Catastrophic Success
Posted: 01.01.05 - By Matt Purdue


On the morning of Sept. 20, 2002, Indiana residents awoke to unsettled weather. Over their coffee, Hoosiers heard radio forecasts of strong winds, heavy rains and even the slight risk of severe thunderstorms over central Indiana.

By the end of that afternoon, devastating tornadoes had ripped a gaping wound into the heart of the state. Meteorologists said a horrific twister touched down near Ellettsville in Monroe County and tore a gash 112 miles long and 250 yards wide at some points, carving the second-longest tornado track in state history. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured, but more than 3,800 families were displaced by the storms, and snowplows were called out to clear debris-choked streets.

More than 100 homes were destroyed, and damage estimates surpassed $230 million. This is where our insurance story begins. Following a natural disaster, insurance agents are usually right behind the Red Cross, providing relief, making damage estimates, cutting checks and helping victims begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance agents took to their ravaged towns armed with new mobile technology designed to streamline claims processing and help customers get back on their feet. In fact, Farm Bureau material damage appraisers were still testing their handheld computers when the tornados hit. In 2002, Farm Bureau became the first company in the United States to use a solution combining Panasonic’s rugged touchscreen handhelds linked wirelessly to semi-rugged, vehicle-based Panasonic Toughbook notebook PCs.

The innovative arrangement enables Farm Bureau appraisers to use the Panasonic Mobile Data Wireless Display (MDWD) to
digitally capture damage information in the field and then wirelessly relay the data to CF-72 Toughbooks via an 802.11b connection. Damage claims can then be easily batch-loaded from the Toughbooks to Farm Bureau’s corporate servers in one convenient step.

Mobility is mission-critical for Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, a 70-year-old mutual insurance company based in Indianapolis. Farm Bureau supports at least one office in every county in Indiana, some 130 in total. Of the company’s 1,200 employees, approximately 140 work in the field, and many of them rushed to provide disaster relief in September 2002, putting the wireless equipment and new claims software through a baptism by fire. Within 48 hours of the destructive storms, Farm Bureau CAT Teams (short for catastrophe) had contacted and assisted every customer who had been rendered homeless. Farm Bureau also set up drive-through service stations to assess vehicle damage and cut on-the-spot checks. Using the handhelds and notebooks, they examined more than 400 cars in one week.

Appraiser Approved

Today the equipment has become an essential component of Farm Bureau’s business processes. The technology continues to positively impact customer relations and drive productivity for the 30 appraisers, 10 material damage specialists and two material damage coordinators utilizing the handheld-notebook grouping. “Our folks are now averaging 5.1 estimates per day. That’s between one-half and one more estimate per day because it is quicker with the handheld,” says Joe Marcum, manager of field services. “They don’t have to write notes or go back to the car and do manual entry. They don’t have to wait to get to a greenscreen in the office to input it.”

Farm Bureau first began searching for a new solution to replace its Itronix Microsoft Windows–
powered notebooks, which Marcum recalls as “heavy monsters.” Under this old regime, the claims flow process was clunky at best. Appraisers would make damage assessments on paper, type them into ADP software on the Itronix notebook to calculate damage estimates and then head back to an office to input the data into the company’s mainframe-based claims processing software.

When Farm Bureau launched a plan to upgrade its back end to Windows NT and move its ADP software to a Web-based interface, the Itronix hardware had to go. Marcum considered Fujitsu, IBM and Research In Motion before happening upon the Panasonic MDWD at a tradeshow. At the time, the MDWD ran via a connection to a Panasonic mini PC in a toolbelt unit Marcum dubbed “the brick.”

But Marcum’s field reps needed to travel as lightly as possible. His appraisers and damage specialists are frequently tasked with trudging through barn lots, scrambling over wrecked cars and delving into the bowels of auto body shops. Panasonic had spent massive amounts of time and capital designing the combination of a 1.5-pound MDWD with its 8.4-inch screen and a 2.1-pound mini PC, the Toughbook 07. So Marcum, of course, challenged Panasonic to change it. “I liked the handheld’s light weight and the redundancy of the screen, but we looked at the display only. We asked them if they would consider refiguring this for us.”

Marcum knew his reps needed the processing power of a full-fledged notebook PC, but they had no business lugging it through hazardous areas unless it was fully ruggedized—and inexpensive. To save hardware costs for his non-profit company, Marcum asked Panasonic to redesign the MDWD to connect wirelessly to the company’s semirugged CF-72 Toughbooks, which Farm Bureau reps would leave in their vehicles. Panasonic complied, offering Marcum the MDWD with a slot for a Wi-Fi card, which would link it with the CF-72.

That hurdle cleared, Marcum asked ADP, which leases the Panasonic equipment to Farm Bureau, to redesign its interface for the touchscreen MDWD. Again, he succeeded. Farm Bureau reps now use a unique ADP graphical interface to conduct damage estimates. The data is sent to the CF-72, which actually runs the ADP software, in real time.

Marcum is pleased with the range of the 802.11b radios, although their claim of 300-foot connections seems inflated. “It’s more like 150 feet. We need line of sight,” he says. “We get a problem deep in a body shop or a steel structure—if we lose range, the MDWD freezes so we don’t lose [data]. It could be as simple as turning around and it will pick up right where we left off.”

Once the damage has been recorded, and sometimes photographed using Sony digital cameras, the appraiser simply walks back to his vehicle to find a hard copy report waiting on a portable Canon Bubblejet printer. He hands the customer a copy and can handwrite a check on the spot. At the end of the day, field agents return to a local office or home office where they plug into the Farm Bureau intranet and upload their damage data to the claims processing system. Each file, including about six photos and loss documentation, measures approximately 1.1 MB.

Apart from increasing productivity and reducing data-entry errors, perhaps the best indicator of Farm Bureau’s success is the raving fans it’s made of the mobile workforce. “People ask me how well it was received in the field,” Marcum explains. “If you go out and ask them, you’d have to pry these devices out of their hands. That’s how much they like them.”•

 


Leisure Publications
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