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Insurance Company’s Response To Wildfire Claims Better Due to Technology

In some cases, even before adjusters arrive on scene, claims experts can assess damage from the fires and cut checks by using before-and-after images taken by drones

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California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance
Joe Balog, a workforce management director at Travelers, examines weather, social media and other data from recent natural disasters inside the company's catastrophe response command center in Windsor, Connecticut. VOA

As wildfires raged this month in California, insurance claims experts at Travelers sat in a command center 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) away in Connecticut, monitoring screens showing satellite images, photos from airplane flyovers and social media posts describing what was happening on the ground.

Real-time data and technology that were unavailable to property-casualty companies even a few years ago have shaped the industry’s response to the Camp Fire, which has burned nearly 240 square miles (622 square kilometers) in northern California and the 151-square-mile (391-square-kilometer) Woolsey Fire in the Los Angeles area.

By overlaying the data on maps marking its customers’ locations, the company can quickly identify those who are likely to have been affected, said Jim Wucherpfennig, Travelers vice president of claims.

California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance
A controlled burn ignites pine trees on the “Rough Fire” — which closed camps east of Fresno at Hume Lake as it crossed Highway 180 — in the Sequoia National Forest in California, Aug. 21, 2015. VOA

“That allows us to deploy people and resources where they are needed most,” he said.

The same data also can be used to determine risk and pricing for insurance in any given area, said Peter Kochenburger, the deputy director of the University of Connecticut’s insurance law center. Insurers, for example, can use the telemetry to identify local vegetation, wind patterns and fire history. In some cases, it can determine that the owner of one home is more likely to suffer damage than the owner of a neighboring home, he said.

“Does it seem intrusive? It can be,” he said. “They have a lot more information on all of us, on our properties than they had two, five, 10 years ago. That’s a major issue and that’s something regulators are going to have to talk about.”

During the wildfires, Travelers said the information has been used to expedite claims, even in areas that are still inaccessible to inspectors.

California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance
The burned out hulks of cars abandoned by their drivers sit along a road. VOA

Workers were able to see what roads were open and map out spots in Chico and Thousand Oaks to park the RVs that serve as mobile claim centers, the company said. The tools also indicated where customers who evacuated were going to be, Wucherpfennig said.

The glassed-in Travelers National Catastrophe Center is located in Windsor, Connecticut. Modeled after military war rooms, it includes a conference table behind 19 high-definition screens, which display maps, graphs, television images and social media sites, all providing real-time data on the fires.

Also Read: U.S. Officials Find Solutions To Prevent Increased Wildfires

In some cases, even before adjusters arrive on scene, claims experts can assess damage from the fires and cut checks by using before-and-after images taken by drones, aircraft or satellites as well as videos or photos uploaded by customers from their phones. Employees have tools and smart phone apps that can convert those photos into instant measurements, to help quantify the damage.

“We’re able to virtually interact with customers much more easily than we could even in the recent past,” Wucherpfennig said. “We’re also able to monitor all forms of social media in real time. That helps us create an event footprint, which helps us understand how the event is tracking and what type of damages we’re seeing.” (VOA)

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Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal.

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Amazon
New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (2nd-L) speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

amazon
Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials. Pixabay

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

Amazon
Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Pixabay

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

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Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.” (VOA)