Coast Guard suspends use of its rescue boats over safety fears
The Irish Coast Guard has suspended all search-and-rescue boat operations due to concerns over the safety of volunteers' lifejackets.
The order means volunteers at 23 of the service's 44 stations which are equipped with Delta RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) and smaller D-Class boats, cannot launch for rescue operations until further notice.
It comes as it emerged the Air Corps will not be providing an air ambulance service for four days a month for the next four months because of a shortage of key personnel.
In an email sent to unit officers in charge (OICs), the Irish Coast Guard revealed an investigation has begun into the recent malfunctioning of the Rescue 400 lifejackets.
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"Specifically, the 275N section of the lifejacket failed to fully function when activated," the email read.
A risk assessment of this "critical piece" of PPE (personal protection equipment) determined that the use of these lifejackets be suspended with immediate effect.
According to sources, serious concerns had been expressed about volunteers' lifejackets several years ago.
It is understood the problem with inflation of the lifejackets has been brought to the attention of Coast Guard management on numerous occasions in recent years.
Despite the announcement, all shoreline and cliff rescue services remain in place, along with the four search-and-rescue Coast Guard helicopters.
The RNLI, Community Rescue Boats and Naval services will also continue to operate.
The statement went on to say that possible resolutions to this issue are being actively pursued in order to restart boat operations as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, the Air Corps decision to curtail its air ambulance service was based on the advice of military management.
However, it is planned to resume full service from March and, in the meantime, additional personnel, particularly pilots, will be trained to operate the emergency aeromedical service (EAS).
The Department of Defence told the Irish Independent last night that the interruption was regrettable but necessary from a "safety and government perspective".
It said the priority was to provide the best service possible using all available resources during the four-day break each month when the Air Corps was not available for EAS tasks.
The Irish Coast Guard will maintain reserve cover to the national ambulance service when the Air Corps is not accepting tasks.
The decision highlights the current crisis in holding on to experience personnel in the military organisation.
Figures obtained last month showed there was a total of 74 pilots in the Air Corps, compared to an establishment strength of 106.
The department said last night the safety of serving personnel, HSE staff and patients was the shared number one priority and the focus was on returning the EAS to full capacity.