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Uniform changes: New coveralls mean more ball caps, fewer chances to wear NWUs

Oct. 28, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Coveralls 101

Sailors already have most of the insignia needed for the new flame-resistant variant coveralls. Here’s what you’ll need to wear:
The shirt: Sailors must wear a cotton T-shirt — the same type they wear with utility coveralls.
The collar: The wearer must pin metal rank insignia to the collar.
The name tag: Each command will determine what type of name tags to wear. The two options are a leather one or an embroidered one that can feature a unit-specific design, like the ship’s seal. The name tag affixes above the left breast pocket via a Velcro patch.
The belt. Sailors will wear the same cotton web belt they’ve worn with utility coveralls — black for E-6 and below; khaki for E-7 and above.

New flame-proof coveralls are rushing to the fleet, signaling the end of shipboard wear for utility coveralls and the Navy working uniform — today's fleet mainstays that are susceptible to melting in a fire and injuring sailors.

New flame-proof coveralls are rushing to the fleet, signaling the end of shipboard wear for utility coveralls and the Navy working uniform — today's fleet mainstays that are susceptible to melting in a fire and injuring sailors.

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New flame-proof coveralls are rushing to the fleet, signaling the end of shipboard wear for utility coveralls and the Navy working uniform — today’s fleet mainstays that are susceptible to melting in a fire and injuring sailors.

Every fleet sailor will get two sets of these new flame-resistant variant coveralls as part of the latest rollout plan that begins in December. Among the first to get them are command leadership teams and the crews of soon-to-deploy ships, including the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group.

And there’s more good news. Sailors can wear ball caps with these new coveralls, which can be worn everywhere the current utility coveralls are worn. And sailors can wear command-specific Velcro name tags, of the sort typically worn by squadrons, to show unit pride.

These coveralls, which can stand up to a blaze, will become the fleet’s new standard garb — worn aboard ship and underway.

“Our sailors’ safety is our primary concern here,” said Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of Fleet Forces Command, who has been a driving force behind the accelerated design and rollout. “If you’re onboard a ship and a fire breaks out, you rush to that scene, you escape that scene or you’re assisting a shipmate in whatever you’re wearing. And so this fills in that particular need. You combine this with our existing flash hoods and gloves and you tuck your leg pants in, … it will provide the fire-resistant capability that we think is needed.”

Don’t worry, you won’t be buying your own set. This is organizational clothing that will be issued by your command, according to the new fielding and wear rules issued Oct. 24 by Gortney and his Pacific Fleet counterpart, Adm. Harry Harris. Officials hope that these will one day become a seabag item, phasing out the poly-cotton coveralls that are still issued to every recruit (but no longer authorized underway).

The one-piece garment is a hybrid of the utility coverall design and the damage control coveralls fabric worn in repair lockers. It is a darker blue than the utility coveralls, as its lacks the polyester fibers that glitter, and has a rumbled appearance.

“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,” Gortney, who has a set of the new coveralls, said in an Oct. 24 phone interview. “You can’t look sharp and be fire-resistant together. That’s a physics problem.”

The rapid fielding is the fleet’s effort to resolve the disturbing revelation a year ago that the NWU’s fabric could melt to its wearer in a fire, one of the fleet’s most common and fearsome foes. The Oct. 15, 2012, flame test discovered that nylon fiber in NWU fabric “melts and drips” — findings that shocked wearers from the deckplates to the Navy’s highest echelons. The new coveralls also bring the fleet in line with other allies like the Royal Navy whose working uniforms all offer fire protection.

While some were annoyed with another uniform change, many sailors are waiting to see if the uniforms are comfortable and breathable. Others were more pleased.

“This puts me at ease as a Navy wife,” Amanda Maria Snyder commented on the initial Navy Times article about the coveralls.

How to wear them

Fleet officials say the new coveralls will be worn everywhere utility coveralls are now: Underway and in industrial environments ashore. It falls to your commanding officer to decide when they should be allowed aboard ship in port, including evolutions like drills or fast cruise, or on the pier.

“We’re bringing back ball caps in a big way,” Gortney said, noting that sailors will again be able to wear ball caps anywhere they’re authorized to wear coveralls. This move will inevitably boost the wear of ball caps, as previous rules banned them with NWUs.

Fleet brass plan to order 210,000 sets of coveralls to cover issuing them to commands from December through next September, and then filling overstocks for when new sailors report or when they must be replaced.

Testers at the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, Mass., found each pair can be washed 50 times and still meet industry standards for flame resistance. Officials believe each pair can be worn for 18 to 24 months, depending on how much manual labor the wearer performs.

Sailors must return coveralls that are torn, worn down or soiled by paint or oil, all of which can impair the fabric fire-protection.

Sailors can still wear engineering coveralls, which offer FR protection, but the fleet plans to stop purchasing them, shifting all purchases to the new coveralls.

The design is identical to utility coveralls. The main difference is the insignia. Metal collar devices and warfare insignia must be pinned on — a move ordered to cut down on costs.

At $52.04 apiece, the new coveralls are nearly double the price of utility coveralls. Officials held down the price by eschewing sewn-on name tapes, rank and insignia.

“We actually chose not to use sewn-on name tags because that doubles the cost of the existing coveralls,” Gortney said. By using web belts and insignia, the only added cost is producing the name tag, a cost the fleets are picking up.

Commands have two options for name tags that attach to the Velcro patch on the left breast: Sailors can wear leather name tags embossed with their rating, name and warfare pin, like what’s typically worn on green flight jackets. Or they can wear command-specific embroidered name tags. These could feature a design unique to the command, such as the command’s seal or nickname.

This flexibility makes up for the rule that no unit patches or U.S. flags can be sewn onto the new coveralls, as they may degrade the fabric’s flame resistance.

Officials are planning a “road show” to fleet areas in November and December to highlight proper wear of the uniform and answer sailors’ questions.

Not all parts of the fleet will be wearing them. Submariners will continue wearing utility coveralls, which meet requirements for low-lint, until another solution is found. And flight deck crews will continue to wear colored jerseys that aren’t FR, but whose natural fibers won’t melt, either; flame-resistant jerseys and trousers are in the works.

Gortney said the new coveralls aren’t suited to the flight deck because they have too many pockets and aren’t thick enough in the knees, and that the colored jerseys and float coats are an important safety component in flight ops.

The end of NWUs (mostly)

The coveralls spell the end of routine shipboard wear of all synthetic garments. That includes the stretchy, 100 percent synthetic mock turtlenecks; utility coveralls made of 65 percent polyester; and the blue-and-gray NWU that is 50 percent polyester.

Once your command has received the new coveralls, NWUs are only authorized for rare and special occasions, like receptions at anchor, manning the rails or changes of command, said a Thursday naval message announcing the new policy.

The restrictions come as a huge setback for the NWU, originally envisioned as an everyday uniform worn by all hands both ashore and in the fleet when it was developed and introduced nearly a decade ago. The new rules essentiallyrelegate the NWU — and its many expensive accessories — to the pier. So-called “blueberries” are still popular with many sailors, no doubt a result of the years officials have spent developing rugged outer garments, like fleece jackets and a Gore-Tex raincoat.

While not mentioned explicitly, the rules also restrict standard woodland and desert pattern NWUs, which are the same 50-50 cotton and polyester blend as the blue-and-grays. There are flame-resistant versions of these uniforms, however, that would be OK underway.

The utility coveralls are a more clear-cut case as they appear obsolete for all but submarine sailors.

However, utility coveralls and NWUs will continue to be seabag items for the foreseeable future. The seeming disconnect arises from the reality that the fleet commanders only have purview over organizational clothing and shipboard wear rules. Decisions about the seabag fall to the uniform board and ultimately the chief of naval operations.

Uniform officials are taking a wait-and-see approach. They will observe the rollout of the new coveralls and how and when they’re worn before making larger decisions about what to eliminate.

“There will be no immediate impact to any of the uniforms that we have right now,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, a spokesman for the chief of naval personnel, who oversees the uniform board. “We’ll continue to work closely with the fleets looking for sailor feedback on the utility of the uniform, what they think about it and they’ll base future decisions on that impact.”

Still, there are signs that the NWU is losing key support. Defense officials increasingly view Navy-specific cammies as a luxury in a time of shrinking budgets, and lawmakers have proposed the services move to a common combat uniform by 2018, putting the NWU in jeopardy. Even Navy Secretary Ray Mabus made it a punchline, telling reporters in June that “the great camouflage it gives is if you fall overboard.”

Another possibility would be to manufacture flame-resistant NWUs. But Gortney warned this would double the cost of each set, which now cost $86.71 — an unlikely avenue in a time of budget cuts.

'Deal with the fire that's there'

The rapid design and rollout of the new coveralls comes down to fire safety, officials said.

About a year ago, a test revealed the NWU was vulnerable to melting in a fire, a revelation that shocked wearers from the deck plate to the highest rungs of the Navy. It prompted the fleet commanders to convene exhaustive uniform reviews, whose findings led officials to rapidly field flame-resistant coveralls.

Whether from missile hits or fuel spills, fire is the sailor’s biggest killer. While most dangerous in places like engineering plants, magazines or flight decks, it can wreak havoc anywhere, forcing sailors to respond — or escape — in whatever clothes they’re wearing.

Indeed, when a super-hot blaze broke out on the drydocked submarine Miami on May 23, 2012, some of the first responders were sailors clad in NWUs who remained until properly relieved, said Capt. Bruce Brosch, the lead member of a shipboard uniform panel tasked with examining the fire risks of sailor uniforms and organizational gear.

The panel studied more than three decades of fire data.

Brosch said they found no instances of reported melt by utility coveralls or NWUs, but that the risk was too large to ignore.

“When you have an extreme circumstance, then that [leaves] people vulnerable in certain instances and we’re responding to that,” Brosch said in an Oct. 24 phone interview. “We’re essentially improving the safety of our sailors at sea.”

For the fleet’s top boss, this is personal. Gortney remembers being a lieutenant junior grade aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz on the night in 1981 when a Prowler crashed into the flight deck, unleashing a fuel fire that cooked off bombs in a terrifying maelstrom. By the time it was extinguished two hours later, 14 people were dead, including the aircrew and first responders.

“It kind of shapes you for the rest of your life: 50 sailors injured and we lost 14,” Gortney recalled. “Discovered that night that if you’re going to have a major conflag[ration], there’s three things that occur: You’re either running to fight the fire, you’re trying to evade the fire or you’re trying to aid a shipmate in need. And you do that wearing what you got on.

“And so we have about one and a half major conflags a year, believe it or not, for the last 30 years,” Gortney continued, defining this as a fire that exceeds the capability of the initial responders. “So it’s important that we put our sailors in outfits that they’re able to be the first person on the scene to deal with the fire that’s there.”

Gortney said that’s what the new coveralls are designed to do. Their fabric is 100 percent cotton treated with flame-resistant coating, a combination that self-extinguishes and can protect its wearer’s skin from a blaze.

To assess this, textile experts put the uniform through an inferno test. They suited up a dummy in the new coveralls and then exposed it to a three-second blast of robust flames before measuring the heat sensors on the mannequin underneath. Those revealed that the dummy had largely been spared from severe burns. Only the wearer’s elbow experienced the most serious type of burn, a third-degree one, with some less severe burns on the calf and back of the arms.

Officials say these results show that this uniform protects the skin, especially when the pant legs are tucked into the socks and head and hands flash gear is donned. But it is no replacement for the heavy-duty coats, helmets, gloves and other protective gear worn by the Navy’s firefighters.

Navy leaders believe sailors deserve these new, safer coveralls and say decisions about other uniforms must come later.

“Right now, there’s no intention to phase out the existing utility coveralls,” Gortney said. “I think that is going to occur: We just haven’t gotten to that particular point yet.”

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