safety risks, heavy fines and reputational damage

Why automated alarm management is essential for industrial businesses

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managing director, ANT Telecom

January 16, 2019


Whitepaper: Enhancing security, resilience and efficiency across a range of industries

Several companies have recently been issued with huge fines for failing to respond to emergencies in the workplace due to poor alarm management and processes.

Record fines were issued to Tesco (£8 million) and Thames Water (£20 million) for environmental negligence, which also caused no little reputational damage. The Environmental Agency criticised Thames Water for “failing to react adequately to thousands of high priority alarms used to alert them to serious problems”.

Many such incidents caused considerable pollution and endangered public health. However, the repercussions were more severe still for South West Water: a lone worker who was administering regular maintenance slipped and fell into an infiltration tank.

The company was fined £1.8m as it took 90 minutes for someone to respond to the alert. Clearly, its systems and processes failed to prevent incidents escalating into potential disaster.

However, these substantial fines have not yet prompted some organisations operating in potentially hazardous environments to review their protocols. Organisations may understand how important alarm management is in industrial settings, but many companies have not implemented the infrastructure and processes needed to effectively recognise and respond to on-site emergencies.

The same organisations are not yet taking advantage of advancements in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), automation and mobility that can not only augment operations but also protect both staff and profits.

Often, organisations will use an alarm management system where all alerts are routed through operators located at centralised control centres who can then escalate and activate the appropriate response.

South West Water took nearly three and a half hours to dispatch emergency services after an automatic alarm was raised

It’s a method that’s inherently flawed from the start. There is a natural time delay from the initiation of an alert to subsequent response, for instance. For example, in the case of South West Water, in August 2015 the water company took nearly three and a half hours to dispatch emergency services after an automatic alarm was raised, and six hours to determine that the issue was a sewage discharge.

However, the difficulties of assuring a timely response are exacerbated by other challenges.

Daily alarm averages

Control centre operators in process industries are extremely busy and guidelines concerning the use of alarms in industrial settings show how busy they can be. EEMUA Publication 191, the alarm management industry standard, and ISA-18.2, state that effective alarm management systems are designed to handle approximately 300 alarms each day.

However, daily alarm averages can surpass this significantly in many industrial environments. It is estimated that in oil, gas and chemicals organisations, alerts can number up to 1,500 a day, and in utilities companies, this figure can rise beyond 2,000.

Of course, the majority of those alarms will be for minor issues such as routine maintenance or repairs, with more serious events like machinery malfunction likely to be less frequent. Serious accidents or equipment failures are naturally less common. But they’re also completely unpredictable, so it is vital that companies implement the best processes to respond as quickly as possible when required.

But how can operators distinguish routine alarms from critical alerts? Alarms typically present via dashboards that alert operators to problems but often don’t provide enough information to help them understand their potential implications.

It’s not their fault. Control rooms are generally call centre environments manned by operators with limited technical expertise or site knowledge, which makes it difficult to prioritise workflow in terms of urgency. The large number of alarms they receive only adds to the problem, creating a fraught environment where operators lack time to evaluate individual alerts in depth.

Though some companies have invested in state-of-the-art control rooms, many operators still use paper-based contact lists to source the right engineers to respond to alerts. Furthermore, once they have identified the most appropriate person, they must then contact them through a laborious process of dialling the number, waiting for a response and then calling the next person on the list if the first attempt fails.

In a high-risk environment where time is of the essence, many centralised alarm management systems still rely on operators to carry out a high number of manual processes that are far from efficient.

Also, if two critical alerts are raised simultaneously, which one is the priority? If the control room is busy, will the alerts even be spotted? And if they do, do they recognise the potential severity?

Effective and affordable solution

Thankfully, technology can provide an effective and affordable solution. With the combination of pragmatic processes and familiar tools, critical alerts can be automated to go directly to the mobile devices of the most appropriate engineers on site.

Those alerts can still be flagged to the control room, but operators can see that a critical task has been escalated, accepted and actioned by the best-placed person for the job. And if it hasn’t, they can check and challenge in the normal way.

This simple automated process negates the need for operators to receive and respond to individual alerts, freeing them to focus on managing less time-critical tasks. In an environment where speed and clarity of communication is paramount, the automated process also reduces the risk of a situation’s severity being misunderstood, miscommunicated or lost in translation. It also provides real-time visibility for engineers on site, and a robust audit trail for businesses that strengthens governance in this critical area.

For companies to assure business continuity, compliance and employee safety, companies must adopt a streamlined and safe process for managing critical alerts. As ISA-18.2 outlines, alarm management is about processes, not technologies and many of those processes can and should be automated.

The most successful companies will be those that work with a partner that advise businesses on where processes can be automated – and design alarm management systems that safeguard their entire operations.

The record fines handed out to high profile companies should serve as a cautionary tale to organisations that are yet to deploy an automated alarm management system. Crucially, this is not just limited to larger companies: the same guidelines and protocols apply across the board, no matter the business size – which should be the biggest wake-up call of them all to prompt you to reassess your alarm management and processes.



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Shaun Wilcock
Shaun Wilcock
January 17, 2019 9:59 am

Interesting article, the companies would have benefited from a dedicated BS8484 accredited alarm response service, GPS based alarms with man down detection would have helped, they are handled 24/7 98.5% of alarms handled within 40 seconds. Orbis actually achieve 95% within 10 seconds, when seconds count! The website is