Coast Guard crews are sharing life jackets after senior officials ignored the advice of a major supplier and took its old buoyancy aids out of operation.
This has curtailed search and rescue operations, with Coast Guard stations unable to deploy more than one boat at a time due to having too few life jackets.
Coast Guard stations were told to stop using their life jackets with immediate effect when all boat operations were suspended last November after a station reported an inflation issue with one of its personal flotation devices.
A supplier examined the life jackets, found no safety issue and recommended resuming operations with the existing buoyancy aids.
However, officials at the Department of Transport instead decided to replace the life jackets. This has seen rescue crews curtailed and operations scaled back.
All relevant lifeboat stations received life jackets in recent weeks, but in smaller numbers than they had previously.
Staff at two Coast Guard stations told the Sunday Independent they had only a third of the number of life jackets they previously used when deploying full emergency crews.
One station said it was inoperable for six weeks earlier this winter because it did not have a sufficient number of life jackets. During this period all rescues were carried out by the RNLI.
Most Coast Guard stations operate two types of boat - one small three-seater boat used in shallow water and a larger four-person boat for deeper water operations.
However, stations are reporting that they no longer have enough life jackets to mount crews on both boats simultaneously.
Correspondence seen by the Sunday Independent shows the Coast Guard's supplier examined the old life jackets after an issue arose at one station.
The supplier noted the jackets were all "nearly seven years old" and the recommended life span of a lifejacket was three to five years, depending on the level of use and wear and tear.
The supplier said all the jackets showed signs of corrosion to zips, studs and other materials which were "inevitable over time in a salt-water atmosphere". It said only one jacket failed to deploy fully during a dry inflation test in its factory. During an in-water test the life jacket deployed fully.
"Consequently we do not believe this is a safety issue," the supplier said. It said more than 100 tests on 40 other jackets "around the five year life-span" were tested. Each of the life jackets deployed in every test.
The supplier did recommend the five-year limit should be enforced to avoid a re-occurrence of the problem, with all older jackets taken out of commission and replaced.
It also made a series of "interim or long term solutions" to resume "operational practices".
These included continuing to use the older life jackets "as there is no safety issue".
It suggested any life jackets that were five years old or more could be replaced within an estimated three-month window.
Coast Guard sources told the Sunday Independent this advice was ignored and all the life jackets were marked to be replaced.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Transport said the new life jackets were specialised equipment and difficult to source in the commercial market.
She said supply was phased initially but there were "some delays in acquiring the desired amount of life jackets".
She said Coast Guard crews rarely deploy two boats at a time for search or rescue operations, and insisted it needed fewer life jackets now.
"The two classes of boat in use by the Coast Guard have very different operational uses," the spokeswoman said.
"The decision on which to deploy would be done depending on the incident and the deployment of two different classes of boat at the same time from a station would be rare.
"The allocated number in each unit is sufficient to carry out operational tasks as normal. The allocation also allows redundancy in case of a lifejacket defect.
"It should also be noted that the previous life jacket type came in different sizes requiring increased allocations per unit while the replacement life jacket is a one size-fits-all.
"This means comparing numbers of life jackets before and after the suspension could be misleading."