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Navy stands by NWUs despite report

Dec. 26, 2012 - 01:40PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 26, 2012 - 01:40PM  |  
The Navy has made no changes to regulations governing the wear of the Navy working uniform, saying tests results that showed it will burn and melt in a fire were not surprising.
The Navy has made no changes to regulations governing the wear of the Navy working uniform, saying tests results that showed it will burn and melt in a fire were not surprising. (Ashley Berumen / Navy)
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HOW THEY HANDLE FIRE

A recent, official test of the blue-and-gray version of the Navy working uniform showed it burns, melts and drips when exposed to fire. This has stirred concerns about the level of protection offered by other garments. Here’s how the fleet’s most common uniforms stand up to fire:
Utility coveralls
Cost: $27.05
Type: Seabag item
Fabric: Polyester-cotton blend (65/35)
Reaction to flame: Experts say it will burn and melt. The Navy says utility coveralls have not been flame-tested.
Engineering coveralls
Cost: $72.60
Type: Organizational clothing
Fabric: Cotton-twill treated with flame-resistant coating or fabric that includes the flame-resistant thread Nomex
Reaction to flame: Defense Department specs require that it extinguish within two seconds after exposure to flame, not melt and limit charring.
NWU Type I
Cost: $86.65
Type: Seabag item
Fabric: Nylon-cotton blend (50/50)
Reaction to flame: A Navy test found it will burn and melt.
NWU Types II/III
Cost: $83 each
Type: Organizational clothing
Fabric: Both use the same nylon-cotton blend as the Type I
Reaction to flame: Experts say it will burn and melt. The Navy says these uniforms are not flame-resistant and have not been tested, but that FR versions of both are available for those in war zones.
Flight suits
Cost: Not available
Type: Organizational clothing
Fabric: Made with flame-resistant Nomex
Reaction to flame: Defense Department specs require that it extinguish within two seconds after exposure to flame, not melt and limit charring.

Reacting to the Dec. 12 revelation that the Navy working uniform will melt in a fire, admirals sought to tamp down sailor concerns even as new questions arose about the flame-resistant protection offered by other NWU variants, utility coveralls and other apparel worn in the fleet.

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Reacting to the Dec. 12 revelation that the Navy working uniform will melt in a fire, admirals sought to tamp down sailor concerns even as new questions arose about the flame-resistant protection offered by other NWU variants, utility coveralls and other apparel worn in the fleet.

Officials said the NWUs — made of a 50/50 nylon-cotton blend that can melt when exposed to flame — were still suited for shipboard wear, including fighting fires.

"I believe sailors understand this uniform can be worn to take appropriate first-responder action to combat a fire," said Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, the chief of naval personnel, in an interview with All Hands, the Navy's official magazine. "Beyond that, they need to don more advanced protective gear."

A new Navy report found that the blue-and-gray NWUs "will burn robustly until completely consumed" and that the nylon fibers will melt, putting sailors at risk.

The Royal Navy switched to flame-resistant uniforms after discovering in the Falklands War of 1982 that their nylon garments melted in the intense heat of combat. The U.S. Army and Marines require flame-resistant uniforms downrange for just this reason.

Because of this vulnerability, the Navy has recalled items that melt (polyester-cotton blend T-shirts intended to be worn beneath NWUs) or banned their wear aboard ship (corfam shoes). But the Navy has not done so in this case and appears to lack a suitable alternative.

The utility coveralls worn aboard ships and submarines are a polyester-cotton blend that textile experts say will also melt and burn in a fire. Only flight suits and engineering coveralls offer flame-resistant protection.

Sailors stationed in war zones also have access to flame-resistant organizational apparel, officials said.

While emphasizing that NWUs were still cleared for shipboard wear, Fleet Forces Command stood up a working group to examine fleet uniforms, and CNP announced an overhaul of the uniform board. Uniform decisions will now be reached with technical advice from experts with Naval Safety Center, Naval Air Systems Command and the Naval Sea Systems Command.

Officials downplayed the report, which was ordered by NAVSEA and performed Oct. 15 by the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, Mass., saying it "reinforced" what they already knew.

"Well, we've known that these uniforms were not flame-resistant for some time," Van Buskirk said in the Dec. 19 interview.

Indeed, it appears officials knew that the NWU melts and burns before the Oct. 15 Natick test but took no action.

Asked if the Oct. 15 test of the blue-and-gray NWUs was this uniform's first test, Debra Dortch, a spokeswoman for Naval Supply Systems Command, replied, "This is not the first time flame testing has been conducted on this fabric. Earlier tests confirm all specimens continued to burn until totally consumed."

Navy apparel testers at Natick report to NAVSUP. Natick has never tested the utility coveralls, made of a polyester-cotton blend, Dortch confirmed.

"Although studies have been conducted in the past with similar non-flame retardant materials, no tests have been conducted specifically on the utility coverall," she said in an emailed reply to questions.

In addition, Natick has not flame-tested the steel-toe boots worn throughout the fleet or the desert and woodland versions of the NWU, Dortch said.

Even as scrutiny mounts, the Navy is standing by its guidance that NWUs are OK to respond to small fires. But officials have started to distance themselves from earlier statements.

When the uniforms were introduced to the fleet in 2005, CNP's office claimed that NWUs met "fire-retardant standards" that were capable of resisting "a certain degree of intense heat," according to a frequently asked questions page posted online Jan. 13, 2005.

CNP public affairs personnel stripped those claims from the post Dec. 20. It now states no uniform is designed to fight a shipboard fire and that the firefighting ensemble is a sailor's best protection. It doesn't mention how NWUs behave when exposed to flame.

Staff writer mfaram@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Mark D. Faram contributed to this report.

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