Operations Management: Choose An Alarm Champion

You may gain impressive benefits in alarm system performance.

By Lothar Lang, LyondellBasell

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Plant operators should be able to rely on process alarms to provide essential information for running their units safely and steering them efficiently through critical operations such as start-ups or upsets. Unfortunately, many incident investigations have shown that quite often this isn't the case. Missed or misinterpreted alarms can contribute to the occurrence of incidents.

Proper management of an alarm system by operations personnel is crucial to achieve quick and accurate detection, assessment and resolution of abnormal operating conditions. To be a viable tool for operators in these situations, alarms must be defined and meticulously configured according to the guidance of EEMUA publication 191 and ISA SP 18 (see: "Avoid the Domino Effect"). This implies that a site has defined an alarm philosophy for its units and rationalized its alarms according to this philosophy. When these alarms are subsequently implemented on the plant's distributed control system (DCS) in many cases management feels it has done its job in providing a well performing alarm management system for operators. That's a mistake!

Human error and a constantly changing plant environment (quality, throughput, expansion, equipment alterations, etc.) can contribute to incidents. So without regularly monitoring alarm performance and making necessary adjustments to alarm set-up, the value of alarms will diminish and alarm performance will deteriorate. This is especially true where there's no ownership by the main stakeholder — operations. A good way to address such concerns and get ownership is to appoint an alarm champion. This person's primary responsibility is to identify and resolve outstanding alarm issues. The champion's job isn't necessarily to correct these issues but to get appropriate personnel involved in addressing the problems.

Recognizing a Need
LyondellBasell values effective alarm management and the importance of monitoring the performance of the alarm management process. In late 2006 the company implemented Logmate, an alarm management application from TiPs, across its manufacturing sites. After reviewing the first months of data for alarm loading and key performance indicators (KPI), the company began discussing the need for a resource to lead and promote the alarm management process. The Corpus Christi, Texas, site was one of the first locations to recognize this need; a control specialist was tasked with monitoring the KPIs and presenting summary information of bad actors and alarm floods during regular meetings. Over the course of the next year, the scope was refined using input provided by personnel from several sites that had adopted the alarm management initiative. Staff now serves as alarm champions at these production sites and the company has begun rolling out the program to other sites.

In many cases the first alarm champions were people from the local control group because they were involved in the initial implementation of the alarm monitoring application and the initial bad actor mitigation. Nevertheless, the program is more effective if sites recruit the alarm champion from operations to promote ownership. A process or production specialist, or even an experienced lead operator, can handle the role.

The initiative does not create another full-time position. Instead, the role of alarm champion is combined with an employee's other responsibilities; this is made possible by providing the necessary infrastructure for easy alarm performance monitoring, along with automated reporting, easy drill-down and troubleshooting. Establishing a consistent alarm philosophy with support from central engineering also helps this effort. Initially, alarm champion duties will require additional time and effort to establish the program and to address shortcomings and flaws of existing alarm management. Depending upon the conditions of the existing alarm system, responsibilities of an alarm champion should easily fit into the daily routine after completion of the initiation period.

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