As evidenced by these sailors, there is a mixed bag of coveralls available to sailors in the fleet, with varying degrees of fire protection. The Navy hopes to narrow coveralls to one uniform, with necessary flame-resistant qualities. (MCSN James Norman / Navy)
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Tens of thousands of new, flame-proof coveralls are five months away from the fleet, where every surface and flattop sailor will get two sets, on the Navy’s dime. This will mean better fire protection at sea and signals the end of the road for the blue utility coveralls now worn.
But when it comes to changes to your everyday uniforms, this is only the beginning.
Officials are looking at developing even more protective coveralls in coming years. The Navy is also ready to test a breathable version of the blue-and-gray Navy working uniform in the tropics.
And a highly anticipated panel is finishing a report whose implications could affect a number of shipboard uniforms, including the widely worn NWU.
Officials made clear that the speedy development and delivery of the new coveralls boiled down to one concern — fire safety.
“About 1.5 times a year you’re going to have a major conflag[ration] at some point,” said Capt. Bruce Brosch, the lead member of the shipboard uniform panel that released its fire-risk findings in late May; the work of a second group is wrapping up. “With the op tempo we find ourselves in today, [it puts] us at a potentially higher likelihood of combat operations than what we saw in 1996.”
That’s the year the Navy lifted its rule requiring that working uniforms exhibit fire-retardant qualities.
But now, after revelations the NWU and utility coveralls can burn and melt to a sailor’s skin, exacerbating injury, the Navy is re-examining that requirement.
“It behooves us to give our sailors all that we can,” Brosch said.
The new coveralls
The new Navy blue coveralls feature the same fabric as damage control coveralls: 100 percent cotton, treated with flame-resistant coating.
“What we’ve done is combined the fabric of the repair locker coverall with the pattern of the polyester-cotton utility coverall,” Brosch said in an Aug. 28 phone interview. “We used that approach to give us a known pattern with a known fit, if you will. A proven design with a proven flame-resistant fabric.”
The new uniforms — known as a flame-resistant variant coverall, or FRV — will be a darker hue than the uniform they’re replacing, the utility coveralls, which are made of a 65/35 percent polyester-cotton blend that is also susceptible to melting in a fire.
“If you were to place it side-by-side with the utility coveralls, the FRV will be slightly darker,” said Brosch, who explained that the new all-cotton fabric lacks the shine from the polyester fibers in the utility coveralls (it is these synthetic fibers that will melt at high heat, transforming into a sticky, molten glop).
Navy testers are putting the new garment through the paces — how it stands up to tearing, repeated washing and being lit on fire. If it passes the tests, it will head straight into manufacturing to get it out to the fleet ASAP. Officials hope to start issuing pairs to the fleet in January or February.
Each pair costs $52, nearly double the price of utility coveralls. No need to get out your wallet: The uniforms will be purchased by the Navy as organizational clothing, similar to items like rough-weather “mustang” jackets or flight deck jerseys issued by commands.
Brosch estimates that the new coveralls push will cost $12 million, including $40,000 for the testing now underway at the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, Mass.
Fleet bosses plan to order 230,000 uniforms, enough to keep the fleet stocked for a year. That’s enough to provide two pairs to every fleet sailor assigned to aircraft carriers, big-deck gators and other amphibs, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, minesweepers, coastal patrol ships and Military Sealift Command-run logistics ships.
That leaves out a wide swath of the fleet, most of whom have flame-resistant alternatives. Aviation squadrons will continue to wear flight suits, an issued uniform that is flame resistant, and flight-deck sailors may soon wear flame-resistant pants and long-sleeve jerseys, which are in testing.
Submariners, however, are stuck with what they’ve got: the same utility coveralls worn in the surface fleet. The undersea fleet requires uniforms that release very little lint and will have to stay with poly-cotton coveralls until a low-lint FR version is designed. These coveralls would also protect wearers from arc flash, the highly dangerous voltage flare. Officials say it could be three years before these are fielded to the fleet.
The FRV coveralls will phase out the FR engineering coveralls; those can still be worn, but there aren't plans to continue buying them. This will allow the fleet to look more alike and will save the Navy some money: Each FRV set is $20 cheaper than a pair of engineering coveralls.
The panel’s vision is to phase out the utility coveralls after the FRV coverall hits the fleet. However, utility coveralls are a sea bag item and decisions about where and if they will continue to be worn are still being determined.
“Surface ships will wear the FRV coverall when they’re underway,” said Fleet Forces Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tommy Crosby, adding that the rules for the FRV and the future of utility coveralls were “still in discussions.”
In the last several years, a number of sailors have come forward with the same complaint: NWUs are too thick for tropical climes. Officials have heard it and are now moving forward.
“I get a lot of comments about, it’s hot. People in tropical areas. I’ve worn it and I agree,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert in an Aug. 20 interview posted on the Navy’s official website. “So we’re looking into some fibers and we’re going to do some wear tests.”
There are two options:
■The nylon-cotton-blend fabric could be replaced by a lighter-weight material. Nylon and polyester, both synthetic fabrics, can be manufactured into the kinds of moisture-wicking clothes commonly used in sports apparel. They could also confer with the Marines, who are designing a lightweight, quick-drying version of their digital pattern cammies.
■Changes could be made to the curing finish applied to NWUs, a treatment designed to maintain the uniform’s permanent press — or the treatment could be skipped completely.Not treating the fabric might make it more breathable, uniform officials said.
Either way, the goal is a cooler NWU that bears the same blue-and-gray digital splotches.
Officials are seeking viable lightweight materials at an acceptable price and say the timing of the upcoming wear test will depend on how fast uniform experts can find the right material, design the prototypes and get them onto sailors’ backs. A wear test is expected to start in 2014.
“The details of the wear test are still under development,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel, in a statement. “Wear test participants will include sailors assigned to afloat and ashore commands located in primarily warm weather environments. We also need to determine if a change to the NWU Type I will affect comfort and performance in cold weather environments, as well.”
The lightweight NWU, for now, is just a concept. And many more steps are required to find a suitable fabric that can be manufactured in the U.S. and at an acceptable price, Servello said.
While officials mostly knew the NWU lacked any level of flame resistance, a routine fabric test last Oct. 15 shocked them and sailors alike. It found the fabric burned rapidly and completely under flame and its nylon fibers melted — becoming a molten plastic that could burn the skin or even fuse to an open wound. In response to news of that test, Fleet Forces Command and Pacific Fleet ordered two working groups to review shipboard uniforms and the requirements for them.
The first panel in late May found a need for more flame-resistant fleet uniforms, and the fleet commanders ordered the rapid development and production of the FRV coveralls. The second panel has completed its work but hasn’t reported its findings. However, it is clear that they are pushing toward phasing out non-FR uniforms at sea, including the poly-cotton coveralls that also are susceptible to melting.
Once submariners hang theirs up in the coming years, these poly-cotton coveralls likelywill be extinct. Which leads to the next question: What happens to the NWUs?
Their future will be affected by the second panel’s thoughts on whether the Navy should reinstate the rule that all shipboard uniforms must be flame-resistant.
If reinstated, it will be a huge blow to the NWUs, a uniform developed a decade ago to be worn at sea and ashore alike and that was intended to simplify the seabag. (It didn’t, however, in part because the deck plates objected to replacing utility coveralls with NWUs.)
Recent moves have already undercut NWUs. The fleet commanders’ highest priority has been outfitting every sea-going sailor with a flame-resistant uniform — instead of sticking with NWUs as a suitable, stand-alone fleet uniform.
What’s more, most sailors ditch their NWUs at their first opportunity while underway.
The Navy has four likely options:
■Continue to allow NWUs fleetwide, including on ships, in addition to the FRVs.
■Restrict NWUs to shore commands and pierside ships.
■Jettison the uniform altogether. (The services are now under pressure to cut back on service-specific cammies to save money.)
■Develop flame-resistant NWUs — a move that would come with a hefty price tag.
“What the analysis has shown, to make the NWU flame resistant, is you’re essentially doubling the cost,” explained Brosch, who is also a member of the second panel. “And that’s been part of the discussions of the second working group. Given that we are fielding a flame-resistant variant coverall … is it worthwhile to pursue that?”
One set of NWUs costs $86.65; a flame-resistant pair could top $170 — making it a highly expensive seabag item that the Navy would have to pay sailors for.
Asked about the long-term options for the NWU in the fleet, Brosch replied:
“I can see a scenario where the ship’s in port and you’re wearing the Navy working uniform to and from the ship, doing work on the pier. There may be certain instances where the commanding officer would find it best for certain watch-standers to wear the flame-resistant coverall because of the type of potential exposure to fire.”
Then when the ship gets underway, Brosch continued, the crew puts away its NWUs.
“I envision a similar scenario, where a ship gets underway, they shift colors and put away the NWUs that they normally would wear in port.”
With the panel now in its final stages, Brosch did not discuss any other long-term scenarios.
The NWU also can be worn with a mock turtleneck that is a 100 percent blend of synthetic fibers, which can also melt to a sailor’s skin.
Brosch didn’t directly answer a question about whether the turtleneck would be prohibited aboard ship, only saying that the panel considers it “one and the same” with the NWU.
Brosch made clear that the working group is focused on making recommendations about what uniforms are suitable for shipboard wear, and that decisions about the long-term wear of the NWU belong to the Uniform Board, which developed and oversees them. Members of the Uniform Matters office, run by the chief of naval personnel, have participated in the panel’s meetings.
“The working group is in their final stages” and will present their recommendations “very soon” to Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of Fleet Forces Command, said Crosby, the FFC spokesman, who added that no date has been set.
The chief of naval personnel said they were awaiting the panel’s findings and, as a result, were unable to provide an estimated cost to flame-proof NWUs or say whether they supported making NWUs a non-underway uniform, similar to dress uniforms.
Once the panel presents its findings, said Servello, the CNP spokesman, “it is expected that... specific recommendations will be passed to the uniform board.”
The working panels’ short-term goal is to provide flame-resistant uniforms for all fleet sailors.
But the eventual goal is to produce highly protective coveralls issued to every shipboard sailor, much as flight suits are given to every flyer.
“Ultimately, from an organizational clothing standpoint, we could potentially get to a point where we’re just having to field the flight-deck ensembles and then the all-purpose variant coverall,” Brosch said.