Navy Replaces Flammable Coveralls, Upgrades To Uniforms That Don't Ignite So Easily

By Ben Wolford on November 6, 2013 3:12 PM EST

The Navy has upgraded to uniforms that aren't fire hazards.
The Navy has upgraded to uniforms that aren't fire hazards.

The Navy is replacing the working uniforms its sailors had been wearing because the nylon-and-cotton material could "burn robustly" and then melt, turning into a "sticky molten material."

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So next month, they're sending out new coveralls that aren't fire hazards as a stopgap safety measure while textiles crews work on new standard-issue uniforms, Wired reported

The replacements have been a long time coming. The Navy flame-tested its NYCO — short for nylon and cotton — suit last December in what it called an "impromptu" test and released a video demonstrating how the material handles fire. The video shows a Bunsen burner flame rising through the fabric like it was soaked in oil.

"I was shocked when I looked at this report," a North Carolina State University textile engineer, Hoon Joo Lee, told The Navy Times at the time. The cotton, he said, is like kindling that melts the nylon. "What's going to happen if there's a fire on the ship?"

By contrast, the Navy put out another video of tests on the new coveralls. In it, a suit on a mannequin gets blasted on all sides by several flame throwers for a few seconds. When the assault is over, the uniform is smoking but not on fire and not dripping molten nylon.

The Navy Times reports that the new uniforms bring the U.S. Navy up to par with the Royal Navy, which already uses fire-resistant uniforms. They cost less than $75, and the sailors won't have to pay for them. The downside, according to a commander quoted in the article, is the style.

"They probably don't look as sharp as the existing coveralls that we give people, but that's because the existing coveralls are designed to look sharp," said Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of Fleet Forces Command. "You can't look sharp and be fire-resistant together. That's a physics problem." But, he added, sailors will now be allowed to wear ball caps. "We're bringing back ball caps in a big way."

According to Lee, the textiles expert, some types of nylon melt at temperatures as low as 374 degrees.

Sailors last year couldn't believe it when The Navy Times broke the news about the flame test. "Shouldn't this have been one of the first tests before the uniform was issued out?" one sailor said. But the Navy responded to the news, saying sailors knew about it and started using "#nosurprise" on its Twitter feed. 

When a Navy Times reporter asked a Navy spokesman why they didn't recall the nylon-and-cotton uniforms immediately, he said, "Well, I think we want to better understand the whole issue here." He added that the Navy knows what it's doing when it comes to who wears what aboard ships.

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