The Navy has approved a new underway uniform that may be issued by afloat commands later this year and would end a four-year effort to put shipboard sailors in high-quality fire-retardant clothing.
The announcement of the new coveralls — officially known as the Improved Fire Retardant Variant, or IFRV, came in a All Fleet Forces Command message released Jan. 19.
The IFRV coveralls will be worn by all sailors once their ship leaves the pier and is underway. It looks nearly identical in color and design to the Navy's current poly/cotton-issue coverall, known as the FRV.
"It weighs significantly less than the current FRV fabrics, breaths more efficiently, giving sailors better moisture management and comfort," Rear Adm. Pete Stamatopoulos, the director of fleet ordnance and supply at Fleet Forces Command, told Navy Times in a Jan. 13 interview. "It also lasts twice as long as the original FRV."
For now, the new coveralls won't cost sailors a dime out of pocket. Officials say the fire-retardant gear will remain what’s called "organizational clothing," which, much like flight suits, are issued when sailors need them and aren’t a part of the seabag.
The new uniform is could become a part of every sailor’s seabag once it is in the fleet. But for now, officials say there are no plans right to replace the existing poly/cotton coveralls in a sailor's seabag. The current coveralls are not an official uniform anymore; the Navy downgraded them only for "dirty work" that would damage sailors' other working uniforms.
It's been more than 20 years since the Navy required sailors to wear fire-retardant uniforms at sea. The Navy's decision to resurrect the requirement began four years ago amid revelations that the Navy Working Uniform — while never developed to be a fire-retardant uniform — actually put sailors at risk.
Navy officials learned of the dangers after an October 2012 test showed that the Navy Working Uniform Type I's melted when exposed to open flames. In fact, the uniform — made of a 50/50 nylon-cotton blend — "will burn robustly until completely consumed," according to the report from the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility (NCTRF) in Natick, Massachusetts.
In search of a safer uniform, the Navy in 2014 first purchased off-the-shelf coveralls for shipboard issue while also developing a long-term solution with an original design. But this first Fire Retardant Variant, called the FRV in the fleet, fell short in both comfort and durability in the eyes of the rank and file wearing them.
"There were complaints from sailors that the FRV material was too heavy and hot for many environments ... so hot that, in talks with sailors, many said they would go through two or more changes during the day." Stamatopoulos said.
"And it didn't stand up well over time and especially laundering," he said.
Back to the drawing board went the textile researchers at NCTRF and by last summer two new prototypes were issued to 700 sailors on the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, the destroyer Carney and the fast attack submarine Newport News.
In the past, the Navy issued special coveralls to sailors working near equipment that posed a risk of an arc flash, which is a fast-moving, high-intensity electrical fire that is potentially deadly. Typically only electricians got those special protective uniforms, yet with the ships' exposed wiring and plumbing, technically everyone is at risk.
The new material also meets the lint-free requirements of the submarine community, meaning that the fleet now has one coverall that meets the needs of both surface and submarine crews.
The amphibious assault ship Kearsarge stands as the backdrop at Naval Station Norfolk for Lt. Cmdr. Ken Gilmore, left, and Lt. Cmdr. Heather Flores, Fleet Forces Command, wear the approved version of the Improved Fire Retardant Variant Coverall that FFC announced this week. Kearsarge was the largest wear test platform for the new coveralls, which are expected to make their fleet debut in late fall, 2017 and could be adopted into the seabag in the future.
Photo Credit: Mark D. Faram/Staff
More uniform considerations
During the new coverall's testing, the Navy also looked at a new flight suit design as well. But that didn't get much love from the sailors, despite the initial cool factor.
In the focus groups and in feedback from online surveys, sailors' feedback was overwhelmingly positive in favor of the IFRV material and favorable toward the traditional coverall design. Of those surveyed, 89 percent thought the IFRV coverall looked better than the original FRV; 86 percent felt it was more durable; 91 percent said it was more comfortable; and 85 percent thought it was cooler in hot climates.
Sailors also expressed interest in the idea of a two-piece underway uniform — and the positive feedback was enough to prompt Navy leadership to take a look.
Development is underway for what's being called a "maritime two-piece fire retardant variant." The NCTRF is now working on prototypes and fleet focus groups are again expected to be used to review the designs in the near future.
The survey feedback and test data was central to FFC commander Davidson's decision to designate the IFRV coverall as the underway uniform for the Navy. "In the end, the data drove the decision," Stamatopoulos said. "This truly was a deckplate-driven wear test and the decision is what the sailors thought best."
First time in 20 years
The move will also bring the Navy full circle to May 13, 1996, when the decision was made by then-Chief of Naval Operations Jay Johnson to eliminate the seabag requirement of four pairs of fire retardant dungarees — which was then the working uniform for E-6 and below.
It was a calculated risk, but one that at the time the data supported.
The decision was based partially on cost as the Navy touted the move would save $12 million. But two other factors came into play as well.
At the time, all new uniforms underwent flame tests. But actual shipboard, fires were rare and most sailors weren't at risk, the studies conclude.
On top of that, FR uniforms of the day were problematic at best, costing 60 percent more than non FR standard uniforms. Besides, multiple tests in the 1990's showed the Navy was struggling with the fact that the uniforms would lose their fire retardant ratings after very few shipboard washings.
So in 1996, after a 14-year effort to bring consistent fire retardant uniforms to the fleet, the Navy cut ties with their blanket shipboard FR requirement. At the time, issuing fire retardant coveralls to engineers and other sailors in jobs that put them at risk was already common practice, so officials noted — those at greater risk were covered.
The move created some initial pushback in Congress, but in the end, lawmakers went along with the Navy's decision, too.
But with the 2012 revelations of just how flammable the NWU's and with them, the poly/cotton issue coveralls — all the same issues came up.
This time, Gortney decided it was time the Navy revisited the 20-year old arguments of FR necessity and especially in light of modern fabric technological advances.
"Although the likelihood of a major conflagration is low — 1-2 per year — when it does happen, the consequences could be severe to fatal," Gortney wrote on May 29, 2013 in a message that officially brought back the shipboard FR requirement.
In defining what that conflagration meant, he described it as "a fire or explosion of such size as to be beyond the control of the repair parties and may be a threat to the survival of the ship."
In announcing his plan to field FR clothing to the fleet and begin more research and development in the field going forward he made the decision to err on the benefit of all sailors — not just a few.
"The maximum protection to cover all possible contingencies and scenarios would include the issuance of flame resistant clothing for all sailors assigned to shipboard environments."
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.