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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Blunder #9: Treating All Data the Same
Audible alarms are not the same as non-audible alarms. Many control systems continue to send alarms to the journals when alarms are not audible. Failure to separate this data creates an inaccurate picture of alarm system performance and may lead personnel to think the situation is worse than it is. Moreover, this may waste time by falsely indicating alarm problems.

Blunder #10: Assuming Users Will Read the Manuals
I confess to not reading my motherboard manual the last time I bought a computer. Nor did I read the instructions for my Television, DVD player, microwave, and certainly not the 1800 page operating system help files. I know you’re guilty too. The easiest way to undermine effective alarm management is to implement a solution without giving personnel the hands-on training they need. This point is perhaps best illustrated with a real-world example:

A large petrochemical plant went to great efforts to improve their alarm system performance thorough alarm rationalization. Once the new settings were designed, changes were uploaded to the control system over the span of two months. Training was provided throughout this period.

Joe, a veteran operator with 21 years of experience, was entitled to five weeks of vacation per year. Shift rotations at the company normally consisted of four weeks on and one week off. Joe had recently earned some time-in-lieu by working some shifts for a co-worker. With these factors combined, Joe decided to take two months off. Guess when?


On Joe’s first day back, there was a compressor trip. This caused a single emergency priority alarm to be sent to the control system. Joe was accustomed to assessing the plant’s state based on the rate of alarms. He naturally assumed things were running quite smoothly: he had only a single alarm in nearly 30 minutes! His delayed intervention escalated the upset to an unnecessary plant shutdown.

Effective operator training ensures that operators know what needs to be done, when, and how. Remember team-involved plans are the only foundation for project success. If unable to provide effective in-house operator training there are companies that specialize in third-party training. I

Blunder #11: Overhauling the Whole System at Once
In line with proper training, implementation should be staged. implementation strategy becomes complicated. This will only ensure that it never gets done. Recognizing this prior to rationalization will help personnel break the execution into easy steps. This also enables operations to become accustomed to the changes gradually, thus improving the chances of success.

Failing to assign roles and responsibility is the management project. I advocate resolving this by encouraging “accountability through visibility”. In other words, make sure everyone has access to their peers’ data. This will motivate your plant personnel to work together and prove they run the “tightest ship”. Some sites may make excuses and complain, but in the end they will improve plant operations to avoid repeated corporate humiliation. This sounds harsh, but it works.

It is best to define maintenance tasks and assign responsibility for them at an early project stage such as during the project plan design. This must be done in a simple manner, both textually and in actual day-to-day practice, to ensure the sustained support of the idea. This will give personnel an opportunity to participate in the y will be more likely to use the new technologies because they have ownership from participating in the initial configuration. system installation and/or verification and they will be more likely to use the new technologies because they have ownership from participating in the initial configuration.

Alarm manaonly succeed if they are implemented properly. If you follow the recommended project methodology, and if you avoid the common mistakes we’ve examined throughout this paper, you will have an effective and successful alarm management project that will make your personnel more productive and your plant run more reliably.

  About the Author
Michael (Mik) Marvan, P.Eng. (Alberta) is a senior engineer with Matrikon and has extensive experience in Advanced Process Control and Alarm Management. Marvan previously worked four years as a Process Control Engineer at NOVA Chemicals’ Joffre facilities. He graduated with an engineering degree from Queen’s University in Chemical Process Control.
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