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Introduction to Alarm Management

Phil. Art. Pic #1In our last article, we discussed how the content of your philosophy matters just as much as the fact that you have one. But philosophy development and content management isn’t a one person job, and as with any group project, differing opinions can cause some gridlock.

Organizational inertia is the tendency of an organization to continue status quo because of lack of manpower (Resource Rigidity), and seemly unchangeable procedures (Routine Rigidity). In the face of a complicated change like redesigning your alarm system, the tendency to continue the status quo must be overcome if a site’s alarm philosophy is to effectively contribute to meeting obligations to the safety personnel, the environment, the surrounding community, plant assets, and shareholder investment.

Resource Rigidity

Phil. Art. Pic #2Market conditions determine manpower levels, and insufficient manpower can limit how an organization is able to respond to change. In order to circumvent the gridlock brought on by this limitation, it is essential to have the right people in place. Marcus Dudoit of SYCON Intl. explains:

“Too often, I see a failure on the part of end-users to understand that alarm management is a program, not simply a one-time project to “fix problems with the DCS. With that mistaken view, those who have commissioned the effort often assign the task of creating the alarm management system, and by extension the alarm philosophy document, to a relatively low-level individual in the enterprise."

The philosophy document is supposed to be the guide for those who design the alarms, those who must act after an alarm activates, and those who manage the production. For a typical alarm philosophy development process, most subject matter experts want participation from the following departments:

  • • Operations and Maintenance Managers
  • • Control Room Operators (pipeline controllers)
  • • Safety, Risk Management, & Environmental Personnel
  • • Automation, Control & Process Engineers, & Technicians

Remember, Alarm Management is a process not a project. There is no end date for safety vigilance or alarm system excellence.

Even though you can’t control market forces such as feedstock and market price, or competition and site configuration, expediently delegating to an unqualified or over-committed person or group leaves the issue of organizational inertia in place. The person accountable for the development and implementation of the alarm philosophy must have the authority to coordinate schedules, facilitate meetings, and interact with management to get the job done. Dudoit explains:

"In my experience it's usually a controls technician/engineer [who is assigned], just as they might do for any other DCS project. The problem with that approach is that when key decisions need to be made (e.g. - roles and responsibilities, organizational risk as it relates to prioritization, etc.) the individual(s) may have no authority whatsoever to make those decisions and may not even have a clear idea of who can. This usually leaves the team frustrated and floundering.”

Regardless of the degree of control that you possess over manpower and market conditions, the alarm system and developing a philosophy is still your problem. The first step towards overcoming inertia and paving the way for an effective alarm philosophy is getting on the same page. In order to prevent the unpleasant situation mentioned above from occurring, Marcus recommends identifying the key drivers for the alarm management system, as well as the key stakeholders:

“Getting them in a brief alarm management fundamentals course is vital for them to understand the full scope of the alarm management lifecycle and how it will affect their operations and facilities. Usually with the “big picture” conveyed, I find that I get better buy-in and involvement from key management and facility personnel.”

Routine Rigidity

However, Mike Lyssy of aeSolutions warns that even with a common end goal in sight, opinions on how to reach this goal can vary widely: “Assembling the right team and ensuring everyone agrees on the objectives is only half the battle.”

The other side of the issue is Routine Rigidity. Routine Rigidity refers to the inability to change patterns, logic and procedures. The routines that are in place to create standard operating procedures may not be fit for complex issues addressed during the development of an alarm philosophy.

Examples of Complex Issues

Management of Change – Interim Changes “…determining what level of operations can make temporary changes to either alarm set points or priorities can be very complex. Responses vary from absolutely no permission to make any changes, to the idea of anyone making temporary changes to high and medium priority alarms that need better tracking and control.” – Mike Lyssy, aeSolutions
Alarm Importance "Process risk considers the severity of an event assuming that there are no protective layers in place and the frequency or likelihood of the event. Alarm importance on the other hand looks at the severity of the event that can be avoided by operator action assuming that all layers of protection are in place and working properly and how much time they have to respond.  So while we can use a client’s existing risk management procedures as a starting point, they usually need to be adapted for alarm management purposes.” – John Bogdan, J Bogdan Consulting
Prioritization "Prioritization of alarms can be a sticky task because it is completely subjective. Priority is a grouping of alarms by relative importance.  This means that two operators operating two different areas (operating positions) can have alarms with the same importance but different priority.  For example, two operators could each have an alarm whose financial impact was $50k.  For the first it could be prioritized as High if it was among his most important alarms.  For the second operator, it might only be prioritized as Medium if he had more alarms with a higher importance.” – John Bogdan

Bringing it all Together

Developing a philosophy is a creative process. Real creativity requires doing something that has never been done before. As humans, in general, we are inherently distrustful of things that are new. You can expect that a team of peers brought in to develop the philosophy will approach the idea with hesitation. An alarm philosophy development workshop truly speeds an organization down the path of creating and securing enterprise-wide approval for an alarm philosophy.

The workshops for alarm philosophy development create environments that both foster the willingness to explore potential new solutions, and provide structure to utilize the collective knowledge of a diverse mixture of personalities and experiences. A structured, segmented process involving group sessions, documentation of decisions, the development of action plans, and the collection of data that will form your final philosophy will be an immense help in ensuring a workable and usable final product.

So how do you get alarm philosophy development from “stuck-in-traffic” to “smooth sailing”?

    1. Get a Manager involved – Make sure a boss is on the team. Have them come to alarm management team lunches and keep the team on track with progress.

    2. Get on the Same Page – Host a basic fundamentals course with a subject matter expert who can herd the cats. A common foundation doesn’t ensure perfect agreement on the philosophy development, but it does provide a solid frame of reference.

    3. Prepare the troops - Schedule your sessions with plenty of preparation time. Gather the reference materials needed to support discussions and plans.

    4. Have a Workshop - Developing the data in a creative environment allows for exploring new solutions and utilizing existing knowledge. To request more information on these workshops, click here.

      5. Write the philosophy – Write the first draft, limit the iterations, present, defend, and obtain the approval of the document.

    David P. Garcia, TiPS Inc.
    Kelsey R. Wright, TiPS Inc.