Wireless technology aids post-hurricane claims processing

With telephone lines down in parts of Florida, Wi-Fi moves in

When Hurricane Charley roared into South Florida last month with 145-mph wind gusts, the force of the storm snapped utility poles and knocked out communications for many residents in areas such as Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte.

To help locate customers in those hard-hit areas who were stranded without power or telephone service, claims adjusters for The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. used Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies to pinpoint home addresses. Once the adjuster found the customer, information about any automobile damages was gathered and entered into a Panasonic CF-29 laptop computer, along with an insurance claim and digital photos of the vehicle. Equipped with a wireless modem, the computer then transmitted the information to one of The Hartford's claims offices for processing.

The claim was then sent via land lines to CCC Information Services Inc. in Chicago to help prepare a repair estimate. Once the estimate was received and processed, The Hartford then sent back an e-mail with approved coverage to the adjuster, who could then write the customer a check -- all within a matter of minutes, said Martin Iverson, vice president of auto physical damage for the Hartford, Conn.-based insurance company.

The Hartford, which rolled out the wireless-enabled laptops en masse to 187 field appraisers in June, has leveraged technology "to help enhance our ability to respond to these events," said Iverson. He said the company has handled thousands of auto-related claims in Florida following hurricanes Charley and Frances.

Insurers, who are keeping a keen eye on Hurricane Ivan as it prepares to make landfall tomorrow morning along the Gulf Coast, have made similar investments in emerging technologies to speed claims processing for homeowners and other policyholders in hurricane-ravaged areas.

"As the speed and memory capacity of laptops increases and the costs have dropped, insurance companies have looked at [laptops] as a pretty good investment for their adjusters. They can do estimates, request checks -- they're almost an office unto themselves," said John Eager, senior director of claims at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based association of 1,000 property and insurers.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, 135,000 commercial insurance claims have been filed by businesses in Florida and the Southeast, accounting for $2.7 billion, or 40% of the estimated $6.755 billion in total damages from the storm, according to the association.

Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm Insurance Cos., the largest insurer of homes in Florida and across the U.S., has deployed about 1,200 wireless modems nationwide for its claims adjusters over the past eight months. And it has purchased another 1,000 wireless cards for independent adjusters contracted to help out during disasters such as Hurricane Frances, said Mark Winland, director of claims automation and procedures.

"The [wireless] coverage has become much better, and it's much less cost-prohibitive with carrier plans which offer all-you-can-eat data transmission plans," said Winland. "This has allowed our claims reps to be more productive for our customers."

In parts of Florida such as Arcadia, where cellular towers were damaged or destroyed, State Farm recently deployed 13 mobile claims units equipped with satellites, allowing claims adjusters to transmit and process customer claims quickly, said Winland. Although he wasn't sure how much State Farm has spent on wireless cards for insurance adjusters, Winland said the insurer "has more than seen the returns in efficiency gains and returns to our policyholders."

Beyond wireless, property casualty insurers are also making increased use of catastrophe modeling systems and predictive analytics to help forecast loss costs for particular regions after a disaster, said Jamie Bisker, an analyst at Needham, Mass.-based TowerGroup.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon