True Integration

True Integration

Security professional combines experience, innovation and design

True IntegrationCharlie Howell’s childhood was hardly conventional. While other children were reading comic books, he was poring over repair manuals and installation diagrams.

As a boy in Ardmore, Okla., Howell helped his dad build the houses their family lived in. When Howell was 9 years old, his father owned an automotive repair garage, where his son spent the next two years working on car engines. From the age of 11 to 13, Howell built his own car.

When Howell was 11, his father started an appliance repair business, where his son learned how to fix refrigerators, dryers, air conditioners and radios. Two years later, his dad decided Howell would be his after-hours service technician, so the teenager repaired customers’ appliances on weekends and at night.

He enjoyed the look of surprise he received when he knocked on a customer’s door, his toolbag in hand. “When they answered, they’d see this 14-year-old kid and look around me for the repairman. They thought I was an assistant,” he recalled with a laugh.

Howell got his first taste of security work during high school when the local Walmart hired him to chase shoplifters. “They had a position for a ‘Code 99 guy,’” he explained. “When they thought a shoplifter was on the premises, they’d issue a Code 99 and I’d go after them.”

After attending college for a time, “I found out I didn’t want to be an accountant,” Howell said, but it didn’t take long for him to land another security job. In 1989, while coaching a T-ball team in Chickasha, Okla., he was offered a technician position by the owners of Star Alarm, the team’s sponsor. For the next 20 years, the 44-year-old Howell played in the security game.

After working as an integrator/ consultant for companies that include ADT and Siemens, in 2003 he started a security consulting and design firm near Sacramento, Calif., which specialized in water and wastewater systems, commercial property, and energy and transportation projects. Howell also supported Department of Defense SCIF rooms, created vulnerability assessments and emergency response plans, and designed security systems for the California Attorney General’s Office and the vault of the California State Treasurer.

In May 2013, Howell joined Combs Consulting Group (CCG), an independent IT and security design company headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, where, as a consultant, he is applying his experience, design and innovation skills. With an unusual ability to understand, create and coordinate solutions with a variety of agencies, Howell is a true integrator in every sense of the word, said Paul Sensibaugh, who served as general manager of the Mountain House (Calif.) Community Services District for 11 years.

Howell worked on a variety of projects for Mountain House from 2006 to 2012. Sensibaugh met him when the district was building a wastewater treatment plant.

“We had some communication problems in the system,” Sensibaugh explained. “Everyone was spinning their wheels. We had six different people from six different agencies who kind of knew their things, but nobody was coordinating everything together.

“When I had a meeting with all the consultants, Charlie seemed to be the only guy in the room who really understood the language that everyone was talking. He can solve a variety of problems. It got to the point that we just put Charlie in our annual budget every year.”

Figuring It Out

From almost the beginning, the security field was a star in Howell’s galaxy. While talking with him after the Tball game in Oklahoma, Star Alarm’s owners recognized a kindred spirit in Howell. The company’s owners were John Gearhart, a doctor and electrical engineer, and Jim Clark, a teacher who was fascinated by construction.

“They loved to look at electronics magazines, find products they liked, and sell and install them,” Howell said. “After I worked for them part-time for a month, they offered me a full-time position. I was their first employee.”

Howell learned the business from the ground up. After initially installing security alarms on weekends, the company expanded to provide central vacuum systems, card access systems, fire alarms and phone systems. When Star Alarm won a bid for a phone system installation for an 83-room hotel in Branson, Mo., Gearhart and Clark turned it over to Howell.

“I learned the most I have ever learned from that company,” Howell said. “I’d talk with the manufacturer to learn the concept behind the product and how it worked. Star Alarm’s method of operation was, ‘If we want it, we’ll sell it, and Charlie will figure it out.’”

As the company grew, so did the number of its employees. Howell was a branch manager when he was 26 years old. When he installed a security system for Chickasha Chief of Police Danny Sterling, the lawman asked him a question that changed Howell’s life.

“His first question to me—and I’ve never forgotten it—was, ‘How do you know where to put the devices?’ I said, ‘It’s kind of simple. You have a front door, back door, some windows, and motion detectors across the front of your house.’

“But he said, ‘How do you know that’s going to actually thwart the criminal or just delay them? What’s the concept?’ I said, ‘That’s a good question. You’re the chief of police. Let’s go find out.’”

Howell studied police cases to learn the methods that criminals used so he could determine how they successfully gained access into properties. After he understood how they thought, he began to design systems that deterred them. “I put my bad guy hat on. If I can figure out how he did it, I can figure out how to stop him,” Howell said.

Howell worked for Star Alarm from 1989 to 1996, then moved to Oklahoma City to accept a job with ADT as a residential installer and quickly moved up the corporate ladder. He won an award as a top technician, became a troubleshooter, and was transferred to San Jose, Calif., where he served as a service manager.

While providing security support for DoD SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) rooms, Howell had another epiphany that changed his career.

“That’s where I discovered the second factor,” he said. ”We all had this ‘peace of mind’ security attitude, where you set up alarms and it was just a checkbox for an insurance company. But when I was working on SCIF rooms, I realized what real security is.

“It wasn’t meeting sales quotas for service techs. I decided I can’t affect the industry and my clients by sitting in this role. I need to be a designer or play a role in design with the client’s needs in mind. I’m talking about keeping bad guys from getting in.”

Turning Point

After changing his focus, Howell accepted a position with Cardkey as an applications engineer. Next came a year-long stint with Siemens as a project manager, project engineer and field technician trainer. In July 2001, he joined Security by Design, an independent security management consulting and design engineering firm, as a consultant, where he learned the importance of assessment methodologies. He became the company’s vice president.

After 9/11, Howell provided a vulnerability assessment of a national icon in San Francisco, and protected it by leveraging what he had learned. Another vulnerability assessment—for a statewide water project for California—provided another turning point in his career.

After implementation of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, Howell recognized that many small-tomedium- sized water districts couldn’t afford a security director or team to create vulnerability assessments and emergency management responses.

“I saw this opportunity and decided to start my own business, Security Concepts and Planning (SCP), to focus on the water and wastewater industries,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be rich, but I could make enough money to live on. I believe there is a ‘greater good’ principle here, helping these systems protect their drinking water for their ratepayers.”

The message resonated within the industry. For some of his projects, Howell broke into water systems to discover their vulnerabilities, then designed his way out. His clients included the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and Mountain House, for whom he worked for six years.

Located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and about an hour from San Francisco, Mountain House uses a variety of innovative technologies to provide its residents with environmentally friendly services. The district is a self-sufficient community that was built from scratch. In 2003, its population consisted of three people who lived on farmland. By 2010, its population had grown to 10,000 and is expected to increase to 44,000.

Howell quickly became the “go-to guy” for a variety of Mountain House projects that ranged from water and wastewater treatment plant security, to cybersecurity, to solving thefts of copper in streetlights in the district.

“Charlie was a specialist, no doubt, but he seemed to have several specialties,” Sensibaugh said. “He always seemed to come up with the reasonable thing to try, and most of them worked. He has a thirst for knowledge and the ability to apply it.”

Sensibaugh recalled an unusual—and humorous— situation at the water treatment plant that Howell managed to solve immediately, perhaps by returning to his Oklahoma roots.

“We have high security around our water treatment plant, but when the operators went out there one morning, there were these sheep all over the plant grounds, so they called Charlie,” Sensibaugh said.

“Charlie looked around and sure enough, there was a wrought iron fence with a hole in it behind some bushes. Charlie took one of the sheep and led it back through the hole. Of course, he knew the other sheep would follow it, and they did.”

Howell’s projects in California continued to grow, including security systems for the Rancho Cordova City Council and an administrative building for San Joaquin County. His professional journey has taken him most recently to Texas and Combs Consulting Group, where school security is a core industry.

As the father of an 8-year-old daughter, Howell is passionate about school safety and has developed a secured classroom that includes invisible elements to protect teachers and students.

“Security is the thing that wakes me up in the morning,” he said. “It drives me and makes me want to go to work.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Security Today.

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