Insurers are increasingly relying on technologies such as laptop PCs and wireless networks to speed claims processing for their policyholders, including homeowners and businesses in hurricane-ravaged areas of Florida.

For example, claims adjusters for The Hartford Financial Services Group used Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment to pinpoint the home addresses of customers in Florida who were stranded without power or telephone service after Hurricanes Charley and Frances roared across the state.

Once customers were located, the adjusters entered information about damage to their cars into Panasonic CF-29 laptops, along with insurance claims forms and digital photos of the vehicles, said Martin Iverson, vice president of auto physical damage for the insurer. Wireless modems built into the laptops transmitted the information to a claims office.

From the claims office, the data went via land lines to a company in Chicago that helped prepare repair estimates. The Hartford then sent e-mail messages with approved repairs to the adjusters who - having received the email by wireless - could write cheques to customers on the spot. The entire process took a matter of minutes, according to Iverson.

He added that the wireless-enabled laptops, which The Hartford rolled out to 187 field appraisers in June, have helped "enhance our ability to respond to these events."

Laptops and transmission costs are cheap
"As the speed and memory capacity of laptops increases and the costs have dropped, insurance companies have looked at them as a pretty good investment for their adjusters," said John Eager, senior director of claims at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. "They can do estimates, request checks - they're almost an office unto themselves."

State Farm Insurance, the largest insurer of homes in Florida and across the US, has deployed about 1200 wireless modems nationwide for its claims adjusters over the past eight months. And the Illinois-based company has bought another 1000 wireless cards for independent adjusters contracted to help out during disasters such as Charley and Frances, said Mark Winland, the insurer's director of claims automation and procedures.

"The (wireless) coverage has become much better, and it's much less cost-prohibitive with carrier plans that offer all-you-can-eat data transmission [ie charge a flat rate for data]," Winland said. The technology "has allowed our claims representatives to be more productive for our customers," he added.

Although he was not sure how much State Farm has spent on the wireless cards, Winland said the insurer "has more than seen the returns in efficiency gains and returns to our policyholders."

Satellite dishes take up the slack
In parts of Florida where cellular towers were damaged or destroyed by the storms, State Farm moved to satellite transmission, deploying 13 mobile claims units equipped with satellite dishes. Winland said that the mobile units allow adjusters and claims agents to connect to regional State Farm offices at T1 speeds, enabling them to quickly process and transmit customer claims.

Insurance companies are also making increased use of catastrophe modelling systems and predictive analytics to help forecast the cost of insurance losses for particular regions after disasters occur, according to Jamie Bisker, an analyst at TowerGroup