Alarm Management is A Continual Process
- Mr. Ulhas Deshpande Business Leader, Projects & Automation Solutions (PAS), Honeywell Process Solutions, India

Alarm management is a comprehensive process by which alarms are engineered, monitored, and managed to ensure safe, reliable operations. Alarms are considered to be a Layer of Protection (LOP) and are often used in Safety Integrity Level (SIL) analysis. The intent of these alarms is to warn operators of an impending abnormal situation, which can often have safety related consequences.

India is developing as a key global player in industrial and technology sector. Rapid industrialization has increased the hazard, risk and vulnerability of the industry and the environment. The calculus of industrial hazard is a blend of industrial systems, people and environments. It is, therefore, required to develop a strategic framework especially towards capacity building and integration with holistic environmental risk management within the broader system of multi-hazard risk reduction and mitigation.

Good plant maintenance practices are absolutely critical in terms of plant production rates, safety, and alarm system performance. Ineffective alarm systems pose a serious risk to safety, the environment, and plant profitability. Too often, alarm system effectiveness is unknowingly undermined by poorly configured alarms. Static alarm settings cannot adapt to dynamic plant conditions, and many other nuisances result in alarm floods that overwhelm operators when they instead need concise direction.

Experience has shown that industrial organizations should undertake alarm management and operations management as a single, combined effort in their drive towards optimization. These initiatives have consistent desired outcomes, and should be part of a larger program incorporating all the work processes and technologies necessary to achieve operational excellence.

Human factors are, of course, crucial to effective alarm management. The operator is the most important link in the chain in any alarm system. They are the vital supercomputer, without which no system can be effective, regardless of how technologically advanced it might be. Operators should be engaged at every stage of the improvement plan, in part to ensure buy-in to the program, but also to capture their knowledge and insights into human limitations.

Alarm management is a comprehensive process by which alarms are engineered, monitored, and managed to ensure safe, reliable operations. Alarms are considered to be a Layer of Protection (LOP) and are often used in Safety Integrity Level (SIL) analysis. The intent of these alarms is to warn operators of an impending abnormal situation, which can often have safety related consequences.

It is important for the organization to be clear about their reasons for embarking on an alarm management project. These vary between businesses, but without clear agreement on the benefits sought, it is difficult to tailor an effective program to the organization’s needs. There are a number of common drivers:
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Safety improvement
  • Operator efficiency
  • Insurance premiums
  • Reduction of trips
  • Increased production
  • Reduced maintenance costs
The Alarm Management Model
The lifecycle model is an excellent method of representing the overall process of alarm system management. It is an ongoing process that is suitable for new or existing systems. The overall structure of a successful alarm management process is fundamentally the same across industries and regardless of plant size. The model is built around five phases: philosophy, identification, alarm rationalization, alarm flood analysis, and operations and boundary management.

Phase 1: Philosophy
This phase sees the development of a sitespecific alarm strategy. With the landscape better understood, it is also important to develop an alarm philosophy document (APD). The APD is an engineering document focused on all aspects of the alarm management system. This document should clearly outline key concepts and governing rules for the alarm strategy, such as what constitutes an alarm and what risk categories pertain to site operations. The philosophy should also outline roles and responsibilities and change management procedures and project goals, such as target alarm rates. This phase also includes site assessment results, outcomes of discussions with various stake holders that would help in understanding the state of the Alarm system at site and also the scope of improvement.

As part of this phase, alarm data is collected from various sources, compared with industry standard guidelines to arrive at baseline for current system. These fundamentals will form a solid foundation for our alarm management improvement program.

Phase 2: Identification and Elimination of Bad Actors
Phase 2 is where the Alarm Management software is implemented. Once the strategy is clearly defined, the software tools can identify the bad actors so that they can be eliminated first.

The correct tool will rapidly accelerate the return on the alarm management investment, particularly in the early stages. For example, fixing just three alarms a week may equate to a 60% reduction in bad actors over a one-month period. Most of these easy wins will come from removal of nuisance alarms, replacing faulty sensors or changing on/off delays and dead band timings.

This phase essentially never stops throughout the process, but a focus at this stage will not only drive clarity in the alarm system; it will also educate the stakeholders on what is required to maintain the alarm system going forward.

Phase 3: Alarm Rationalization
Alarm rationalization is not specifically about reducing the number of alarms, but rather more about the quality of the alarm by ensuring the design of the alarm is correct in the first place. The purpose of alarm rationalization is to determine the causes, consequences, and corrective actions for an alarm. There are different methods of rationalization, and more than one method may be used to solve alarming issues.

Phase 4: Alarm Flood Analysis
The analysis will help identify and detail common patterns and consistent areas of weakness, as well as chattering, redundant and consequential alarms. The information identified here, along with the previous rationalization phase, can be used to help define logic for more advanced alarm management techniques.

Phase 5: Operations and Boundary Management
Optimizing performance through better operations management, determining boundary management and operating envelopes, as well as processes for shift handovers, concerning alarms, overrides, production targets and actual performance, takes the alarm improvement program to another level. It can also help develop action workflows based on the data captured and integrate these into the daily operations of the site – truly enabling plant optimization through alarm management.

While the phases are broadly chronological, the model is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of levels of sophistication in existing strategies. Plants can simply begin at the phase that best reflects the current state of the process. The phases can be executed as and when required. This is crucial, because all sites have different commercial and resource constraints. The flexibility of this model allows any site, of any size, to choose the phases to execute based on their current level of alarm management maturity.

An alarm management program can significantly improve plant safety, reliability, and profitability, but will only succeed if deployed properly. By following the recommended life cycle methodology and avoiding common mistakes, operators will have an effective and successful alarm management program that will undoubtedly ensure plant personnel are more productive, making the plant and operations more reliable.

By aligning the tasks of alarm and operations management within an overall scope of activities—addressed simultaneously as a single combined effort rather than as separate—industrial organizations can realize significant economies-of-scale in their drive towards optimization.