This article is part of the annual Security Vanguard Awards, presented by SecurityInfoWatch.com, Security Business magazine and Security Technology Executive (STE) magazine. Learn more about the Vanguard and its many winners over the years at www.securityinfowatch.com/vanguard.
With more than 150 buildings, hundreds of video surveillance cameras and access control points to monitor, and lots of unknowns to factor in, security operations for Harris County in the Houston Metro area – the most populous county in Texas and the third most populous county in the United States – must perform well every day.
But after years of building an enterprise security system in a piecemeal fashion, the county was left with clunky, inefficient and outdated technology to track more than 17,000 employees and support more than four million residents with services ranging from public safety and jails to libraries and licensing facilities.
Harris County, along with Texas-based integration partner ESI Fire & Security Protection and primary vendor Honeywell, embarked on a multi-year journey to streamline and modernize the county’s vast security needs, culminating in the project’s completion in June 2021. The enterprise project has been named an honorable mention in the 2022 Security Vanguard Awards from SecurityInfoWatch, Security Business magazine and Security Technology Executive (STE) magazine.
Each of the 150-plus buildings that fall under the Harris County jurisdiction previously used different security products that did not communicate to one another, creating an overly complicated network and increasing work for employees, as well as driving down efficiency.
County administrators decided to contract with Honeywell and ESI Fire & Security Protection to identify the county’s needs
ESI, which became the county’s primary security contractor in 2014, recommended an integrated system of security components from Honeywell and other security manufacturers that would tie together the disparate security systems, facilitate better business decisions, and allow Harris County officials to streamline operations.
At the time, there was little or no standardization, with four different access systems, at least four different video management systems and two different intrusion detection and alarm systems. And it cost taxpayers a lot of money to have multiple employees manage all the different systems.
The primary goal was to replace those various access control and security components and consolidate them into a single system. The county opted to go with Honeywell’s Pro-Watch Intelligent Command security management system as its backbone, uniting video surveillance, alarm events, access and safety “under one pane of glass,” says Bruce Montgomery, strategic account manager for Honeywell.
“We couldn’t start from day one with a full integration, but we took it one step at a time, and it was well thought out,” explains James Humbert, ESI’s president and business development manager. “We knew they couldn’t change everything overnight, but we needed them to see what they have and what it could be. Once we showed them [the benefits of] one uniform platform, it made it so much easier for them to move forward and change it out building-by-building.”
Harris County’s Security Operations Center enables security personnel to monitor incidents “without having to jump through
The upgrade project launched its first phase in early 2017. In addition to upgrading the access control on doors in all buildings, ESI installed the Pro-Watch backbone, Honeywell MAXPRO cameras and NVRs, Silent Sentinel thermal cameras, as well as third-party access control components such as Invixium access control terminals, optical turnstiles from Smarter Security and intercoms from Commend.
The technology, of course, is all designed to help Harris County accomplish its goals:
● Save taxpayer dollars through better analytics that reduce false alarms and help first responders.
● Monitoring from a single central control station for improved situational awareness.
● Create healthier building environments by leveraging people-counting technologies and analytics to manage health and safety compliance, such as social distancing.
● Streamlined systems to create operational efficiencies and save the county resources that can be redirected to other critical infrastructure or services.
“Everyone understands that we were all working together on this and that we all have the same goals,” Humbert says, underscoring the synergy between Harris County officials, Honeywell and his company.
The first phases of the project involved replacing all access control and video camera systems in the county, which took nearly four years. There were built-in challenges for this phase, as the central station – which is staffed 24/7 – had to monitor multiple, disparate systems while ESI and Honeywell were building and configuring the new system.
There was also some pushback from older security and monitoring team members who were accustomed to the legacy systems, but that is not to be unexpected with major changeovers, McGee says, adding that he explained how much faster they would be able to respond to incidents with a more adequate alerting system. That now includes screen pop-ups, lights, sounds and visual messages that inform them what’s happening and when.
“That makes it easier on the operators and they can give the proper location to law enforcement or any responding agency when an event happens,” McGee says.
County officials say the incorporation of analytics in the central station has increased intelligence provided by the integrated equipment, dramatically reducing false alarm events. Video analytics also provides a clear image from a specific camera that corresponds with movement causing the alarm – enabling central station operators to see what’s happening and determine instantly whether an alarm is caused by an intruder or, perhaps, just an animal.
Access Control and Visitor Management
In most buildings, the county uses Smarter Security optical turnstiles integrated with either HID smart readers or the Idemia visitor management system to create a frictionless access and visitor management procedure that enables employees and visitors to enter the buildings. In some cases, the system can recognize employees and frequent visitors, such as judges and lawyers, using data stored in the ProWatch system without the need to physically scan a badge or remove facial coverings.
McGee says that the county uses Honeywell analytics capabilities in concert with the visitor management system, enabling the SOC to search for someone in one of the many buildings based on attributes such as height, color, hairstyle, the clothes they were wearing and cross-reference that with entry and exit data from the visitor management system.
McGee recalled an incident where someone entered a facility with a weapon. The suspect was eventually caught, but during the incident post-mortem, security officers wanted to know how and when the suspect accessed the building with a weapon in the first place.
“[It was] a building with tens of thousands of people moving through it in and out in the morning timeframe, so it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” McGee says. “We were able to narrow the timeframe where they believed the person came in, [the officers] gave us a description of the person’s clothing, and we ran that through the analytics software and the visitor management system. It came back with the exact timestamp of the individual and when they got in and how, within two to three hours.”
Another advantage to the Honeywell access control is that users can be easily created or deleted in the system, and automatically be deleted under certain parameters – such as an employee who is no longer with the county but still had a user profile in the system, McGee explains.
Security personnel can also lock down a building according to specific groups of users, or an entire building can be locked down in a matter of minutes.
Upgrades and Maintenance
The shift to the unified security management system is complete, although Harris County is constantly upgrading and performing maintenance, as the system continues to grow from 10 to 15 percent every year. In addition to phased projects that are part of the main upgrade, pop-up projects continue – for example, the county bought another building last year and awarded a $2.5 million contract to ESI to upgrade the turnstiles and intercom systems in the building and install speed gates in the garages.
There are monthly firmware updates as well, primarily focused on the 300-plus NVRs in use. McGee says the software updates are tested for up to a month in an internal lab built by the county before being pushed out to ensure there are no problems.
For the ESI integration team, which includes Harris County Project Manager Matt Betancourt, as well as Humber, Robby Burleson (head of ESI’s mobile surveillance tower division), John Copeland (head of ESI’s security operation, and Lorenzo Cuellar (head of ESI’s fire division), the lessons learned on this project are many; however, ironically, one of the biggest was creating a human “single pane of glass” with the County – more specifically, having a single point of contact for all things project-related.
“When we started, there were so many different departments and divisions and they were all coming to us for upgrades,” Humbert explains. “It was a big challenge, but we overcame that by building a relationship with the main source at the county, Anthony Bean [the Enterprise Program Manager for Public Safety Technology Services with Harris County Central Technology Services]. It was ‘one pane of glass from a personal contact point of view, and it makes our process a lot easier.”
Humbert explains that Bean has outlined a standard configuration for each of the buildings, which has made a uniform deployment much smoother. “The standard tells us exactly what they are looking for in every building, and the first step is to always make sure the standard is covered.”
Humbert adds that over the course of a 7-year ongoing project if the integrator wants to keep that contract, you can never take it easy.
“You have to bring your A-game every single day,” Humbert says. “When you have a customer for 5 or 10 years, some guys get too comfortable – they think, ‘I’ve had this for so long, so I can slow it down a bit.’ There’s none of that [with Harris County]. We are going at the same pace on day one as we are right now. That’s how we set ourselves apart from the competition. It takes that same mentality every day. There’s no time or day to bring the B game.”
Humbert adds that constantly being available helps to establish the integration team as a long-term and trusted partner. “You can actually become the customer’s go-to security person – not just the company that sells and installs something, but somebody they actually trust when there's an issue,” he says. “If you can build that kind of relationship – that trust with a customer – then you are more than just their salesperson; you are more than just their integrator; you’ve simply become part of their team.”
John Dobberstein is the managing editor of SecurityInfoWatch.com.