Getting Plant Alarms under Control

I discovered this post yesterday, Alarming Links & Resources from the Harold in Control blog. It included a link to a DeltaV whitepaper on Alarm Rationalization. It also pointed to a LinkedIn discussion in the Alarm Management group, Alarm Rationalisation Success Stories You Can Share? (you must be a member of this LinkedIn group to view the thread.)

The post highlighted these points made in the LinkedIn thread:

  • The ANSI/ISA-18.2-2009 standard is our first viable non-commercial guideline. Get it, read it, and use it to defend your alarm philosophy and alarm guideline compliance.
  • Rationalization is rare since process stakeholders seldom evangelize to management in a manner that wins the needed resource allocation.
  • Avoiding one “event” pays for a high-performing alarm system.
  • Textbook rationalization involving operations, engineering, and technical resources is not likely to occur. The effort may start but will not be sustained since the resources get yanked back to their “day jobs”.
  • Alarm rationalization is like accounting. It requires focus, expertise, and is best left to dedicated professionals.

I asked Emerson’s Kim VanCamp, who developed the alarm rationalization whitepaper for his thoughts on these points. He noted that these points were made in reference to a power plant control upgrade project. Although the ISA-18.2 standard focuses specifically on the process industries and these comments come from the utility industry, it suggests that the benefits are real and significant despite the long-term commitment and significant effort required.

The whitepaper looks at the ISA-18.2 alarm rationalization process for DeltaV systems, using alarm rationalization software provided by exida. From the whitepaper:

Alarm rationalization is a systematic work process to evaluate all potential or existing alarms against principles established in an alarm philosophy document, to qualify which are legitimate alarms, to specify their design, and to capture rationale such as cause, consequence and corrective action which can be used to guide operator response.

The principal benefits of alarm rationalization are reduced alarm load on the operator, elimination of nuisance alarms, and prioritization to help the operator respond to the most critical alarms first, all of which lead to improved operator effectiveness.

The alarm rationalization team is formed from in-house staff representing operations, control engineering, maintenance and other disciplines as required. To achieve consistent results and work efficiently the team will require training, management commitment to allow adequate time and resources, a skilled independent facilitator and software designed specifically for the purpose of alarm rationalization. After a period of initial ramp-up it is expected that the team could rationalize upwards of 150 alarms (roughly 25 control modules) per day. Results may vary depending upon application complexity and team dynamics.

In the case of an existing plant the process typically begins by benchmarking alarm system performance and identifying “bad actors” using tools such as DeltaV Analyze. Rationalizing the “bad actors” provides immediate benefit to operations and a quick payback on the effort. Periodic benchmarking of alarm system key performance indicators is essential to measuring success and directing ongoing alarm rationalization.

As the LinkedIn commenter suggests, avoiding a single event, such as an unplanned shutdown caused by an alarm flood condition, can pay for the plant staff focus to rationalize the alarms and perform the ongoing periodic benchmarking.

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