Last week the Navy announced the results of an Oct. 15, 2012 impromptu test by the Navy clothing textile research facility in Natick, Ma. These results reinforced the fact that the NWU Type I is not flame resistant, and further found that when subjected to a flame it will burn robustly until completely consumed. These results generated media reporting and have made this a topic of discussion on our social media platforms.
All Hands Magazine sat down with Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, Chief of Naval Personnel, and President of the Navy Uniform Board and put some tough questions to him. Here’s what he had to say:
AH: The NWUs Type I were introduced in 2008/9. Why are we just now learning that they are not flame resistant?
CNP: Well, we’ve known that these uniforms were not flame resistant for some time. This is not a new notion. In fact, we detailed this in an Oct 2011 Navy Safety Center message, where it was spelled out that the Type I lacked flame resistant qualities.
There are no Navy uniforms developed purposely to fight a shipboard fire. That said, if you walk aboard any Navy ship, you will find each one is equipped with the needed fire fighting ensemble and personal protective equipment to combat fires.
So, beyond our everyday working uniforms, the required equipment needed to “fight the ship” and keep our Sailors safe is out there and readily available should the circumstances dictate its use.
AH: Given the results of the recent test — what we now know – are you comfortable with Sailors wearing NWUs at sea?
CNP: Absolutely I am. As long as it is worn in the manner and in the environment for which it was designed – just like any other uniform we have – we still believe it’s suitable for wear.
Since the mid-90’s there has been no requirement for us to have a flame resistant working uniform for all hands. There’s been no change to that requirement.
That said, in light of this impromptu test, Adm. Gortney at Fleet Forces Command is having a working group go review the requirements. If they should recommend changes, then we’ll take a look at that. But again, the uniform is still approved for wear aboard a ship. What we need to focus on is wearing it properly and in the right environments – sea and ashore environments that do not require special clothing (e.g., flight, flight deck, engine room, etc.).
AH: Some media reports have argued that the NWU is less safe than the uniforms that it replaced—your thoughts?
CNP: I don’t agree with those assertions. This uniform offers the same level of protection as the uniforms they replaced. Again, let me be clear, I am very comfortable with Sailors wearing this uniform—provided they wear it correctly and in the manner in which it was designed.
AH: Are you comfortable with Sailors fighting fires in this uniform?
CNP: Yes, in the appropriate cases, I am. Look, we know NWUs–which are not made of, or treated with, flame resistant material are not meant to be a firefighting uniform–nor were those uniforms they replaced.
I believe Sailors understand this uniform can be worn to take appropriate first responder action to combat a fire. Beyond that, they need to don more advanced protective gear. Would I expect a Sailor to leave a space where there is a small fire, one that could be controlled or extinguished before it progressed, simply because that Sailor wasn’t in their fire fighting ensemble? The answer is No.
I would expect that the Sailor would do their best to put that fire out– if the situation became such that the fire advanced and added PPE was needed–that Sailor should leave the space in time or call for help. Our folks know this.
AH: Do you expect the Fleet requirement on fire retardant/flame resistant uniforms to change?
CNP: I don’t know, that’s is what the Fleet Forces and Pac Fleet working groups are reviewing. We will be actively supporting that effort. That’s what Admiral Gortney discussed in last week’s P4. I look forward to the outcome of their work and if a change is needed, we will work to make that change.
But today – right now, I am comfortable with where we are. As specified in the Naval Ships Technical Manual and further directed by the TYCOMs, we provide organizational clothing, with added protection, to watch standers and Sailors who work in engineering spaces, on the flight deck, as part of damage control efforts and in other designated areas at sea and ashore who need extra protection.
We also can’t forget that further, more protective fire fighting ensembles are provided in our repair lockers or similar shore based storage areas for Sailors to use when combating a fire.
AH: Is there anything that you are doing right now to address this issue?
CNP: Nothing is more important to us than the safety and well being of our people. We always look hard at that and try to figure out if we have it right. This is something that is paramount to the CNO and all Navy Leadership—we grow up thinking about it. I continue to work closely with the Fleet Commanders — Admirals Gortney and Haney — to ensure that all our uniforms, not just NWUs, but all of them, provide the protection required for the work our Sailors do every day– afloat and ashore.
As I mentioned, we will be working closely with the fleet review board to make sure we have the uniform requirements correct, but beyond that you will be seeing very soon a NAVADMIN from me that expands the membership of our Uniform Board. Naval Sea Systems command, Naval Air Systems Command and the Naval Safety Center have always been key stakeholders in the development of our uniforms, however, I will be adding them as technical advisors to the Uniform Board.
We need to make sure we have the right stakeholders to ensure safety and operational issues remain in the forefront of Uniform Board business. I think by making these adds– we achieve just that.