The Red Cross has imposed changes in its fee structures that have many commercial pool operators up in arms.

The organization offers a variety of programs including lifeguard and instructor training, certification, and a system designed to help teachers instruct students on swimming techniques. 

More than 2 million people participate in the Red Cross swimming and water-safety program each year, according to officials with the organization.

Then last summer, it was announced that the Red Cross would increase fees for the learn-to-swim program, converting from a flat rate to one that would charge $5 per student.

The changes were made to help overcome budgetary issues and create more uniformity in pricing, according to Red Cross officials.

“There wasn’t a clearly defined flat rate,” said Steve Glockenmeier, vice president of Preparedness and Health and Safety Services for the Red Cross. “Within individual states ... they were charging different amounts.”

But organizations and municipalities serving large numbers of students said the changes would cost them tens of thousands of dollars, which they couldn’t afford.

“We’ve adamantly conveyed to them that we are neither in a position to absorb these fees nor would we if we were,” said Manuel Gonzalez, Aquatic Supervisor 3 for the city of Chula Vista, Calif. “Essentially, they’re punishing agencies that are actively working to reduce drowning by charging them more because they’re teaching in greater volume.”

As a result of the outcry, the Red Cross reduced the fees earlier this year. The new, two-tier system goes into effect this June and rewards programs that use its lifeguard training course. The cost is $300 per property for the first 150 swim lessons, then an additional $1 per student; or $350 per property for up to 100 students, then $1 for each additional person.

Where last year’s increases would have cost the city of  Chula Vista $50,000, the most recent change would still boost fees $6,000 over their pre-2011 level, Gonzalez said. The city of Chula Vista has since developed its own learn-to-swim curricula.

For some, the fee reduction came too late. The city of Phoenix left the Red Cross after an earlier lifeguard certification price hike, stating that those increases alone would cost an additional $20,000. Many other Arizona cities and counties followed Phoenix’s lead, according to Kelly Martinez, Recreational Coordinator 3 for the city of Phoenix.

“I have to say, we are so happy with our new provider,” she said. “The Red Cross now is contacting us to possibly go back, and we’re no longer interested.”

Glockenmeier explained that the Red Cross is not ignoring high-volume programs or those serving needy communities. The organization has expressed a willingness to work with these venues, in some cases not charging. “We take the full position that the instruction would not be denied to anyone who could not afford it,” he said.

He also said he regretted that last year’s fee increase took place in the middle of many facilities’ budget cycle, and that the organization didn’t realize how greatly some facilities would be affected.

While the American Red Cross has the most name recognition, a variety of other learn-to-swim programs are still available. However, when it comes to lifeguard training, the choices are more limited.