In February 2012, I wrote an article for Automation World titled “Why Nuisance Alarms Just Wont’ Go Away”. Based on results of a reader survey we conducted for the article, it was apparent that a number of issues—not just one or two—contribute to the problem. However, the biggest issues seem to be that a significant number of facilities lack having a formal alarm system philosophy or follow any sort of alarm system analysis process.
Offering further thoughts on the issue, Steve Vardy, maintenance technician electrical at Berry Plastics (Evansville, IN), and a member of Automation World’s LinkedIn group, said that efforts tend to be “concentrated on starting up the process and alarms can't be adequately tested, because generating them often causes risk to equipment. [Plus] it may never be known if they will react as expected in real life situations.”
As a result, he concludes that good alarm management is not inexpensive or easy — an opinion which runs counter to what many respondents to the survey thought.
Expanding on Vardy’s thoughts Francis Lovering, owner of ControlDraw Ltd. (Portsmouth, U.K.), said that instead of saying “good alarm management is not inexpensive or easy,” it might be more appropriate to say “good alarm management is an expensive and difficult process to implement."
Lovering explains that alarms are only relevant in a specific context and, since one process event can lead to many alarms, it can be difficult to find the one that most needs to be acted upon.
“I believe that a state-based control methodology can have great benefits (in situations where it is difficult to determine the alarm that most needs resolution), by ensuring that only alarms that apply in the current state are enabled,” Lovering added.
Taking the discussion one step further, Vardy responded to Lovering’s comments saying: “I've spent a lot of time cleaning up other people’s poorly executed alarm code written by OEMs. It is usually an ongoing process that coincides with real life operation after the OEM leaves and the check is signed.”
Vardy says this tends to one of the “hidden costs” that must be absorbed by the end user. “What's worse is if he facility’s staff is not allowed to fix [the alarm issues].” Though the process of fixing the alarms is “difficult, time consuming and expensive it (nuisance alarms) forces system operators to ignore or despise the operator interface or blame in house maintenance and engineering staff,” he adds.
To get expert advice on alarm management best practices, plan to attend The Automation Conference, May 22-23, 2012, at the Rosemont Hilton in suburban Chicago to learn directly from Steve Elwart of Ergon Refining. Elwart will share his insights into Ergon’s efforts to implement an alarm management program in its refineries, including measurements used to benchmark the alarm system and the benefits seen by instituting the program. Elwart will also address work done to standardize the EEMUA standard on operator graphics, Ergon’s reasons for moving to that standard, and the operator reaction and the benefits derived from using it.