Busting the 8 Myths of Alarm Management

Dec. 3, 2008
Confessions of a reformed alarm sinner.

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part look at alarm management practices. Click here for the first installation, which shares the wisdom of Eli Lilly’s Alan Phipps.

Bill Hollifield of PAS, Inc. considers himself a reformed alarm sinner. He readily admits he did things the wrong way before, back in the 1990’s and before. “When I hired in out of school, the control room was on the wall—it was a box of light bulbs,” he remembers, looking back 30 years or more. “Along came the DCS, then we had thousands of alarms per operator. The problem is that we got too many alarms and we exceeded the capacity of operators to deal with them. And we lost the ability to deal with the important alarms.”

This encouraged a common behavior of “operating by alarm.” Since then, Hollifield has gotten alarm management religion, and has made it is mission to bust the myths associated with the practice—which he shared with an audience at this fall’s ISA Expo in Houston.

These main myths are:

Myth #1: You don’t need an “alarm philosophy”: A dangerous myth, Hollifield says. This kind of thinking can easily lead to an overloaded alarm system. The alarm system shouldn’t be a dumping ground for miscellaneous status information, Hollifield cautions.

“Alarm philosophies must be developed; they can’t just be bought,” says Hollifield. Yet this basic principle is often violated. Alarms notify the operator of events requiring action, but many times there are no consequences for an alarm, and the system becomes trivial. Another misguided practice of those without an alarm philosophy is to create alarms that indicate the system is working as expected, or normally. The alarm system is an intentional interruption for the operator—an alarm needs to have relevance.

Myth #2: Alarm management is about software. No, says Hollifield, it’s about your work practices; poorly performing alarm systems do not create themselves. Proper work practices are needed to correct or create a properly performing alarm system.

Myth #3: Alarm management is “alarm analysis”. Analysis can point out problems, but can’t help if there are too many alarms and the important ones are buried, he says. In this case, the alarm system is a nuisance.

Myth #4: Alarm rationalization is about getting rid of alarms. Not quite. It’s about making your alarms right, about getting the settings right. Hollifield defines alarm rationalization as: a rigorous, effective, best practice methodology that achieves excellent results when done properly.

Myth #5: Alarm management is something you can buy. Only you have the necessary, detailed knowledge of your process, Hollifield notes. Consultants and their solutions can help to save you time and money, but only to a degree.

Myth #6: State-based alarming is about suppressing alarms. State-based alarming technology lets you have multiple alarm settings that are optimum and correct for all your operating conditions. Even for simple “running” and “not running” states, the proper alarm setting for “not running” should not be “turn off the alarms.”

Myth #7: Alarm management is about endless consulting services. You can build the internal experience to handle alarm management in the long term, Hollifield believes.

Myth #8: ISA18.02 will solve my alarm management problems. ISA18.02, “Management of Alarm Systems for the Process Industries,” which is due out next year, will provide a framework for successful alarm management. But it won’t have specific and detailed “how to” guidance, Hollifield says. “You will still have a need to become knowledgeable about this topic beyond what is written in the standard.”