Five justifications for alarm management

Does the financial ROI combined with the overall operational benefits justify the expense of implementing an alarm management solution? This article finds that the most effective way is to perform an alarm assessment.

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By Jeff Gould

THE MOST OFTEN asked question by anyone considering an alarm management project is probably, “How do I justify alarm management?” There are plenty of articles written on how an alarm system should perform but how can a company justify and validate the necessity to do alarm management?

Justification is not just financial ROI; rather, it is the combined benefits and needs associated with solving a problem. The question that needs to be answered is this: does the financial ROI combined with the overall operational benefits justify the expense of implementing an alarm management solution?

The most effective way to justify alarm management is to perform an “alarm assessment.” This is the first step in the six phases of any successful alarm management project:

  1. Benchmark & Assessment
  2. Alarm management philosophy
  3. Alarm analysis / rationalization.
  4. Implementation and execution
  5. Continuous improvement
  6. Maintenance

This article will examine the first phase, Benchmark & Assessment, as it relates to justifying alarm management projects. For more information about the other Alarm Management Project phases, please refer to Senior Applications Engineer, Michael Marvin’s whitepaper, “Five Steps: Integrating Alarm Management to Boost Production.”

The Alarm Management Assessment
Alarm management assessment is comprised of three sub-sets:

  1. Technical Benchmark & Assessment
  2. Business Justification
  3. Project Plan

The Technical Benchmark & Assessment
Technical Assessment addresses measurable and philosophical information associated with the current alarm system. Quantifiable metrics are based on static alarm configurations (static alarms are the alarms that are configured on an analog or digital input, or control block on a control system) and real-time, or dynamic alarms (alarms that ring in and appear on the operator’s console). Assessing the static alarms reveals whether too many alarms are configured, thus generating too many real-time alarms for the operators to handle. Similarly, by analyzing real-time alarms, operators can determine whether there are too many alarms (irrelevant or nuisance alarms) in normal load conditions and during upset situations.

For the sake of simplicity, the target alarm counts for each metric are summed up in the following two figures.

NOTE: A common misperception is that the target average must be 144 alarms per day. If the plant is operating normally 24 hours a day and 7 days a week then 144 is the correct objective. If, however, upsets occur as is the case with the majority of facilities, then a more typical average number will likely be around 200 alarms per day.

A common pitfall when benchmarking and assessing an alarm system is the tendency to not collect event information. The top 100 operator actions that are archived into an alarm and event historian, as well as the incidents that are logged into the incident database, will provide significant information to apply to the creation of an accurate business case for alarm management.

The last component of Benchmark and Assessment is a review of the alarm philosophy, assuming one exists, to determine whether it sufficiently outlines management of change procedures (who is changing parameters, when it happens and why it is being done) and whether philosophy objectives are met. Finally, interviews and reviews should be completed to assess the operators’ perception and experience with the current alarm system.

Only after this information has been collected, can the next subset, Business Justification, be completed effectively and easily.

The Business Justification
Alarms are designed to help the operators mitigate safety, environmental and financial loses. Incident investigations repeatedly show a very real financial loss associated with any safety and environmental incident, therefore, any properly configured alarm that is missed by an operator has a financial loss associated with it. All too often, it is the dramatic events that are scrutinized and brought to attention, yet it is the small, lower priority alarms that create a significant compounding financial effect. To accurately define the priority of alarms, all alarms must have an Impact Category assigned to them to determine both the level and area of concern.

Once the consequence of not responding to an alarm is understood, the time that an operator has to respond to the alarm must be considered. The alarm priority is set taking both of these elements into effect.

Since every alarm should alleviate loses, improper alarm configurations end up continually costing the plant profitability and opportunity. Based on this understanding of what an alarm is and the significance of each alarm, a successful business plan can be created and a justification can now be made regarding the size and scope of an alarm management solution. An effective guideline to follow is that each successful justification must address one or all of the following three key concerns:

  1. Environment, health, and safety issues
  2. Insurance costs
  3. Plant and operational reliability

Justification #1: Regulatory Requirements

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