How to avoid alarm management mistakes

This article examines common mistakes made implementing an effective alarm management project and recommends a methodology that will make your plant and personnel more productive.

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By Michael Marvan, P.Eng.

SAM LEVENSON said, “You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.” When it comes to alarm management, Levenson is correct. Ineffective alarm systems pose a serious risk to safety, the environment, and plant profitability. Too often, alarm system effectiveness is unknowingly undermined by poorly configured alarms. Static alarm settings can’t adapt to dynamic plant conditions and many other nuisances result in alarm floods that overwhelm operators just when they most need concise direction.

Operators and engineers in the process control industry have become increasingly aware of the value that alarm management solutions offer. Alarm systems are the primary tool for identifying abnormal situations and helping plant personnel take timely, appropriate action to move the process back to operational targets.

As alarm management solutions become more common, our understanding of the factors that impede their success has grown. If you’re thinking of undertaking an alarm management solution, or if you have already started one, the following information based on lessons learned, can help drive your project to success.

Alarm Management Methodology
The overall structure of a successful alarm management project is fundamentally the same across industries, regardless of plant size:

 

  1. Benchmark & Evaluate Current Performance: This is the time to identify your biggest alarm system problems and your biggest opportunities for improvement.
  2. Develop an Alarm Philosophy Document: This critical document clearly outlines key concepts and governing rules for your alarm strategy such as what constitutes an alarm and what risk categories pertain to your site operations. The Philosophy also outlines roles and responsibilities, change management procedures, and the project goals, such as target alarm rates. There is good news for those who find it difficult to compile the Philosophy document. Templates are available that do most of the work for you. All you are required to do is include your specific metrics and situation.
  3. Alarm Rationalization: First, target and eliminate the top 20 to 30 bad actors to significantly improve alarm loading. Then, perform an alarm system configuration review to ensure priorities convey consistent urgency to the operator.
  4. Implementation: Control system re-configuration makes the intentions of Alarm Rationalization a reality by eliminating nuisance alarms at their source.
  5. Continuous Improvement: Routine performance monitoring helps to identify new opportunities for improvement, such as dynamic alarm strategies.
  6. Maintenance: Integrate alarm management practices into plant workflow to sustain optimized plant performance over the long term.

Now that we have defined the correct execution path, let’s take a look at the recent lessons learned by industry.

 

  
 

Blunder #1: Poor Project Management
Poor planning, system design, resource allocation, scheduling, or expectation management can destroy the success of any project. Alarm Management is no exception. This may seem drastically obvious; unfortunately it is here where common sense is often neglected. The single most important alarm management activity is planning -- detailed, systematic, team-involved plans are the foundation for project success.

Blunder #2: Using the Wrong Tools
Alarm and event archiving and the correct analysis tools must be used to ensure that time spent on problem correction delivers the maximum return. All alarms should be reviewed in due course to ensure consistent priorities, but it is inefficient, costly and irresponsible to correct minor nuisances when problems remain that pose serious risk to plant safety.

Beyond simple analysis, tools that enable automatic change control, punch-list generation, and project tracking are available. Forethought should be given to how leveraging alarm information will be achieved once this knowledge is in a repository. Although these tasks can be performed without special software tools, it is not practical to do so. The effort often becomes so daunting that alarm management initiatives can collapse under the weight of their own logistics. It is best to do away with paper trails for change control and spreadsheets posing as Master Alarm Databases. Use the right tools.

Blunder #3: Neglecting to Benchmark
Benchmarking is vital to any serious improvement initiative. If you don’t measure your current performance, you won’t be able to accurately determine your progress. The first step is to keep track of alarm rates for several weeks in order to get a baseline measurement. Once that’s done, assess how your plant’s current alarm levels measure up to industry standards.

To get a quick snapshot of where your plant ranks according to EEMUA standards, Matrikon has posted an automated calculator on its website.

When you have finished benchmarking and assessing your current performance, you can start identifying opportunities for improvement. Below are the key questions you need to answer when performing this assessment. Note that this checklist is in order of importance:

  1. Is the dynamic (real-time) alarm load acceptable for all operators?
  2. Does the dynamic alarm prioritization meet industry standards?
  3. What are the troublesome tags on the system during steady-state operation?
  4. How does the configured DCS alarm count compare to standards (alarms per tag)?
  5. What does the configured alarm distribution look like compared to standards?

Blunder #4: Stop Philosophizing and Get it Done!

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