The Navy working uniform will melt when exposed to flames, a new report has found, potentially putting sailors at risk. Above, Chief Aviation Electronics Technician Glenn Hart, left, instructs Information Systems Technician 3rd Class Chris Finn on firefighting techniques during repair locker training aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt while wearing the uniform. (Seaman Eric Norcross / Navy)
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The Navy working uniform will melt when exposed to flames, a new report has found, potentially putting sailors at risk.
The digital blue NWUs — which are not rated as a flame-resistant uniform — are made of a 50/50 nylon-cotton blend that "will burn robustly until completely consumed," according to the results of a mid-October test conducted by Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, Mass.
But not only that: Its nylon material "melts and drips as it burns," according to the Oct. 15 report, which was obtained by Navy Times. "If this sticky molten material came in contact with skin it would contribute to increased burn injury…"
Sailors have been told by Navy leadership it's OK to respond to fires in NWUs. Meanwhile, the testers concluded the uniform "is not recommended" in cases "where there is potential for a flame or thermal threat."
The findings call into question the protection offered by one of the fleet's newest and most common uniforms, worn in squadrons, submarines and ships — industrial environments where sailors face the threat of fire from fuel, jets, machinery and electrical circuits.
Navy officials are reviewing uniform requirements, said Adm. Bill Gortney, head of Fleet Forces Command, in a Dec. 12 message sent to all commanders, commanding officers, officers in charge and command master chiefs.
"Informed by this impromptu test and in coordination with the uniform board, [Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Cecil Haney] and I will continue to review the requirements for — and flame resistant qualities of — working uniforms, including the Type 1 NWUs," he said. "We will explore long-term solutions that afford our sailors the right protective clothing, aligned with the tasks they are required to perform in various operating environments."
Gortney, in his message, ordered officers to ensure that their sailors know Type 1 NWUs are not flame resistant.
There hasn't been a fleet requirement for a flame resistant working uniform since 1996. But Gortney's message makes no mention of the uniform's potential to melt and exacerbate burn injuries, as outlined in the test. It's unclear whether the Navy knew about the melting problem until now.
Gortney wants assurances from his officers that sailors "have been properly issued flame resistant organizational clothing" for duties such as damage control personnel, fire fighters and welders.
Two months after discovering the NWUs are flammable, officials have made no move towards recalling the uniforms or changing their fire-fighting guidance. But in 2010, Navy officials pulled the sale of a blue T-shirt— specifically to prevent sailors from wearing it under their NWUs — because of concerns it would melt under flame and could even fuse to a wound.
Sailors are instructed to extinguish fires immediately, if at all possible, and officials reiterated last year that the blue-and-gray uniforms were cleared for these instances. But the fact that NWUs melt when exposed to flame puts that guidance into question.
Researchers tested the blue NWU uniform in mid-October as part of a larger electrical safety review. In the Natick test, testers hung 3-by-12-inch strips of NWU material alongside strips of flame-resistant Army and Marine uniforms, exposed them to flame for 12 seconds and observed the results.
The Army and Marine combat uniforms tested were made of flame-resistant materials. They didn't burn after the flame was removed, experienced no melting and were only charred from 3 to 4 inches.
The NWUs ignited. The entire strip burned. Plastic fibers melted.
"All material samples totally consumed by robustly burning flames," the observers noted in their report, noting that the uniform burned for longer than 60 seconds after the flame was removed.
The fleet has a number of flame-resistant uniforms such as engineering coveralls, flight suits and damage control gear. Like the Army and Marine combat gear, these uniforms are rated to withstand flame and experience minimal charring.
Navy spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said he wants sailors to know this issue is being taken seriously.
"We still consider the safety of our sailors to be a paramount concern of ours," he said. "This test … was made available to leadership in a pretty quick fashion."