The Navy will begin issuing a new version of fire-retardant coveralls in the next couple of months, replacing the uniform currently worn by nearly all sailors at sea.
It marks the end of an extensive effort to develop and field fire-retardant uniforms for shipboard sailors because a previous one — the Navy Working Uniform Type I — was a safety hazard that melted when exposed to flames.
The new coveralls — known as the Improved Fire Retardant Variant — will be issued to sailors after the Navy runs out of the current version.
There are about 21,000 of the original models left on the shelves of the Defense Logistic Agency, which will only last another two or three months.
Navy officials say it will take about a year before all sailors will be wearing the new coveralls. Individual sailors get new sets of coveralls every six months and will have to wait until their next issue before they’ll get their new duds.
The Navy’s Feb. 2 announcement said all shipboard sailors must be issued two sets of coveralls at a minimum, but for training spin-up cycles and on deployment, three is “encouraged.”
The new coveralls were initially approved a year ago after wear tests and surveys showed sailors preferred a traditional coverall over a new flight suit type design.
“This is a case where sailors chose functionality over looks,” said Capt. Mark Runstrom, director of Fleet Supply Operations and Services at U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
“The zippered pocket locations were not optimal for most sailors.”
The new coveralls will mark a final resolution to an embarrassing chapter for the Navy that began in 2012, when startling internal tests discovered the blue-and-gray NWUs quickly caught fire when exposed to heat and would “burn robustly until completely consumed,” according to the report issued at the time from the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, Massachusetts.
In response, the Navy mandated fire-retardant uniforms in 2013 for sailors underway, and purchased off-the-shelf coveralls. The Navy later began plans to develop their own version, but that initial fire-retardant variant, or FRV, design fell short in both comfort and durability in the eyes of the rank-and-file wearing them.
The long wait time to get the newest version of the coveralls out to the fleet was mostly a function of the service needing to draw down supplies of the original FRV coverall and to ramp up production of the improved version.
The new coveralls are made with what officials call a tri-fiber blend fabric and are designed to last nine months instead of the six-month wear life of the FRV.
Tests showed that 91 percent of those testing the new coverall deemed it an improvement and more comfortable than its predecessor.
Most importantly, if the new IFRV coveralls catch fire, they will self-extinguish. When tested and exposed to a standard flame ignition source for 12 seconds, the flame goes out within two seconds, Navy officials say. And in tests, the new set maintained that level of performance even after 50 on-ship laundry cycles.
An added benefit is that the new coveralls’ material offers arc-flash protection, a significant upgrade from the current uniform.
In the past, the Navy issued special coveralls to sailors working near equipment that posed a risk of an arc-flash, a fast-moving, high-intensity electrical fire that can prove deadly.
Typically, only electricians were issued those special protective uniforms, yet with exposed wiring and plumbing on ships, everyone is technically at risk, and now, protected.
The new material also meets the lint-free requirements of the submarine community, meaning the fleet now has one coverall that meets the needs of both surface and submarine crews.
Speaking to the Navy’s fire-room engineers, Runstrom said the Navy’s new getup offers the same protection as commercial offerings from Carhartt and Bulwark, which have become the preferred engineering coveralls for many of the Navy’s gas turbine, diesel and steam machinists and technicians.
Engineering sailors will continue to be allowed to wear those commercial variants if they prefer.
“There may be a cultural preference that drives them to that, and again it will be the commanding officer’s discretion to authorize that,” he said. “But the IFRV offers the same amount of protection to them.”
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.