World Police & Fire Games a unique IT challenge

In more ways than one, the biennial World Police & Fire Games is unique. As a sporting event, it’s an opportunity for firefighters, police officers and customs and corrections officers from around the world to demonstrate their athletic prowess in 67 events. The Games is the third-largest international amateur sporting event in the world, attracting the neighbourhood of 10,000 athletes and 20,000 other visitors.

Unlike other events, the goal here is “to do the best we can, all for a $5 beer,” jokes Don Hardman, vice-president of sports and venues for 2009 games, to be held in Vancouver and B.C.’s Lower Mainland July 31 to Aug.10, 2009.

It’s unique as a business, too. All small and midsize businesses have to deal with scalability issues; the WPFG, in a 90-day crunch before the games, grows from a single location with a dozen employees to 40 sites with 30 employees and 3,000 volunteers.

“For us, it’s about a 24-month planning window to get it right for 10 days,” Hardman said. “Then, we go home.

“A huge part of that is the technology.”

With a full-time staff of 12, WPFG 2009 wasn’t looking to install and manage an IT infrastructure of its own. And the games operate on a tight budget, financed by the competitors’ registration fees and commercial and government sponsorship to the tune of less than $20 million.

One of those commercial partners is Telus Corp., which has provided a “multi-million-dollar” services-in-kind sponsorship, said Hardman – a turnkey mobile IT infrastructure to manage registration, reporting, voice and data for the Games.

Telus’s vice-president of new product planning and introduction, Brent Douziech, calls the Games “an incredibly exciting project” because of the speed at which it has to scale.

A key criteria of the solution for WPFG 2009 is simplicity, because of the wide range of IT backgrounds of the employees and engineers. It had to be simple to teach in a very short window, so a Microsoft Hosted Exchange platform, with e-mail and calendaring applications familiar to many users.

Many mobile data tools are out of reach of small and mid-size businesses because of their cost and complexity. SMBs are “the single most underserved market in Canada today,” said Sean Seaton, director of the communications sector for Microsoft Canada. Hosted services are a path to addressing that market. “For a company with 10 to 20 employees, often the numbers don’t make sense to put in a bunch of servers,” he said.

For WPFG 2009, possibly the most critical element is the registration process, according to Hardman. Partly, it’s because the process should be as seamless and efficient as possible to get athletes registered and accredited. “We think that process could go down from the minutes to the seconds,” Hardman said.

It’s also partly because organizers want to pass on a legacy registration system and database to future games, to be hosted in New York in 2011 and Belfast in 2013. One of the challenges of putting together the event is rebuilding it from scratch every two years, Hardman said. Passing on the process and structure to future games, and the database of registrees to the World Police & Fire Games Federation headquartered in San Diego, will make that challenge easier, he said.

Given the nature of the participants, security of the database is “at the top of the list” of requirements, he said. The data will be encrypted, but Telus’s Douziech would not discuss the specifics of the encryption.

The registration system was built on a Microsoft .Net platform, feeding a SQL server to capture the information. WPFG 2009’s Web site will host same-day event results and stream highlights from the day’s events.

Hardman said the system will have to be capable of replicating the home office at all 40 venues. About 300 to 500 mobile devices will be out in the field, he said.

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