The American Red Cross abruptly rolled out a series of changes to its programs that include a new fee structure that many industry professionals say is unmanageable at a time of such economic uncertainty.

In fact, 82 percent of aquatics professionals polled either intend to look for other options or plan to protest the new fees, according to an informal Aquatics International online poll of approximately 200 readers.

For some providers, fees  have as much as tripled. “For San Francisco, it’s about a $25,000 hit just for learn-to-swim [classes],” said Jim Wheeler, recreation services manager for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and owner of Total Aquatic Management.

Officially, a new fee schedule took effect July 1. It’s part of a big-picture effort to create uniformity, increase the agency’s ability to provide programming to those who are now underserved, and streamline offerings through the increased used of technology, said Jack McMaster, Red Cross president, Preparedness and Health and Safety Services.

Other changes include improved back-office support for providers, and course materials available online through an updated learning management system. Improvements to the online tools will alleviate the cost of purchasing books from a publisher, allow providers to print certificates directly, and improve access to records, McMaster said.

But many Red Cross approved providers were not given much more than a month’s notice about the changes. That’s left many wondering how they will cover the increased fees, with budgets already in place.

“It’s really disheartening to have an organization that has relied on volunteers make such a radical move without consultation,” Wheeler said.

Like most agencies, the Red Cross has been affected by the weak economy, and increasing fees  to operators will help it better cover the expense of research and development of courses and materials, McMaster said. Moreover, it will also enable Red Cross to update course materials more quickly, he added.

Prior to the new schedule, local chapters set the fees and the amount collected was not consistent, even among agencies priced the same. The new policy of implementing fees on a national level will help recover costs by alleviating complications, he said.

McMaster admitted that communication about the changes could have been better, but said the Red Cross wants to work with agencies facing a challenge in meeting the new fee schedule.

“There is not, and has not, and will not be any at-risk community that goes without materials,” McMaster said. “We’re trying to get back the costs, double the reach for outreach and recover costs where there’s an ability to pay.”

To that end, as of press time a meeting had been set including representatives from the Red Cross National Headquarters and aquatics leaders from California, noted Judith Sperling, assistant director, risk management training and development for UCLA Recreation in Los Angeles.

But based on numerous comments posted on AI Connect, there is still confusion among operators regarding the new policies. That has left some considering whether to move to another provider.

“Many of the new changes … are troubling and worrisome,” said Josh Teitelbaum, an aquatics professional from New Orleans on AI Connect, Aquatics International’s professional online network.

He acknowledged some of the positive changes, but added, “Still, the way much of this has been handled — including poor communication and poor roll-outs of both new policies and new programs — may lead to all kinds of confusion, loss of instructor retention, and poor implementation of these and other policies and programs. It’s a very confusing time out there right now for approved providers and local chapters, and even some large regional chapters are very confused by all this and what is expected of them. ... ”