May 2016

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Don't Be Overly Alarmed by Alarm Management

“Facts are apt to alarm us more than the most dangerous principles”
Jim SinopoliJim Sinopoli PE,
Managing Principal,
Smart Buildings LLC

Contributing Editor

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Prior to the building industry recently adopting data analytics and tools such as fault detection and diagnosis, there were building system alarms. Building alarms were the original fault detection tool.

AlarmsIn other industries, alarm management is more developed than it is in building operations. This is particularly true for the process industry. Process industries include chemicals, pharmaceuticals, petroleum, plastics, wood, paper and power generation. These are industries where there is a continuous production of material and any alarm that interrupts the production process costs time, money and possibly risks safety. A process industry task force was formed called the Alarm Management Task Force to develop an alarm management approach, which eventually become an International Society of Automation standard in 2009; the ISA 18.2 Alarm Management Standard. The standard focuses on the management of alarm systems for process industries which lays out a methodology for alarm management. While the details and applications may be different than building operations the methodology for development of an alarm management plan is sound and should be of value to building operators.

Alarms for building control systems are an everyday fact of building operations. However, many building operators do not have a solid alarm management plan. Their “plan” is to simply react to alarms when they occur and figure out what to do when it happens. This “ad-hoc” approach views alarms as nuisances that need attention rather than valuable data that can improve operations and indications for the building owner as to how the building is performing.

Examples of AlarmsBuilding system alarms are not just nuisances; they affect system performance, equipment lifecycles, life safety, regulatory compliance issues, energy consumption, lost occupant production and building technicians’ efficiencies. To really handle alarms you need a detailed plan, the development of operational processes and a good suite of software tools. What follows are a few observations as well as an overview of the major activities and issues involving an alarm management plan:

System Integration Plays a Part

The alarm management system for a building has to incorporate alarms from multiple control systems. Technicians can’t be jumping from one workstation to another to address simultaneous alarms from different systems. Alarms for all building systems should be integrated into one alarm management program to provide a comprehensive, enterprise-wide view of systems’ status; what we would call providing an operator with full “situational awareness”. The enterprise system may only have “read” capabilities for some systems, such as fire alarm, but the building-wide or building portfolio view is necessary and will require some integration of system alarm data.

Developing an Alarm Management Plan for Every Alarm

It is laborious but these are the details and foundation of any alarm management plan. You start with:

Alarm Metrics

Part of managing alarms is measuring and monitoring how good the management plan is, and part of the process is setting up key performance indicators and analyzing the actions and responses of the operations organization and individuals involved with alarms. Examples of alarm metrics are:

Average Alarm Rate Per Facility Technician – This could be alarms per day or per week and could indicate whether an individual is overloaded with alarms or not. It also provides a means to compare workload or productivity between technicians.

Percent Of Time In Alarm Flood – The average alarm rate does reflect what happens during an alarm “flood”, that is when a technician may get dozens of alarms in a relatively short time period. The concern with an alarm flood is the risk the technician may miss a critical alarm. Software tools and a well-developed alarm management plan can help mitigate the problem, but there still may be some risk. As a manager you’ll want to know the average rate of alarms and also alarm peaks.
Number Of Out-Of-Service Alarms – Some alarms may be suppressed by being manually turned off. Obviously if a high number of alarms are suppressed or disabled, it affects metrics for average rate of alarms and time in alarm flood, making those metrics look better than they actually are.

Prior to starting any new alarm management plan, it is important to benchmark the current status so you can measure the progress of deployment using these and other metrics.

Software Tools

Software applications for alarm management are important, but secondary to detailed planning for alarm management and restructuring as needed in the operational processes in response to an alarm. Major building management systems (BMS) will have an alarm management application. The potential downside to using a BMS is that the BMS may not interface or integrate all the systems with which you want to monitor alarms. An Integrated Building Management System (IBMS) can incorporate all the building systems and provide a complete building alarm database. Some of the software aspects to consider are:

Multiple Alarms – Many times one event triggers multiple alarms. Rather than chasing down all the alarms and wasting time you’ll want software that can correlate related alarms and provide information on the one event that’s triggered the multiple alarms.

Predictive Alarming – This application uses alarm data and trends to predict equipment issues with the result being prevention and reduction of equipment downtime.

Dashboards – Dashboards are the standard Human-Machine-Interface (HMI) today. Dashboards need to be targeted to different constituencies (technician, executive, engineer, departments, etc.) and present timely, actionable information to each in a clear and intuitive manner on one screen. An alarm management software application provides standard dashboards that can be customized for each user group.

Multiple Means Of Access – Alarm data and access to the alarm software should be available via web portal, information displays, smartphones, tablets, electronic alarm notification via texting or email, printed reporting and the routing relevant of alarm data to other business or facility management systems.

Functions – At a minimum, alarm management software needs to provide for:

Alarm management is critical for a number of reasons. We need to view alarm management as providing data on the building performance that improves building operations.

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