The basics of designing an effective alarm management system

To implement and maintain an efficient alarm management system, end users need to understand the requirements during the design phase and realize the advantageous features of an alarm management system.

By Melissa Topp November 11, 2016

Alarm management is a necessity in automated process environments, such as in product manufacturing or facility maintenance. Although, each monitored process differs for each customer, there is some common ground. Every stakeholder in the alarm management process starts with an idea of how the alarm system should operate. The catch is that these ideas are often built on internal, company-specific solutions. A more comprehensive alarm management solution, even one that meets industry standards such as ISA 18.2: Instrument Signals and Alarms, requires commitment on the part of the end user. 

Implementing alarm management systems

Organizations initiating a review of alarm management systems, or redesigning an existing implementation, should take some time at the beginning of the planning phase to consider expectations of alarm priorities, frequency, and post-alarm actions. Without early planning, operators might experience unexpected alarm overload due to a lack of clearly set prioritization or proper follow-up procedures for a wide array of alarm types. Or, at the other extreme, critical operational data could be missed if the right alarm messages are not sent.

There are basic requirements in the design phase of an alarm management system. Designing an alarm system is definitely an iterative and cyclical process, involving the addition or removal of information from three parts: generation, history, and presentation. During this initial design phase, customers need to balance the desire to cover all possible alarm contingencies with the need to limit the amount of information that needs to be processed. If there are too many alarm messages, the system will be unusable, and if there aren’t enough alarm messages, critical data could be missed. At the start, it is recommended that the alarm management system should err on the side of containing too much data, because it is easier to filter out excess data than to try and guess what data is missing.

During the initial implementation stages, there may be some obstacles to overcome such as not having enough computer resources dedicated to alarm management or having customized displays. One solution could be to create a few generic displays that can be customized based on specific operations (such as aliasing, filtering, logging on users, etc.), rather than customizing all displays. This saves time in implementation and application maintenance.

Alarm management system features

Periodically, users should evaluate the alarms that are being sent through the system to see if they are necessary for process management. Users should be able to figure out which alarms can be lowered in priority, filtered out of alarm overviews, temporarily disabled, or removed entirely.

It is recommended that users select an alarm management system that follows ISA 18.2 guidelines. Such industry standards set customer expectations while still enabling vendors to create customized solutions for end users. Use of industry standards allows customers to feel confident that a chosen system can achieve optimal results.

In addition to adhering to industry standards, there are other recommended features that users should explore. These include several processes that help reduce alarms in the system without permanently removing the alarms from configuration (such as suppression, out of service, disabling, or filtering). These features allow for a wide variety of choices in reducing the load on the system while preserving the original configuration to "undo" any changes, if needed. Customers should also be wary of some features, such as tying alarms to popular social media platforms. Many customers are dissuaded from this feature after realizing that proprietary information could be considered owned by the social media platform once it is published.

With an early plan and attention to details, such as understanding common maintenance tasks, industry standards, and the latest time-saving features, alarm management can become a beneficial tool to help optimize operations.

Melissa Topp is the director of global marketing at Iconics Inc. Iconics is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The company is a Microsoft Gold Partner and three-time winner of the Microsoft Partner of the Year award. The company provides advanced Web-enabled OPC UA and BACnet-certified visualization, analytics, and mobile software solutions for any energy, manufacturing, industrial, or building automation application, on-premises or in the cloud. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Key Concepts

  • Initial steps to take while implementing an alarm management system
  • How to overcome alarm management system implementation challenges
  • Evaluating an alarm management system’s features.

Consider this

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ONLINE extra

See a related story about Iconics’ 30th anniversary linked below.

Author Bio: Melissa Topp is senior director of global marketing at ICONICS, developer of the GENESIS64 HMI/SCADA automation suite.