Blog Post

AIChE CEP Magazine Tidbits regarding Alarm Management

Stephen Reilly

In catching up on my chemical engineering industry reading, I recently came across two short articles to which I found some applicable lessons to my current line of work in alarm management.

First, in the February 2018 edition’s Spotlight on Safety (“Vulnerability Is Key to Safety”), John Herber, a CCPS Staff Consultant, reflected on a flight he had and how his diligence in checking the plane’s safety features gave him a sense of vulnerability. He writes, “Maintaining a sense of vulnerability is about using your knowledge and past experiences to prepare for potential future situations… Thinking the unthinkable is key to developing and retaining a sense of vulnerability.”

This certainly relates to the field of alarm management. As a consultant, I always emphasize to my clients that our company provides the perspective of best practices implemented elsewhere, but I am never omniscient to a specific process and rely on the rest of our team to fill in the gaps. Mr. Herber also notes that process alarms “reduce risk only if they are used.” That is why Emerson Control and Operator Performance engineers always try to set alarms at values that carry significance to the operators; based on the client’s alarm philosophy and ISA 18.2 standards. We always want them to have significant consequences of inaction, defined steps to respond to them, and adequate but not too much time to address them.

Secondly, CEP Editor-in-Chief Cynthia Mascone raises an intriguing question in her March 2018 editorial column, “Is the Safest Option Really the Best?” She explores it from the sports world, where a study conducted by Jesse Walker and his Cornell and University of Chicago colleagues showed that NBA teams had a higher probability of winning game when trailing by two points with less than 24 seconds remaining by going for a three-point play to win instead of for a two-point play to go to overtime first. In these situations, the two-point play is selected more often due what the study described as sudden-death aversion (SDA). Ms. Mascone explains, “SDA… stems from our perception of risk – particularly the tendency to treat problems in isolation rather than as part of a larger whole, to weigh losses more heavily than gains, and to distort the likelihood of a negative outcome.”

So how does this apply to alarm management? Well, with alarm management projects, typically after meeting with clients, there are a series of action items for the team to follow up on and complete. The longer they linger or get deferred, the less successfully and optimally the effort results. Sometimes these deferrals are made for procedural reasons, like not wanting to update peripheral documentation or not knowing who the best resource is to address a question, but when they get deferred, there’s a higher chance that they get ignored altogether. Ultimately, you do not want to get into a SDA situation, but instead follow up timely and completely with each project.

So, dear reader, what do you think of these articles? Do you have similar or different alarm management views and project execution pains? Regardless, we’d love to hear from you!