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NWUs still at sea 6 months after melt risk found

Apr. 9, 2013 - 11:45AM   |  
NWU Flame Test
NWU Flame Test: Flammability comparison between the Marine Corps' FROG Combat Uniform and the Navy's Working Uniform
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Synthetic T-shirts, acrylic V-neck sweaters and shiny Corfam shoes — none of these can be worn underway, sailors know, because there is a risk that they'll melt in a shipboard fire.

Similarly, the mattress you sleep on must be designed to withstand fire without melting.

Yet fleet sailors are still wearing their Navy working uniforms nearly six months after officials learned that their nylon-cotton fabric melts when exposed to a flame.

This news surprised sailors from fireman apprentice to the four-star chief of Fleet Forces Command, but results of flame tests from almost a decade ago — records recently obtained by Navy Times via a Freedom of Information Act request — make clear officials have known for years about the fabric's flammability.

Navy records show NWUs have been flame-tested three times over eight years, all with the same result: rapid and complete combustion. The Navy's textile laboratory discovered this in 2005, when testers exposed the NWUs' nylon-cotton material to flame during the development process; only the most recent flame test, in 2012, include reports of the material melting.

“All of the samples continued to burn the entire length of the 12-inch test sample until there was no sample material left to burn,” the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility said in one undated report, issued after the comprehensive fabric tests were completed.

The tests at Natick, Mass., weren't limited to this new uniform. In the same experiments, Natick found utility coveralls, made of a polyester-cotton twill, also burn robustly after being exposed to a flame for 12 seconds. Like the NWUs, they will burn until “total consumption.” That took 26 seconds on average — burning in half the time as NWUs, according to the test reports. The records do not say whether the coverall fabric melted during tests.

A Natick official reported the first of these results Aug. 9, 2005, to the head of Task Force Uniform, the chartered group that oversaw development of blue-and-gray NWUs.

Navy officials stress engineers and flight crews are outfitted with flame-resistant coveralls and flight suits and say there are no reports of NWUs worsening a sailor's burn injury.

Unanswered questions

Reviews of these issues have been underway for nearly three months. A panel assessing the adequacy of current polices regarding which sailors wear flame-resistant apparel is expected to submit its findings by the end of April to the fleet commanders, said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura, Fleet Forces Command spokesman. Another group is revisiting the Navy's 1996 decision to no longer require flame-resistant uniforms aboard ship.

Meanwhile, questions remain:

• After the initial tests, why did uniform officials stand by their January 2005 guidance that NWUs met “fire-retardant standards?”

• What's being done about the utility coveralls or mock turtlenecks, which are also synthetic?

• Why hasn't the Navy recalled NWUs or limited their wear, as has been done in other cases of melting-prone apparel?

Navy officials have not answered these questions and the chief of naval personnel, who oversees uniform development and policy, said no Uniform Matters officials were available to comment for this article.

The spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel said the 2005 flame tests were part of a standard testing regimen and proved that NWUs were not flame-resistant, adding this was also true for the uniforms the NWU was designed to replace.

“The testing performed in 2005 indicated the NWU burned — like the navy blue coveralls and the working utility uniform — and if adopted, would be compatible for general use ashore and at sea in the same manner of those uniforms the NWU replaced,” said Cmdr. Kathy Kesler. “No currently issued Navy uniform component in the sea bag is developed purposefully to fight a shipboard fire.”

Nonetheless, criticism is mounting. One textile engineer was shocked the Navy would use a nylon fabric in a working uniform, since this synthetic fabric is widely known to melt at temperatures as low as 374 degrees. And Navy whistle-blowers have come forward to say they paid the price. Two former Navy Exchange Service Command leaders who oversaw production of NWUs said they raised these red flags with uniform officials and were dismissed. One of them, retired Capt. George Avram, said he believes he was fired for expressing his concerns.

Other critics contend that the Navy is out of step with the realities of modern conflict. Blazes from missile strikes or ignited fuel have engulfed crews quickly and randomly, putting both first responders and those who happened to be near the scene in grave danger. Two Iraqi Exocet missiles struck the frigate Stark on May 17, 1987, unleashing super-hot blazes that tore through crew quarters and the combat information center, among other spaces. Extinguishing them took nearly a day. The missiles and the fire killed 37 people.

The Navy later banned shipboard wear of Corfam shoes, which had shown a propensity to melt while sailors fought fires aboard Stark.

But a close ally's Navy went much further. After sailors experienced horrific burns in the 1982 Falklands War, the Royal Navy decided to jettison fleet uniforms made of synthetic fabric entirely after seeing how thermoplastic fibers melted onto sailors' skin.

Today, the Royal Navy's working uniform is made up of flame-resistant shirt and trousers, which are worn by every crew member aboard ship, a Royal Navy spokesman confirmed. British sailors also wear flame-resistant coveralls.

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