ASM Alarm Management Guidelines and ISA-18.2: How Do They Stack Up?

The ISA Standard and the ASM Consortium Guidelines Both Offer Important Information About Alarm Management. Although Their Approaches Differ, They Complement One Another

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  • The audience was to be Consortium members, already relatively knowledgeable in alarm management and familiar with the EEMUA guidelines and goals.
  • But as stated earlier, Consortium members desired to capture the lessons learned from site experiences to help achieve the EEMUA targets, which ASM research had determined were valid and important to achieve.
  • In addition, though not a standards document, there was a desire to provide a prioritized listing of guidelines for site implementations, as had been done with the ASM Consortium guidelines on effective operator display design, also originally published internally to the Consortium and now available publicly (Bullemer, Reising, Burns, Hajdukiewicz, & Andrzejewski, 2009).

The structure of the ASM guideline document is made up of three main guideline sections:

  • Management Practices, which contains 14 guidelines directed at effectively managing and continuously improving the alarm system.
  • Alarm System Design and Implementation, which contains 22 guidelines directed at processes and methods for creating an effective alarm system.
  • Training, which contains 7 guidelines directed at training practices for not only the design teams that will configure the alarm system but also the operators that will have to respond to the alarms.

Each of the 43 guidelines follows a common structure, made up of four components:

  • The numbered guideline statement – a succinct statement of the guideline, e.g., Guideline 1.4, "Use a Management of Change (MOC) Process for Alarm Changes".
  • "Why?" – A brief description of the rationale – why this is important.
  • "How It Works" – A longer discussion of "what" should be done, often including when and where it should relate to other plant work processes. The attempt is to describe "what" and not "how," despite the use of the word "how" in the title of this segment. This section often uses the "should" style of statement, similar to ISA-18.2 wording, but it is less formally done than in ISA-18.2.
  • "Examples" – A discussion of one or more examples (i.e., success cases) from ASM Consortium member sites―examples of how it could be done, without requiring that it be done in this way.

Each of the 43 guidelines is also given a priority to help sites evaluate where to focus resources. There are three priorities that are meant to represent a tiered or hierarchical approach to continuous improvement for the alarm system:

  • Priority 1 – minimum guidelines for achieving good-quality practice.
  • Priority 2 – the comprehensive set of guidelines for achieving high-quality practice.
  • Priority 3 – the advanced set of guidelines for achieving ASM best practice.

Besides the guidelines themselves, the ASM guidelines document provides other useful supporting information, including:

  • Business drivers for alarm management projects―why it is important for sites to do this.
  • A summary of some related ASM work on situational awareness.
  • A summary of key findings from recent ASM Consortium research in alarm management.

ISA-18.2 Document Structure

When the ISA18 Committee met in 2003 and 2004, it was clear that one of the most important keys to success was the need for alarm management to be treated formally and as an ongoing activity―not just a onetime clean-up effort at a site. Further, successful alarm management must involve multiple parts of the operating team and be integrated into a site's operating work processes. These success factors led the committee to begin by documenting the alarm management work process, and then organizing the standards document around the work process. The result provides a "blueprint" to help site people plan, fund and execute their efforts. Figure 1 shows the ISA-18.2 alarm management life cycle, which forms the structure of the ISA-18.2 standard. With some minor exceptions, each life cycle stage has a major section, or clause, dedicated to it in the standard.

Another early thrust of the ISA18 Committee was definitions. The committee created a starting list from EEMUA, NAMUR (, ISA84, and other places, for a consistent starting point; then reviewed and re-reviewed them with each draft cycle for conciseness and relevance to the standard. An example of this process is the fate of the term "disable," which was extensively discussed, then ultimately removed from the standard because different DCSs use it in different ways. As this term was removed, the term "out-of-service" was added and defined to relate more directly to the Maintenance Stage of the life cycle. This leaves it up to the implementer to utilize the tools of the chosen DCS or alarm system and to adapt the site work processes to address the "out-of-service" condition to meet the ISA standard.

As a standards document, the team took care to provide concise requirements ("shall" statements) and recommendations ("should" statements) that identify the key components of each life-cycle stage shown in Figure 1. Extensive background, rationale and examples present in earlier drafts were pushed over time to an appendix, and finally out of the standard document itself. These will resurface in technical reports that are to be published by the committee starting later this year. Nevertheless, the standard does still contain a number of items of supporting information, including the following:

  • The alarm management life cycle – diagram and discussion.
  • An alarm state transition diagram and operator response time line – diagrams and discussion.
  • Definitions, which in the author's opinion, are the best definitions yet produced for such terms as "alarm," "alert," "standing/stale," "suppression," "nuisance alarms" and others.


Hence the two documents are very complementary―same problem, same goals, but from two different directions and perspectives. The alignment of ASM guidelines with ISA stages/clauses are shown in Table 1 and Table 2. Table 1 takes the topical orientation of the ASM guidelines and identifies the ISA-18.2 life-cycle stages in which the ASM guidelines are covered; and where applicable, it lists specific related ISA-18.2 subclauses. Table 2 inverts this, taking the ISA-18.2 life-cycle orientation and identifies ASM guidelines that will give the practitioner rationale, further considerations and examples when addressing each of the ISA18.2 life-cycle stages. (The tables show the author's opinion on the primary relationships; there may be other relationships not shown.)

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