of election practices in Cambridge, Hancock said.