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Navy: Sailors can share flame-resistant coveralls amid shortage

May. 9, 2013 - 10:56AM   |  
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An engineman and a gas turbine mechanic apply a banding patch to a piece of pipe. Enlisted leaders say there are not enough fire resistant coveralls to go around and some sailors are buying their own or going without. (Mark De St. Aubin / Navy)
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When it comes to fire safety on ship, the safest scenario is for every sailor to have flame-resistant clothing.

This was the unsurprising conclusion from a fleet working group tasked with evaluating organizational clothing and flame-resistant requirements at sea.

What is surprising is that A) Sailors required to wear FR coveralls don’t have enough; and B) One of the group’s possible solutions is for sailors to share their coveralls.

The Navy decided to form two working groups after news broke in December that the Type I Navy working uniform melts and drips when exposed to fire. Utility coveralls have the same problem.

While the first group focused on requirements, the second panel begins this month deliberating what steps the Navy should take next.

The first group has already written some near- and long-term recommendations on how the Navy should proceed.

Officials declined to comment on those as the recommendations were still being evaluated by leadership.

However, a source familiar with the recommendations told Navy Times that the service is looking to fast-track FR coveralls to those engineering sailors who are required to wear them. The service could also set aside FR coveralls to share among sailors who visit or work part time in engineering areas. This would be similar to the “dirty work” green coveralls already in use.

In the fleet, sailors have had to make do, in some cases buying their own fire protection. A pair of FR coveralls costs about $72.60.

“We try, but there just isn’t the money out there to make it practical to issue fire-retardant coveralls in quantities that make it viable for our sailors to wear them every day as they probably should,” said Master Chief Machinist’s Mate (SW) Ron Castle, a nearly 30-year veteran who has been the engineering leading master chief petty officer, or “top snipe,” on a number of steam-powered ships.

“Most senior enlisted that I know, including myself, go out and buy our own FR coveralls for daily wear,” he said. “Even some junior sailors do this.”

So how does Castle feel about sailors sharing coveralls?

“The idea might work for nonengineering sailors who don’t wear their fire-retardant gear on a daily basis,” Castle said. “But for engineers, and especially junior engineers who get real dirty and sweaty on the job, I can’t see it working at all.”

The focus of the working group was “the safety and welfare of every sailor, not just those in the high-risk areas,” said Rear Adm. Rick Berkey, head of the first working group and deputy chief of staff and fleet maintenance officer at Fleet Forces Command.

“The working group put together recommendations where we should go with organizational clothing and presented that to the fleet commanders, rolled up in what we call near-, mid-term and long-term recommendations.”

Berkey said he wouldn’t discuss specifics as they hadn’t been fully vetted to fleet staffs and Navy leadership.

It could mean some big changes to Navy uniforms in the long run, the Navy source said. Options include:

■ FR coveralls issued to every sailor via their command.

■ An end to the utility coveralls, replacing them in the seabag with an FR version.

■ An FR version of the NWU.

It will be up to the second group to dig into which of these options might work best. That group will make its own recommendations on how the Navy should act and present them to top Navy leadership. It would be up to the Uniform Board to decide on a course of action, with the approval of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.

“These groups weren’t designed to happen in parallel, but in series,” Berkey said. “They’ll take the information we’ve gathered and look at shipboard uniforms and the suitability of them today.”

Berkey’s group found some positives. The Navy is testing new, flame-resistant jerseys for flight-deck sailors, for example, and that work is on the right track, the group determined.

The group also examined uniforms off ship. Fire protection needs are being met for sailors in the war zone through issued FROG, or flame-resistant organizational gear.

Engineering shortages

The extent of FR coverall shortages across the fleet is an unknown. But it could be most serious for engineering sailors.

According to statistics from the Defense Logistics Agency, Navy officials aren’t buying enough FR gear.

The service purchased 8,500 FR coveralls through DLA in fiscal 2012. But in surface engineering ratings alone, there are 15,034 spots, of which 12,579 are filled.

In fiscal 2011, the Navy bought 9,000 FR coveralls and 5,300 in the year before that.

When asked about the shortages, Berkey said the picture is incomplete. Commands have the ability to buy from local vendors, instead of relying on the Navy supply system.

“A lot of coveralls are being bought outside [the supply] system,” he said.

But when asked how many, Berkey said he did not know and that it would be difficult to track. Accounting details would be kept at the command level.

“We did not go down the path of looking at how many fire-retardant coveralls are actually onboard ships today,” Berkey said. “It was hard enough to figure out how much was being bought.”

The Navy needs to better track how it’s buying FR gear, Berkey acknowledged.

Castle wasn’t the only senior enlisted to say FR coveralls weren’t being distributed across the fleet.

“We only issue them to those in the divisions who own the actual engineering machinery spaces,” said another senior enlisted leader who spoke on condition of anonymity as his command asked him not to discuss the issue. “But many of our sailors work as roving patrols and are in and out of engine rooms on a regular basis for their individual jobs and watches and should be wearing them according to the rules.”

Every sailor in surface engineering departments is authorized to have two pairs, according to Afloat Training Group guidance found online.

For engineering sailors, wearing FR coveralls is mandatory for “engineering personnel who stand watch or work in ship’s fire rooms, main machinery spaces and in hot work areas,” according to an all surface forces message issued in July 2000 and still in effect. “In addition, all nonengineering personnel who perform work in these areas must also wear fire-retardant coveralls.”

Wearing the non-FR, polyester-and-cotton-blend coveralls in engineering spaces is “not authorized for use in these areas,” the guidance says, though commanding officers have the authority to allow non-FR gear in these spaces for short visits by VIPs or during inspections.

Repair lockers are also required to keep FR coveralls.

Both Berkey and Castle said that commands work hard to keep the repair lockers stocked with coveralls. Initial fire teams wear the heavier “firefighting ensemble” to respond to fires.

Their backups, Berkey said, wear FR coveralls.

Castle said most engineering departments view this requirement as sacrosanct.

“Commands I’ve been at really put a priority on keeping the damage control lockers stocked when it comes to fire-retardant coveralls,” he said. “It’s also easier to keep them stocked as they don’t wear out, and we really put our foot down when it comes to pilfering.”

Shortages of funds, however, have pushed the purchase of such gear down the priority list, he said. And commands tend to purchase them only prior to inspections.

If the Navy is going to get serious about FR gear and enforcing the existing rules, Castle said officials have to evaluate what engineers really need.

“For our junior sailors heading on deployment, I think they need to be issued three sets, minimum,” he said. “And they tend to wear them out in three to four months because of the work they do — where senior guys like Master Chief Castle, who don’t get as grimy, can stretch a pair for eight or nine months of service.”

Castle said many sailors prefer to buy their own. Numerous official Navy photos show sailors hard at work in Bulwark-brand FR gear. They’re more comfortable, he said.

Berkey, while not disparaging the brand, warned that there’s risk in buying your own.

“When you are buying it through a company, then you are relying on their certification for what that material is,” Berkey said, and not the Navy’s.

Threat to sailors

Berkey said his group looked at all the shipboard threats to a sailor, from combat casualties to “mass conflagrations.”

Over the past 30 years, he said, there’s been 45 significant events that resulted in significant fires. Thirty-one of those events occurred while at sea, the remaining 14 in port.

Analyzing those events, the biggest threats are: blasts from explosions, smoke, electric arc flash and flame.

“Those are the four hazards we looked at, along with what kind of fire protection would fire-retardant clothing provide in those scenarios,” Berkey said. “It’s pretty intuitive that [FR clothing is] not going to protect you from a blast and not going to protect you from smoke, so arc flash and flame is where we concentrated our efforts. Arc flash —you’re not going to get to that unless there’s significant electrical or electronic component that’s involved in the event. So we really concentrated most on the flame aspect of the hazard and what’s the protection from fire-retardant clothing needed to protect from that.”

According to the Navy source, officials found that existing FR coveralls provide the protection needed for shipboard threats.

In 1996, the Navy rescinded the shipboard flame-resistant requirements and took on a level of fire risk for sailors at sea.

It remains to be seen to what extent leaders will decide to mitigate that ongoing risk.

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