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    • Leadership Participation in Alarm Standards Committees
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Introduction to Alarm Management

Misconceptions about the Condition of Alarm Systems

5 Myths flow chart

Why fix something that isn’t broken? This sentiment is heard time and time again. Upon conducting arationalization project, plant personnel come to realize that they undervalued the benefits that alarm management could bring to not only their control room, but to the entire plant. Maybe it is time to change the way we maintain the alarm system and consider a more rigorous “Fix it” approach. Below we highlight five misconceptions engineers have about their alarm system.

Myth #1: My operators aren’t complaining so things are okay.

In psycho physics, sensory threshold is the weakest stimulus that an organism can detect. Like the proverbial frog siting in the pot of water on a stove, human beings at a control console can become accustomed or resigned to the chaos; their ability to detect critical conditions becomes less acute.

“Most of the times I found that operators had just given up as their concerns had not been addressed. So they then somehow try to “manage” their alarm load by attending those alarms they feel are important.” – Global Manager, Process Control

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw. In the alarm management game we hear terms like alarm management champion, rationalization facilitator, and team leader as opposed to manager, director, and supervisor. Maybe it is the age we are in, but the Alarm Management sub discipline, which is part of the Situation Awareness discipline, is heavily intertwined with human behavior. The work titles of today reflect the human behavior aspect and collaborative effort in the work place. You can’t just whip highly educated operational staff into shape.

“When you then actually tell them you will improve their alarms they are really happy and you get a lot of support.”—Global Manager, Process Control

Alarm Management and Rationalization isn’t rocket science but you have to communicate with those “Pesky Millennials.”
If your operators/controllers are complaining it could be because you are not listening, “reading between the lines”, or testing your own assumptions.

• Myth #2: Alarm Management is complicated and difficult.

Alarm Management and rationalization could be turned into a Six Sigma project with all the concomitant Brainiac features: Assignment Matrix, Swim Lanes, Benchmarks, Checks, Balances, etc. The reality is that the 5 Myths boulderAlarm Management discipline has been mapped out for you with the objectives well understood and the lifecycle tasks thoroughly defined. The Alarm Management lifecycle will not be the rock you perpetually roll up the hill.

“A big surprise was how easy it was to actually make things better. We read and studied the material, started buying into some of the ideas and then more of the ideas. We had surprising results related to concepts like creating and regularly reviewing a top 10 offender list. We were amazed how quickly the volume of alarms could be reduced.” – Transmission Pipeline, Director of Control

On that Six Sigma thing, an Alarm Management initiative can serve as the perfect Black Belt project.

• Myth #3: Rationalization is not needed, our alarm system works fine 

Complacency is the Trojan Horse of the control room. Like the Greeks waiting in the belly of the wooden horse to attack Troy, complacency with regard to an alarm system can bring about the downfall of a control room with costly results.5 Myths trojan horse

What is in the belly of the beast?

• Floods

• Alarm activations in excess of best practice standards

• Neglected requests for changes

• Lack of statistics to verify issues.

There is no room for complacency in the work ethic of an engineer responsible for the maximization of shareholder investment, the safety of coworkers and the protection of the surrounding community. Engineering ethics is oriented toward protecting the public from misconduct and the harmful effects of technology and usually is guided by negative rules. The problem is that rules may not work to address aspects of professionalism, such as sensitivity to risk, awareness of the social context of technology, respect for nature (human and environmental), and commitment to the public good. In a certain sense, parts of ethical behavior are not innate to the engineer; these aspects have to be nurtured. Alarm Management’s best practice is a path for nurturing behavior in which you question the status quo – “Don’t believe everything you believe”.

“We had failed to realize how random and chaotic our alarm system was prior to rationalization.” – Transmission Pipeline, Director of Control

A solid rationalization can help defeat these things before they take over your control room. If best practices are insufficient motivation for rationalization, then how about the “numbers”? The Alarm Management Lifecycle task emphasizes the review of key performance indicators. This is an engineer’s statistical basis for determining the performance of the system. From Alarm Management KPI, the professional will examine the data and make a precise assessment on the impact of rationalization and have the seeds for an effective justification.

• Myth #4: A rationalized alarm system is sufficient to achieve maximum Situation Awareness for the console operator/controller.

“It is not only the alarms that are important, but also the whole aspect of operator awareness and providing good information to operators. Ergo, a good alarm system alone is a good improvement but not the solution. The operator HMI needs to be addressed as well” – Global Manager, Process Control

You could say that the control system alarms act much like pain, pressure and other receptors of the central nervous system. You could also say the HMI serves as the eyes of the system. Plant health demands both.5 Myths skeleton

The HMI is so important to the Alarm Management discipline that industry technical standards universally dedicate a chapter to the design of display of alarms.

“The HMI design for alarms follows the alarm philosophy, is consistent with the overall HMI design philosophy, and is within the capabilities of the control system” ISA 18.2 Clause 11

Yes that’s right, there is something called an HMI Design Philosophy. It goes by various names… but the important thing to understand is that the Alarm Design goes hand in hand with the HMI design. The path to maximum situation awareness could also include the following areas:

  • • Regulatory control loop
  • • Control room human factors
  • • Simulation-based training
  • • Changes to automation procedures
  • • Automated transition management
  • • Early fault detection and operator advisory systems
  • • Online knowledge support systems.

Don’t handcuff your team or limit your success by accepting the status quo.

• Myth #5: The low-hanging-fruit rationalization approach to clean up alarms is all you need to fix up your alarm problem

If you are going to slay a hard to kill dragon you can’t take half-measures. Taking comfort in a momentary reduction in alarm activations because you “fixed” a nuisance alarm may leave the dragon with a heartbeat.J.R.R. Tolkien quote

“Does bad actor mitigation fix your alarm system? It improves it but does not fix it. There is no way around a proper alarm rationalization including considering the different operating states (dynamic alarming).” – Global Manager, Process Control

Rationalizations approaches like “Start from Where You Are” or “Start from Zero” are essential to informing the operator “that there are abnormal situations within the plant that require timely attention to manage” – Rothenberg. Rationalization is not just about reducing the number of alarm activations or reducing the number of configured alarms. The most important part is designing alarms so that their importance is raised in the mindset of the operator/controller and that the alarms provide more useful operator assistance.

With respect to sub optimal alarm systems take the Machiavellian approach. Do not indulge the dragon, but utterly destroy it with a comprehensive rationalization project and regularly scheduled performance monitoring such that the dragon cannot return.


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