RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Navy is phasing in flame-resistant clothing for every sailor who goes to sea.
The decision announced Thursday follows testing last year by the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, Mass., that revealed the camouflage working uniforms most sailors wear at sea are flammable. The nylon and cotton blend uniforms worn by most sailors aboard ships will burn and melt until they're completely consumed.
Army and Marine combat uniforms are designed to be self-extinguishing and are made of a blend that includes flame-resistant rayon.
The Navy in 1996 ended the requirement for all sailors to wear flame-resistant uniforms at sea. Sailors in specific jobs, however, such as engine room personnel, firefighters and those in flight-related duties are still issued flame-resistant clothing.
The Navy said there is no evidence that a sailor wearing the nylon-cotton blend had suffered severe burns.
An admiral's blog post suggested that the Navy didn't realize until now how flammable the uniforms are.
The "dramatic test results" conducted by the research facility in Massachusetts convinced the Navy the flame-resistant clothing should be worn by all sailors at sea, Rear Adm. John Kirby wrote in a blog explaining the change to Navy personnel.
While the Navy knew the working uniform was not flame-resistant, Kirby wrote, "In fact, it burned robustly."
The test results upset some sailors and their families and they questioned why the flame-resistant uniform isn't standard for all sailors at sea.
"Given the results of the burn test and what we've learned through the working groups, we've decided that we can do better," Kirby wrote.
A working group was created to look at the issue and recommended a phased approach to introduce the flame-resistant uniforms. It includes the development within nine months of a hybrid coverall combining the existing nylon and cotton construction with flame resistant material. This first phase supplying 150,000 sailors will cost approximately $21 million, said Lt. Lauren Cole, a spokeswoman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.
Within three years, the Navy will develop and issue new flame-resistant organizational clothing — basically coveralls that the Navy supplies to sailors. The cost of developing the new flame-resistant clothing is not known yet, Cole said.
In the interim, the Navy will continue to educate sailors on the hazards of shipboard fires and develop methods to minimize the risk of injuries.
"Safety is integral to every duty our men and women perform and this is something we can to help protect them in rare cases where a fire may break out aboard a ship," Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, said in a written statement.
The Navy decided to abandon flame-resistant clothing for all sailors in 1996 as a cost-cutting measure and because they failed to meet other standards, among other reasons.
"Since they were expensive and it didn't add up, and they were extremely uncomfortable, they went with the decision they made in 1996," Cole said.
In December, the Defense Logistics Agency reported having 401,000 Navy working uniform trousers on hand that are valued at $14 million and 272,000 blouses on hand valued at $9.3 million.
The working group also concluded that Naval Air Systems Command flight deck clothing and gear worn by the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command are fire retardant.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap
Associated Press writer Brock Vergakis in Norfolk contributed to this report.