Everything you need to know about Critical Alarm Management

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When an emergency takes place within your business every second counts. Any delays in either identifying the issue or mobilising your response team can be critical – a few seconds can be the difference between managing the incident or not, a simple matter of life or death. 

Critical alarm management helps you to implement robust and reliable automated procedures, so when a critical incident occurs, you’re in a much better position to deal with it and can help you to:

  • Increase productivity and keep production running
  • Improve efficiency by streamlining processes
  • Optimise resources by getting the most out of your team
  • Reduce downtime by responding and resolving machine faults more quickly
  • Reduce costs by avoiding wastages from failures within production process
  • Comply with Legislation
  • Better protect staff especially those working alone

The links below will give you a comprehensive knowledge on the subject and how to automate certain components within your response process. 

What is a critical alarm?

What each organisation deems critical will vary from business to business. Essentially a critical alarm represents an emergency or event that must be dealt with immediately. Failing to do so could have serious ramifications that could lead to fines, additional costs and in some cases even the unnecessary death of an employee. There are a number of critical alarms that can happen in a manufacturing business, some are highlighted below:

  • False fire alarm – could cause an evacuation that leads to total plant seizure and massive production delays if the internal fire team are unable to investigate this in time
  • Machine, value or pump issue that leads to: 
    1. production downtime whilst the issue is fixed
    2. unnecessary waste as the issue was not resolved in time before spoiling the batch in production
    3. Product defect – means re-doing product cycle, taking up precious time and resource
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Why are Critical Alarm Solutions important?

Failing to manage critical alarms effectively has serious consequences. One frequently cited example is the Milford Haven oil refinery disaster of 1994 when staff were bombarded with numerous alarms for many hours before the actual event.

 

More recently, big names such as South West Water, Tesco, Thames Water and Yorkshire Water have all been issued with huge fines (between £8m and £12m) for serious incidents where inadequate alarm management and poor processes had contributed to their failure to respond appropriately to emergencies.

 

One incident even resulted in a fatality for South West Water, where a lone worker conducting routine maintenance was found dead after it took the company 90 minutes to respond to the alert. 

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Why are critical alarms hard to manage?

The main reasons why critical alarms are hard to manage in a manufacturing plant are that:

  • They happen anytime, when you’re not expecting it 
  • They’re time critical 
  • They’re not always easy to spot when a machine or system has failed, especially when you have several of them located in different areas of the plant
  • Alarm fatigue – some industries will have hundreds of alarms to manage each day and struggle to see the critical alarm from the minor alarm issues.  With too many hops in the process to alert the team that needs to deal with incident and by the time they’re made aware of it, it’s often too late
  • Teams have no visual oversight on how the emergency is being managed
  • Manning control rooms are expensive and therefore are often left unmanned especially in the evening or at night
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How to automate critical alarm systems

Before looking at what are and how you can automate critical alarm management systems, it is important to recognise how they differ from other alarm management solutions.

Companies will manage alarms in different ways, for example a small business may have several simple alarms that trigger a siren in the production area while a large manufacturing company may have a designated central control room and an alarm management system that monitors various systems throughout the production process.

Most alarm management systems rely on operators being able to manually escalate incidents to designated teams, which exposes the company to the risk of human error. Control centres in manufacturing companies are ridiculously busy, and commentators estimate that in oil, gas and chemicals companies, operators can expect to receive up to 1,500 alerts a day. This makes it particularly challenging  to spot  a critical alarm from a low level, routine alarm when the operators are already overloaded with alarm messages and have limited technical expertise or site knowledge to fully understand the implications of each issue. They have to be able to identify and prioritise these at a glance, then manually initiate the emergency procedures by  contacting the corresponding  response team. This can significantly delay the process and prolong the response time, which in some cases can be detrimental to the business from a production and financial point of view, or even fatal for an employee that has triggered a lone worker alarm. The worst-case scenario could see the complete destruction of a factory or plant.

 

Critical Alarm Management systems can be implemented by almost any company, although they are particularly valuable in industries  with lone workers that operate in hazardous environments and businesses that rely on systems or equipment to operate continuously.  

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In general these systems help manage critical alarms through automation by:

  • Removing the hops within your processes and directly make the response team aware of the incident, sending the alarm to  specific teams based on the nature of the alarm itself
  • Making your response teams aware of the incident within seconds, not hours and providing them with vital, extra time to manage emergencies
  • Providing detailed information about the incident i.e. what machine, location, fault, directly on their mobile device
  • Providing better oversight of where in the process teams are with managing alarms – alarm acceptance, attending to fault, alarm closed – so they are better managed
  • Escalating alarms that aren’t accepted within a specific time-frame
  • Monitoring equipment or staff, so you don’t have to implement manual processes that take up too much of your staff’s time

All the prior result in quicker and more effective alarm responses, helping you to:

  • Shorter alarm response times, which can mean the difference between a minor incident and a major one, as well as decrease the production’s downtime and improve the company’s profit margins
  • Reduce human error - most security breaches are caused by human error, which is significantly reduced with an automated system

Read more about automating critical alarms here

Equipping staff with the right communication tools

In today’s fast paced competitive market, time is a luxury that most people and businesses simple don’t have.  Often employees will need to act to keep businesses moving forward.  But how do employees arrive at those decisions, so they can make the right call and act in the interest of the business?

No doubt there are many determining factors, but information is certainly one.  Information can come from all sorts of sources; from colleagues, suppliers and even online, with access available across different channels including phone, email, text and apps.  Having access to valuable information means employees can make more informed ‘on-the-spot’ decisions, when action is required.   

Therefore, for many frontline workers receiving up to date critical alarm information directly on their mobile device, isn’t a luxury it is a necessity.  But companies also need to think beyond the alarm information and think about what happens next.  How do staff manage the emergency, who do they need to call or involve, to resolve matters quickly?  And question whether frontline workers have the necessary tools to do their job and act in the interest of the business – and make the right decisions every time. 

 

Businesses can benefit from automated technology without having to overhaul end user devices, as in most cases critical alerts can be delivered to different mobile devices and platforms, commonly used within manufacturing companies. This can represent a significant saving especially for businesses that have recently refreshed employees’ mobile handsets.

That being said, certain devices will work better with the solution than others and it is always worth checking with a solution provider if you’re currently thinking of refreshing the mobile devices you currently provide your front line workers.

Many factors need to be considered including the worker’s role, environment, mobile reception and existing infrastructure to determine the most appropriate devices.  Smartphones, for instance, aren’t always practical for teams that wear gloves, and most models aren’t robust or suitable in industrial areas.  While critical alarm apps are available for iPhones, you generally don’t get the full features you get with android smartphones.     

Click here to read more about rapid response and how to improve response times in manufacturing companies using a Critical Alarm Management system. 
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Automation in ATEX zones

ATEX zones are areas where there are likely to be hazardous explosive atmospheres and  there can be lone workers that don’t have the support of colleagues nearby in the event of an accident. Therefore, to safeguard the health and well-being of your lone working employees, it is important to have robust and reliable processes whereby teams are automatically alerted and can respond directly the moment an incident occurs.  

Similarly, a response team can also operate within an ATEX environment on site and should carry intrinsically safe devices, otherwise, they may find themselves at risk or unable to respond to major incidents – by simply not carry the right kit.  

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Safety considerations

Standard mobile phones and other types of communication devices can emit sparks, making them unsafe to use in ATEX areas that can contain high levels of gas or dust, and therefore must be left outside the area. Furthermore, ATEX zones are often restricted areas, which means anyone working in them, may do so alone.  This presents a major risk as if someone has an incident leaving them immobile, they would be unable to call for help without their mobile communication device.   

A range of devices are available that are certified by ATEX.  These devices are safe to use in ATEX zones that contain flammable gases or dust. 

This means that staff can safely use their ATEX communication handsets throughout the site. It is also possible to provide handsets with lone worker functionality, such as a panic button and embedded tilt sensor. These can be easily used to trigger an alert that is automatically distributed directly to colleagues on their ATEX or non-ATEX mobile device in the event of an accident. Colleagues can respond appropriately, helping the lone worker to quickly receive the right assistance without delay. In such situations, it's critical to ensure that all alarms are promptly acknowledged (which they can do directly on their handset), to prevent the incident from escalating and to ensure that the help always arrives quickly for the worker in need. 

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