Tips for starting an alarm management program

04/20/2013


Tip 3: Build a closed-loop process to achieve, sustain positive results

Figure 2: This diagram illustrates the ISA-18.2 alarm lifecycle model. The alarm management philosophy document is the setpoint for the process. Courtesy: Emerson Process Management; source: ANSI/ISA-18.2-2009: Management of Alarm Systems for the ProcessThe fundamental concepts and benefits of a closed-loop process should be well understood. A close inspection of the alarm lifecycle model within the ISA-18.2 standard reveals its similarity to a closed-loop process with a setpoint and feedback mechanism (see Figure 2). 

A good starting point is the creation of an alarm philosophy document, which serves as the setpoint for the alarm management process. This document establishes the principles and processes for design, implementation, and maintenance of the alarm system as well as its expected performance. An incomplete or inadequate alarm philosophy—or setpoint—will likely lead to confusion, unsustainable results, and alarm management system failure. 

For example, if the alarm rationalization activity becomes mired in lengthy discussions about each alarm’s priority or need, determines that almost every alarm has a critical priority, or drifts over time in its approach to setting limits or applying conditioning, chances are high that the alarm philosophy is lacking. A good alarm philosophy, among other things, specifies the methodology for alarm prioritization, drives consistency, and includes the guiding tenets for determining all alarm settings. 

The alarm philosophy defines the desired results, which are usually measured using key performance indicators (KPIs). Typical KPIs include:

  • Alarm rate targets such as the average number of alarms per day per operator and the percentage of time the incoming alarm rate was greater than 10 alarms per 10 min. interval
  • Maximum number of alarms that have been active for more than 24 hr
  • Target alarm priority distributions such as an 80% to 15% to 5% ratio among the number of low-, medium-, and high-priority alarms.  

For the closed-loop alarm management process, the alarm system performance should be measured periodically, converted to KPIs, and assessed. However, it’s often more difficult to include effective management-supported organizational processes that:

  • Systematically review the feedback to identify issues
  • Maintain an effective management of change process that detects and prevents divergence between approved settings and actual (unauthorized) alarm settings in production
  • Promote a continuous improvement program including removing or modifying the design of ineffective alarms. 

It’s important to put significant effort into creating the alarm philosophy. Be certain to involve and get the complete buy-in of all major stakeholders (operations, control engineering, and process engineering). It is often advantageous to enlist expert consultation services to assist with philosophy creation, training on alarm management practices and principles (to aid organizational alignment), and to facilitate some starter rationalization assistance. 

Tip 4: Acquire the right tools to do the job

Finally, get the right tools to do the job. Building and sustaining an alarm management program represents a considerable and ongoing investment. The ISA-18.2 standard does not prescribe the methods for compliance; it defines only what must be accomplished. Fortunately, many good products and services are available to make it easier to implement an alarm management program in alignment with the standard and to deliver benefits to the bottom line. 

An essential tool is a master alarm database, which is the authorized list of rationalized alarms and associated attributes. Its functionality can be achieved with no more than a simple spreadsheet or database. However commercial built-for-purpose tools include powerful aids for facilitation of the alarm rationalization process, including management of change mechanisms, guided workflows for efficiency, automated transfers of alarm settings and operator guidance into (or out of) the control system, auditing capabilities, and rationalization rule sets that can be populated with choices and KPI targets taken from your alarm philosophy. 

Alarm analysis software is also essential for automating KPI collection and reporting. If the top-level objective is limited solely to nuisance alarm elimination (which hopefully is not the case), it may be the only tool you require. Alarm analysis software typically provides a mix of KPI reporting capability based on ISA-18.2’s recommended performance metrics, some general-purpose alarm investigation aids to drill into an alarm flood or a particular alarm’s history, and some bad-actor listing capability.

If the scope of the alarm management program includes advanced alarming techniques, additional tools may be required to implement presentation of alarm response procedures to operators or automate multi-alarm suppression schemes, for example. 

Some alarm management tools are offered as combined or tiered software suites and are well suited for layered applications over widely varied control systems from different vendors. Some tools are offered as individual point solutions to satisfy particular elements of the alarm lifecycle model. Some alarm management solutions from control system vendors focus on optimizing native integration. Features, integration considerations, lifecycle costs, and initial price vary considerably. When making comparisons, it is helpful to associate the major features of each offering to the lifecycle model in the ISA-18.2 standard to ensure meaningful comparisons and to ensure you have all of the bases covered. In general, having the right tools will improve efficiency and help ensure long-term consistency of your alarm management program. The ISA-18.2 standard has had a positive impact on the evolution of these software tools.

In addition, the services offered by alarm management companies and individual consultants have also benefited from the ISA-18.2 standard. Evaluating the scope of professional service proposals can also benefit from comparing them to the lifecycle model.

Kim Van Camp is product marketing manager for alarm management at Emerson Process Management where he has worked for 37 years in services and marketing positions. He is a member of the ISA-18.2 committee and of the EEMUA-191 industry review council. 

Todd Stauffer is director of alarm management services at exida and is responsible for the company’s alarm management products and services including training, philosophy development, and rationalization facilitation. He is an editor and voting member of the ISA-18.2 Standards Committee on Alarm Management and the co-chair of the ISA-18.2 Working Group 3 chartered with writing the Basic Alarm Design Technical Report. Stauffer is an instructor for ISA’s training class “Introduction to the Management of Alarm Systems.” He has published and presented numerous papers on alarm management during his more than 18 years in the automation industry, the last four of which have been with exida.


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