“Who should participate in alarm rationalization?” 

It finally happened. Alarm management problems at the plant led to an incident and now management wants action. You have “volunteered” to put together a staffing plan to execute alarm rationalization. You have heard it can be a resource-intensive process, so you want to understand who should take part and why so that you can justify the selections when you get push-back. 

Alarm rationalization is the stage of the ISA-18.2 / IEC 62682 alarm management lifecycle where you have the greatest opportunity to improve alarm system performance. The objective “is to ensure that every alarm is an indication of an abnormal condition requiring operator response, and that every abnormal condition requiring operator action is appropriately alarmed (i.e., not too many or too few alarms).” [Ref: ISA-TR18.2.2-2016].

Successful rationalization reduces risk and changes the way operators interact with the alarm system. The biggest downside is that it can be resource intensive. It requires participation from a multidisciplinary team, including operations and engineering staff, in a workshop format similar to a Hazard and Operability (HAZOP) study.

Check out the exida webinar “Rationalize Your Alarm Management Problems Away” to learn more.

There are several ways to identify who should take part in alarm rationalization.

  • Roles that are typically involved in rationalization (what the “books” say)
  • Skillsets and knowledge needed
  • Auxiliary activities performed during rationalization
  • Questions to be answered for each alarm

1) Roles that are Typically Involved in Rationalization

The alarm rationalization team consists of a core group (full-time participants) and a group that is involved as-needed. The roles that typically make up the core team include:

  • Senior Operator (alternates - operating technicians, trainers, operating supervisors)
  • Control System Engineer
  • Operations (Production) Engineer
  • Process Engineer
  • Facilitator

The optimum size of the rationalization team is 4 to 5 people. If you have too many people, you will get too many opinions and the process will take longer.  
Roles that can be helpful on an as-needed (part-time) basis include:

  • Process Safety Engineer / Environmental Health & Safety Engineer
  • Instrumentation Technician
  • Maintenance / Equipment Reliability (when discussing specific equipment)
  • Electrical / Rotating equipment engineers
  • Quality Engineer (for regulated industries)

The Importance of Operator Participation

Rationalization is rarely successful without effective operator participation. In fact, if you get a experienced and knowledgeable operator, rationalization can transform into a knowledge capture process. In many control systems, rationalization results can be presented to the operator froman Alarm Help display. This allows junior operators to see how your best operator (the one who participated in rationalization) would respond to an alarm. Creation of Alarm Help should be a goal of rationalization.

Additional tips regarding operator participation include:

  • It may be beneficial to have multiple operators take part at the same time.
  • Consider rotating participation between shifts (so that all shifts feel like they are contributing to the process)
  • It can be educational for junior operators to sit in even if they do not contribute.
  • Select operators that will tell their fellow operators about the positive changes that are being made to improve the alarm system.

Rationalization is not just about improving alarm system performance. It is also about changing how operators react to and treat alarms. Changing behaviors, such as treating every alarm as meaningful and not ignoring alarms, can be a benefit of rationalization as shown by the operator quote below.
“No more ignoring alarms, we’re going to have to take action when they come in.”

2) Skillsets and Knowledge Needed

In some plants individuals “wear multiple hats”, they have accumulated knowledge from multiple areas or are responsible for multiple disciplines. This makes it challenging to select the team based solely on the roles identified above. Irrespective of roles and titles the following skillsets, knowledge, and experience are needed to carry out a successful rationalization (adapted from ISA-18.2 TR2):

  • Familiar with the process workings, economics of production, and the design of the facility for efficient operation
  • Have direct experience operating the process, for the areas / units to be rationalized, via the control system and human machine interface (HMI).
  • Familiar with Safe Operating Limits, Design Constraints, Hazard & Risk Assessments, and environmental guidelines / permitting (as relevant).
  • Responsible for the design and implementation of the control system including the configuration of alarms. Should be able to trace alarms through the control logic / HMI application and to understand alarm system limitations in the control system.
  • Knowledgeable regarding product quality requirements (e.g, cGMPs)

3) Auxiliary Activities to Be Performed During Rationalization

To maximize the effectiveness of a rationalization workshop, each member of the core team should be given auxiliary responsibilities. Tasks, such as those shown below adapted from ISA-18.2 TR2, should be assigned and agreed upon before starting.

  • Documentation Checker – determines if an alarm is referenced in plant documentation and accesses any relevant information related to it (Hazard and Risk Assessments, Safe Operating Limits, Design Constraints, PSV Settings, SIS trip points, etc.)
  • Progress Tracker – tracks the number and type of alarms rationalized each day
  • P&ID Red Liner – marks up P&ID drawings to reflect changes for update
  • Action Item Tracker - documents and maintains the action item list (e.g., to control strategy)
  • Process Historian – views / accesses process history for discussion of alarm setpoints and operating modes.
  • Scribe – documents the rationalization decisions in a Master Alarm Database

4) Questions to be Answered for Each Alarm

Last (and most importantly) the team needs to be able to accurately evaluate each alarm to determine if it meets the necessary criteria to be an alarm (the justification process). They also need to be able to articulate the basis for the alarm, by answering the following questions (adapted from EEMUA 191) and documenting the results (which can be used to create Alarm Help).

  • What is the alarm for / what does it protect against?
  • What action does the operator need to take?
  • What happens if you don’t have this alarm?
  • What are the consequences if you don’t respond to this alarm?
  • What causes this alarm?
  • How much time does the operator have to take action?
  • Does the (current) alarm limit give you sufficient time to respond?

Being able to correctly answer these questions for each alarm is critical to a successful rationalization. Although these question might not look too challenging, misinterpreting their intent can turn your rationalization results into rubbish.

See the article on Common Rationalization Mistakes for more information.

Alarm Rationalization Facilitator

Arguably as important as the operator to a successful rationalization is the facilitator, who acts like the conductor of an orchestra. A good one challenges each participant to give their best and to think outside the box. They lead the group to create something that goes beyond what the individuals could achieve.

The facilitator should be familiar with the rationalization process and methodology, having led rationalization before.  They should be knowledgeable in alarm management practices and principles and be familiar with the alarm philosophy. It is their job to drive consistency and ensure that the rules and guidelines in the alarm philosophy are followed. It can be helpful if they have experience with human factors, process engineering, operations, or control systems. The facilitator should NOT have a vested interest in the process area / unit being rationalized. Their job is to ask intelligent questions of the team (e.g., to get them to consider alternatives), not to answer the questions themselves. If you don’t have an appropriately skilled facilitator within your organization, consider looking externally. There are many companies, including exida, that have this skillset, or which can train someone within your organization to be a facilitator.


Once you have your rationalization team selected, you’ll want to estimate how long the rationalization will take , consider the purchase of a rationalization tool / master alarm database, and create an alarm philosophy document if you don’t have one.


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Tagged as:     Todd Stauffer     ISA-18.2     IEC 62682     HAZOP     alarm rationalization     Alarm Management  

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