Alarm management: More time to make the right decision

In this installment of Automation Zone, explore the very strong link between better alarm management and improved reliability.

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Tyron Vardy is a global product director for alarm and operations management software at Honeywell Process Solutions. Tyron spoke with Plant Services in June at the Honeywell User Group event on how the operator’s role is evolving with alarm management technologies.

PS: When it comes to improved alarm management, what’s the first place to start?

TV: Historically, what alarm management tools have done is they’ve provided lots of clever ways of reporting on how the alarm system is performing. You’ve got a thousand alarms a day, and they give you a stack of very nice-looking reports, and everyone is trying to work out different ways to report on the same data. For me, the next focus or the next wave of evolution of alarm management is to start turning all those reports into something that people can actually take action on that will drive safer operations.

When you talk to most people about alarm management and process safety, they’ll always cite standards like ISA 18.2 as the guideline, or EEMEA 191, which says that they want to try and get down to something like one or two alarms every 10 minutes, which is deemed to be safe, sort of steady-state operations, which is absolutely fine.

I think we need to take a step back and say, “Why is that acceptable? Why is one or two things going wrong every 10 minutes acceptable?” Truly the fix to alarm management is to address the cause and not the effects, so to fix alarm management you need to take away the alarms. That to me is what the vision of alarm management should be, to operate the plant without any alarms or abnormal situations.

If we had this conversation one or two years ago, it would be a vision that we wouldn’t know how to deliver. But now, with advancements in cloud technology, IIoT, and digital transformation, there is a path to that vision because now you’re not just looking at the alarms – you can plug in data from any other source; you can see what the operator was doing in the field at the time. You can see what the asset management system was doing. You can see what safety overrides and bypasses were inhibited. You know, all those layers of protection that tend to get eroded away when different things happen.

I think the way that anyone should start is that, if they’re looking at alarm management on day one, they’ve got 60% of alarms that don’t mean a thing. The chances are that the operator can just close his or her eyes, and blindly acknowledge them. They don’t necessarily mean anything because these alarms have been around for the last 25, 30, 40 years, everyone knows what they are, it’s just noise and people ignore it.
So, for example, the first thing to do is to get 1,000 alarms down to 300, and that’s what the tools are great for today. Plants can get a lot of improvement in a very short period of time. Three months is not uncommon to reduce alarms by 50%. The problem then lies in what you do with the rest of the alarms, because the rest truly do need action.

You’ve got to change the mindset of the operator as well. If the operator is used to 1,000 alarms and he can blindly acknowledge 60% of them, when you’ve (now) got 300 alarms and one of those comes in, he can’t blindly acknowledge (that) anymore because that alarm genuinely means something that it didn’t mean before you implemented this whole management program.

I think alarm management is now beyond just what happens at the console. If I can get a plant and an asset and an operation to operate their equipment or their process where they’re not exceeding the limits of the equipment or the limits of the plant, then they’re not putting assets under strain and exposing the plant to risk. And when you’re talking oil and gas, for example, or chemical plants, uptime is everything. So I think you’re seeing a lot of the larger companies looking at alarm management and operational management as being intertwined. If they can manage the process better, they don’t have the alarms.

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