Fairfax aquatics groups cut ties with Red Cross after price hike

December 21, 2011

Local aquatics agencies are cutting ties with the American Red Cross after a price increase in the organization’s programs threatened to overwhelm budgets.

Aquatics directors from Fairfax County, Herndon and the Reston Association are teaming up to develop their own curriculum for teaching aquatics classes and training swimming instructors.

The Red Cross announced over the summer that it was moving to a new fee structure for its swim instructor certification programs and learn-to-swim curriculum, said John Berlin, program branch manager for the Park Services Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

As a result, Fairfax County’s costs would have risen from about $5,000 a year to more than $175,000 annually, Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said.

Jack McMaster, president of preparedness, health and safety services for the American Red Cross, said the agency is only trying to cover the costs for its services. Many agencies, including Fairfax, were paying little to no enrollment fees for learn to swim classes, he said.

In July, Red Cross decided to begin charging the agencies that use its services a $5 per student fee, which Fairfax County estimates would cost about $175,000.

But, McMaster said, Red Cross officials also tried to negotiate agreements with public parks and recreation organizations that couldn’t afford the $5 fee. There are also programs the Red Cross supports that provide free or very low-cost swimming lessons for children who couldn’t otherwise afford them.

The vast majority of the 15,000-plus organizations that offer Red Cross courses have accepted the $5 fee or negotiated a fee as low as $1 per student, McMaster said.

Fairfax County said it couldn’t accept the increased cost in this budget year and declined to negotiate a new agreement for the following fiscal year, McMaster said. “We were flatly told that we weren’t going to pay anything,” he said.

For a smaller institution such as the Reston Association, the change would have meant a $15,000 increase, aquatics manager Laura Kowalski said.

The parks budget could not absorb that increase, so the department began seeking other solutions, Berlin said. The county has stopped advertising that it offers Red Cross programs and is working on its own learn-to-swim program through the regional working group.

“We believe we have the knowledge and the skills and ability to research and set these standards as well,” he said.

The “best aquatics professionals in the region” are participating in the working group, Berlin said. The working group members have a collective 200 years of experience — 10 to 40 years apiece, said Patty Paczan, the aquatics section manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Because the Red Cross does not provide a curriculum for water exercise and stroke mechanics, Fairfax County and many of the other jurisdictions involved in the working group already have experience developing their own curriculum and instructor training programs, Paczan said.

Fairfax County also recently received the best overall commitment to aquatics award from Aquatics International magazine, a top industry publication.

The new programs will maintain the safety and quality of the county’s learn-to-swim programs, Pedersen said.

All instructors will continue to receive training on how to teach swimming safely and effectively, Paczan said. The classes also include instruction on how to be safe around water, not just on how to swim, she added.

There is “widespread agreement” among different programs regarding the basics of teaching swimming, Berlin said.

“They are all teaching similar skills. There is just some disagreement of what skills are taught at which level,” he said.

Fairfax County and Reston officials said that they still want to have a relationship with the Red Cross and that the decision had nothing to do with the quality of its programs. Fairfax County will continue to offer Red Cross lifeguard training programs, and the Reston Association will continue to certify its lifeguards through the Red Cross, even though costs rose.

The county was able to absorb the fees at first but will need to raise the cost to the public, Paczan said.

The lifeguards who work at Fairfax County public pools receive training through Jeff Ellis and Associates, a lifeguard training company based in Florida.

“We were put in a very difficult and awkward position,” Berlin said. “We’re constantly talking with [the Red Cross] and trying to figure out how to work together. We’re not adversaries.”

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