Navy uniforms are flammable, and the military knows it
By Dianna Cahn | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: January 9, 2013
NORFOLK, Va. — The Navy's standard-issue blue camouflage uniforms are highly flammable and will melt onto the skin when burning, a recent Navy test revealed.
A second revelation: This comes as no surprise to the Navy.
"We knew when we designed this uniform that it wasn't flame-resistant," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Navy's top spokesman.
"When we were making the uniform, sailors wanted a uniform that was comfortable, that didn't require maintenance and would stand up under a lot of washing, and one of the ways to get that is a nylon-cotton blend," Kirby said. "We realize that nylon does not react well to flame, but again, there was no requirement for a fire-resistant uniform in a working environment."
The Navy released findings in December of an impromptu test that showed that - unlike the Army and Marine Corps working uniforms - its working uniform is not designated flame-resistant and "when subjected to a flame, it will burn robustly until completely consumed."
The Type I NWU, as it's known, is half cotton and half nylon. The nylon component "is a thermoplastic fiber that melts and drips as it burns," the report said. "If this sticky molten material came in contact with skin, it would contribute to increased burn injury."
Navy admirals said the uniform was never meant to be flame-retardant and there is fire gear throughout any ship in case sailors are exposed to flames. Only sailors with specific jobs such as airman, engineer or firefighter and those in combat are required to have fire-resistant clothing. Kirby noted that the Army and Marine uniforms are geared toward combat and the dangers of roadside bombs.
That said, Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, Chief of Naval Personnel and president of the Navy's Uniform Board, announced in a message to commanders on Dec. 12 that Fleet Forces commander Adm. Bill Gortney, working closely with Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Cecil Haney, has established working groups to review the fleet's uniform needs and to consider whether these uniforms do the job.
Buskirk said he also has expanded the Navy's uniform board, adding the Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Air Systems Command and the Naval Safety Center as technical advisers to the board.
The test on the working uniform last month was conducted during research on materials and equipment at the Navy's safety center in Massachusetts. Kirby said one of the testers took it upon himself to check the flammability of the NWU.
A video of the test, which the Navy posted online, shows the uniform quickly burning when exposed to flame.
"Nobody asked for these tests," Kirby said. "Now that we have the results of this particular test - obviously, we are not surprised the fabric did not react well to flame - but now that we have specifics... we are going to take another look."
Admirals, including Buskirk, Kirby and Gortney, all said they were still comfortable that the uniforms are appropriate to wear in the right environment.
Kirby noted that the Naval Safety Center issued a message to the fleet last year saying that while the uniform was not suitable for firefighting, it was still appropriate to wear at sea or in initial response to small fires. Ships are equipped with flame-resistant firefighting gear that sailors can get to.
The leaders said they were confident that sailors were aware of the garment's limitations. But some sailors expressed outrage that their standard-issue uniforms were flammable and said it poses a serious risk for sailors working in the confines of a ship, where fire is of particular concern.
The Navy Times published an editorial last week entitled "For safety's sake, fix NWU mess - fast" that charged that uniforms were not only unsafe, but the Navy was "misleading people about this uniform" since it was introduced in 2005. The newspaper unearthed a Navy posting in an online forum that states, "Navy uniforms are required to meet specific fire retardant standards, and these NWU concepts also meet those requirements."
In response, Kirby wrote a strongly worded letter defending the Navy's actions. He acknowledged that there was some "unfortunate and confusing language" posted that had now been corrected but said it "hardly qualifies as some sort of ugly intent to lie to our own people."
An Internet search for "Navy fire-retardant uniform" this week, however, still pulls up the page with the questionable information.
"What I really bristled at was the charge that we somehow have been misleading sailors," Kirby said. "We have been routinely training sailors to this issue when they go off to school, to basic shipboard training."
Sailors don't just work at sea, he said. They live there. Most don't sleep in fire-retardant clothing or wear it to work out.
"Not every sailor aboard a ship on a daily, normal basis is at the same risk for fire," he said.
The Navy Times editorial also calculated, based on flame-resistant Army uniform figures, that the service would have to shell out $20 million a year to phase in a flame-resistant NWU. It said an outright recall would cost even more but that "many sailors would gladly pay an extra $50 per set to know that their uniforms will protect them if their ship ever catches fire."
Kirby said the working groups under Gortney plan to examine the current uniform to see whether it is still right for the fleet, as well as the current requirements and whether they are adequate.
"I think it's really important to make the point that we are willing and we are right now taking a look at those assumptions and that requirement," he said. "Informed by this test, we are starting anew, and we are going to ask those questions across the board."
Dianna Cahn, 757-222-5846, firstname.lastname@example.org