Managing Complicated Hurricanes in

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2006-06-25 Print this article Print

a Simple Way"> Keeping Mobility Simple

Allstates approach to managing the unpredictable hurricane season in the field is technically straightforward. The company relies heavily on its enterprise systems, dubbed EPIC (enterprise public Internet connection), which give a unified view of data across all locations.
Myers said data dictates where Allstate takes its adjuster road show. For instance, Allstate uses EPIC to find the counties with the most customers devastated by a disaster before sending its mobile office.

That ability to predict where Allstate was most needed was a sea change that began in 2003. Roche said that before 2003, Allstate wasnt prepared to deploy adjusters to disaster zones within a day. During the 2004 hurricane season, Allstate refined the drill, enabling the company to set up a catastrophe command center within 24 hours.

"The business of hurricane management is not well-known if youre not involved in it," Roche said. "As I look at what we do as an organization, were in the business of restoring peoples lives. Were talking over 30 million policies to over 17 million households in the U.S."

Today, Allstate workers can launch Internet access via a satellite dish. Myers said that now and in recent years, finding coordinates takes just a few mouse clicks, a big step up from the days when he was often on the roof of an RV tweaking the dish. "The last two to three years, satellite communication has gotten much more marketable with more flexibility and better service," said Myers, who relies on satellite service provider TracStar Systems and Verizon/MCI for access.

With the data residing on IBM mainframes, adjusters can pluck information ranging from prior claims to deductibles to the increase in plywood costs over the last 24 hours, Myers said. Allstates Java-based applications keep tabs on claims, state-by-state insurance regulations and payments. Thus far, agents have spread out with laptops instead of handhelds connected to Allstates network via a wireless network card.

Once connected, adjusters send pictures from accident and disaster areas over wireless networks, Roche said. The benefit: Adjusters have increased their daily calls by 20 to 30 percent.

Potential Weak Spots

One potential weak spot is GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), a mobile data service available to users of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones. If that access is unavailable, which can be the case in a disaster area, Allstate lacks the broadband capability to access its applications. Myers noted that broadband access cards introduced this year can cut over to regular cellular access, but speeds are considerably slower.

Myers acknowledged that signals were weak in the Gulf region last year after Katrina, but access generally worked. In the event of an outage, agents could come to the Allstate RV and synchronize information collected on their laptops.

Click here to read about how IT departments picked up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina. Another approach for Allstate would be to use its RVs as hubs for wireless access in the area. "The danger with GPRS is that when it goes down you wont have Net coverage," said Glen Berndt, technical marketing engineer for Ciscos mesh operation unit, in San Jose, Calif.

Cisco, which counts Allstate as a customer, has been working on providing wireless and wired coverage in disaster areas. The networking giant has an MCV (Mobile Command Vehicle) that is used on Ciscos San Jose campus. The RV maintains a network connection via antennas spread throughout Ciscos campus and can download floor plans and keep network connections through incidents such as a fire.

During President Bushs recent visit to Cisco, the companys MCV served as an information hub for security personnel. The MCV was also deployed in Katrinas aftermath.

Bob Browning, manager of tactical operations support at Cisco, said that in the not-too-distant future, mobile offices like Allstates could diversify away from relying on GPRS by creating impromptu mesh networks.

Under this setup, the mobile command center would serve as the primary point of presence for the network to relay wireless signals along other stations set up by Allstate.

Cisco has tested such technology but doesnt market it actively. Ciscos mobile command center can pick up a satellite feed for Internet access and then build a "wireless cloud" that can expand as signals are relayed by mobile communication kits, which are voice and data networks in a box about the size of a large suitcase. Once such a kit is set up, Browning said a company could use wired and wireless VOIP (voice over IP) phones and extend Wi-Fi access to multiple devices.

Although cellular cards worked through Hurricane Katrina, Allstate "is always looking at whats available," Myers said. "We try to keep the technology as productive and as [simple] as we can while playing to all audiences."

Next Page: Laptops trump handhelds.

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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