Darel Myers is a storm chaser.
Myers, technical equipment manager for Allstate Insurances 10-year-old national catastrophe team, brings mobile connectivity via satellite-equipped mobile homes and a bevy of laptops whenever a disaster—be it a tornado, a hurricane or an ice storm—strikes.
“Theres never an off-season,” Myers said. “Just because its not in the media doesnt mean its not a catastrophe. Theres a lot of damage [year-round].”
While thats true—Myers was headed toward a tornado zone when speaking with eWEEK—the manager acknowledges that the hurricane season that started June 1 is prime time for Allstate, which defines a catastrophe as a “concentrated amount of losses based on a weather-related issue.”
And given that the National Weather Service is predicting a busy hurricane season, Myers, based at Allstate corporate headquarters in Northbrook, Ill., will be on the road plenty this summer.
In May, the weather service predicted 13 to 16 named storms (the first was Tropical Storm Alberto, which hit Florida the week of June 11), with eight to 10 becoming hurricanes, of which four to six could become major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher.
The good news: That projected total is down from 2005s record 28 storms, which included Katrina, the storm that ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The bad news: 2006 will be above the average of 11 named storms per year.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, of Jersey City, N.J., the hurricane season of 2005 had insured losses of $57.3 billion, up from $23.7 billion in 2004.
How should a company set up mobile technology infrastructure to prepare for whats shaping up to be such a rocky season? While Allstates approach to mobility may not be classified as cutting edge, executives at the insurance company say keeping it simple meets business goals and makes technology management easier in extreme circumstances.
Myers arsenal includes six RVs housed in Baton Rouge, La., that can be dispatched to multiple areas. These mobile homes include satellite dishes to link up broadband connections.
Claims agents in the field are armed with laptops that connect to Allstates enterprise system in Northbrook via wireless cards from providers such as Verizon and T-Mobile.
“What weve done is to give the adjuster[s] a mobile claims office where they can process claims and issue checks faster and cheaper,” Myers said, noting that Allstate often sets up shop in Wal-Mart and Home Depot parking lots to assist customers.
Theres a good business reason for those mobile applications. Allstates mobility and ability to process claims quickly is what matters to the customer, said Michael Roche, senior vice president of protection technology and administration at Allstate.
In 2003, Allstates Property and Casualty division moved from a model where information systems were shared across units to one where Roches group had more control over its technology.
According to Roche, the key was giving “technology a voice at the table” so it could enhance claims processing. From there, it became clear that Allstates adjusters needed wireless access to handle claims.
“Wireless entered at different places, but the first place was claims because of our adjusters and their need to work from the field,” he said. “Before 03, they would take notes on laptops and then come into the office.”
By making Allstate adjusters more mobile, the insurance company can enhance customer service and please another key contingent—Wall Street. On Allstates second- quarter-earnings conference call April 18, the hurricane season was a hot topic.
CEO Edward Liddy fielded questions from analysts about the companys projection of 1.5 million to 2 million catastrophe claims in the third calendar quarter. “What happens in the third quarter with respect to catastrophes is the ultimate guess,” Liddy said.
Managing Complicated Hurricanes in
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.
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.”
Laptops Trump Handhelds
Laptops Trump Handhelds
Part of keeping mobility simple is sticking with laptops, Myers said, adding that Allstates catastrophe team hasnt made the plunge with computing devices smaller than laptops.
Adjusters use Microsofts Outlook application heavily and need access to all Allstates applications to process claims quickly and ultimately deliver a check to a homeowner. “We need adjusters to do everything they are qualified to do,” Myers said. “Handhelds dont provide all the flexibility yet.”
Allstates goal is to roll out one set of technology that touches everybody differently. With handhelds, there will be limitations, Myers said. He also noted that Allstate leases Dell Latitude notebooks for its workers.
Given the limitations of handhelds—a smaller screen, scaled-down browsers and difficulty connecting to enterprise applications—Myers said it makes sense for the insurer to stick with laptops.
Berndt agreed that handhelds are too limited to access multiple applications but said the gap is closing. “Handhelds like the Treo certainly werent as mature last year during Katrina, but they have become much more robust since,” he said.
Ultimately, handhelds could prove a viable option for companies like Allstate, especially if they consume less power. “Remember, the big limitation on laptops is battery power,” Berndt said. “The challenge is recharging and finding the power to do so.”
While on the surface it seems inconceivable that hackers would target ad hoc networks during a disaster, Myers said you cant chance banking on their benevolence.
According to Myers, one of the biggest issues facing on-the-fly networks is security. To control that, Myers keeps his laptops under tight controls to make sure each one is up-to-date with patches and standardized.
Often during catastrophes, Allstate has to loan laptops to fill-in adjusters from other states. Myers keeps close tabs on these laptops so he can keep all patches and software current.
“With [hurricanes] Katrina and Wilma we had an overflow and handed out laptops and air cards to local adjusters,” Myers said.
Browning said that security is a concern for anyone supporting mobile technologies in the field. “Security is a big challenge,” he said. “During Katrina, we were blessed that we were not under attack. The networks were largely opened, and you relied on people in the field to use their individual firewalls.”
Its also very important that mobile devices are kept current and simple enough for users to be their own technology support personnel.
“These situations make brittle IT support more brittle,” Browning said. “When the workers are in the field, how do they communicate with the IT guy?”
Allstates Next Steps
For this hurricane season, allstate is locked in with its current setup. Katrina proved that Allstate could procure mobile command centers—ultimately, it used 28 of them—and maintain an infrastructure that worked under the worst circumstances. Its biggest move this year is upgrading to broadband mobile cards for agents in the field.
Allstates next move is to update its mobile applications and rolling office with a connection to its next-generation enterprise applications, collectively dubbed Next Generation Claims Systems.
These browser-based applications, an update to the system that governs everything from claims to estimates and check processing, are custom-built on Microsofts .Net platform.
The implementation, to be delivered over three years, will eventually tie into Allstates mobile interface, the company said. The timeline has yet to be determined.
As for Allstates office on wheels, Myers said the technology is rapidly converging to the point where the only limit on the insurance giant is imagination.
What remains to be seen is if Ciscos mobile command center, which has been tested to create its own ad hoc network using Wi-Fi technologies, becomes a template for the insurance industry.
For now, its all about storm chasing. “We can get 400 people on the ground quickly, and if we bring in more, were comfortable we can go up or down with the technology to support that,” Myers said.
Storm Chasers: the Challenges
- Power Mobile networks need power, and when key pieces of infrastructure such as the electrical grid are down, its nearly impossible to make a connection. Many mobile networking kits can lift power from vehicles, but that only goes so far. Generators and battery backups are critical.
- Broadband cellular plans While these laptop cards can provide easy access to key applications, they arent industrial-strength.
- Wireless and satellite interference Wireless communications depends on line of sight; debris and buildings may diminish reception. Satellite signals face atmosphere interference and jamming difficulties.
- The unexpected No matter how much a company plans, a storm such as Katrina will uproot it. Make sure your contingency plans have contingencies.