DTE Energy Tackles Unruly Alarms

Rationalization Process Restores Meaning--One Alarm at a Time

By Jim Montague

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"The rationalization room was needed to help get everyone on the same page. A lot of individualized tribal knowledge has built up in our plant and processes, and we needed to standardize on some common best practices. So it really helped to talk about what was bringing us to certain alarm situations."

The alarm rationalization team started with GWEC's I/O tag list and the plant's piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs). "We found that we could sort the tag database however we wanted, but we learned it was better to take the P&IDs and rationalize the whole system. You have to ask questions like, ‘What flow do I need here?' or ‘What level do I need here?' The aim is to avoid unnecessary double alarms, but it can take a long time—sometimes three or four hours to reach consensus on one alarm. You have to get your subject matter experts for the process on speed dial."

Once specific alarms, their I/O points and other components, as well as their operating profiles and information were gathered, each was documented and added to an overall matrix that organized them according to type and style of alarm, severity and consequences of each.

GWEC also used AlarmInsight software to present alarm profiles and operating data to its operators in a more concise and less text-heavy format. "Besides delivering important alarms, we tried to give our operators assistance beyond the routine and obvious tasks, and help them with things they might not think about at 3 a.m. So, we spent more time rationalizing some of these unusual events." 

Dage added, "For instance, we found that we rarely used Level 2 and Level 3 alarms, and so we began to discuss the reasons why and document our alarm philosophy."

Dobel explained that management buy-in and commitment was also crucial to GWEC's alarm rationalization project, not just for funding and resources, but to give the team the authority to make rationalization decisions and require the plant and its operators stick to them—even though there are always some exceptions. "For example, if your facility had a historical event, has to meet a specific EPA requirement or must carry out a particular management requirement, then these just have to be done," added Dobel.

In all, Dobel, Dage and their colleagues spent out eight hours a day for three months working out of the rationalization room and hashing out alarms. "That was too much. We'd recommend a schedule of doing rationalization in the morning and then gathering information in the afternoon," said Dobel. "So far, we're done with rationalizing alarms for 80% to 85% of our hard I/O components and now are working on the logic for our smart alarms and the existing alarm system. We're still meeting once a week for two to fours hours to do more rationalization. In fact, on his own, John triaged that last 20% of our alarms, and made them Priority 4, so the operators can assign them priority levels later.

"Alarm rationalization includes many different devices, but the basic questions for each are always the same: 'Do the operators need to know about this alarm?' and 'What are the consequences?' added Dage.

Dobel added, "After documenting your alarm rationalizations, it's also important to be consistent with the rationalization rules you come up with, and as you build those rules, you need to document them too. Get started doing alarm rationalization now. Don't wait for an incident or accident."

Besides continuing its rationalization efforts, GWEC and the team are doing more continuous improvement and have set up another whiteboard to aid communications among operators, IT and other players. For example, it lists the top 20 alarms each week and the bad actors behind them, which has already reduced the number and severity of those alarms.

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