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The Evolution of Alarm Management

By Bill Hollifield


Alarm systems were not always a problem. Before the 1990s, alarms for operators were essentially a box of light bulbs on the control wall (with each alarm at least marginally justified), in a control room that was a collection of pneumatic and standalone electronic boxes. But it was difficult to get information from such systems, and to improve them.

The 1990s saw worldwide conversion of older controls to computer-based distributed control systems (DCS). These offered many advantages. But they brought with them thousands of “free” software-based alarms, often implemented with little thought, and showing up in continuous scrolling lists and on confusing displays. It did not take long for some major accidents to occur, with poorly designed alarm systems playing a major role. Users of DCS systems began to take notice and look for solutions.

Companies like PAS, now part of Hexagon, began to address the problem, including developing software for analyzing and enhancing alarm systems. Hundreds of successful alarm improvement projects were accomplished, and many experience-based best practices for choosing and implementing DCS-based alarms were developed. In 2005, PAS’s Bill Hollifield and CEO Eddie Habibi co-authored the definitive guide to solving the alarm problem. In The Alarm Management Handbook, they detailed effective, efficient, and proven methods for solving the alarm problem. The response to the Handbook was overwhelmingly positive – with thousands of copies sold, and much praise for its straightforward and practical advice.

A few years later, the ANSI/ISA 18.2 Alarm Management Standard was issued, making some practices mandatory. Later, the IEC adopted an international version of ISA 18.2. The Handbook was updated to a second edition, including even more guidance on alarm management and advice on achieving cost-effective compliance with the standards.

Here is a link for free access to the beginning of the book, including the full Table of Contents, through the “executive summary” chapter: Alarm Management Best Practices: Highly Condensed.


About the Author

Bill Hollifield is the Principal Consultant for both Alarm Management and High Performance HMI for PAS Global, part of Hexagon. Bill has 30 years of experience in the petrochemical industry in engineering and operations, and an additional 15 years in alarm management and HMI software and services for the petrochemical, power generation, pipeline, pharmaceutical, and mining industries. He is a member of the ISA SP-18 Alarm Management committee, the ISA SP-101 HMI committee, the American Petroleum Institute’s API RP-1165 HMI committee, and the Engineering Equipment and Materials Users Association (EEMUA) Industry Review Group.

Bill is co-author of The Alarm Management Handbook, The High Performance HMI Handbook, and The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Guidelines on Alarm Management and HMI for both Power Generation and Transmission. He has a BSME from Louisiana Tech University and an MBA from the University of Houston. In 2014, Bill was made an ISA Fellow. He’s a pilot and has built his own airplane – a Van’s RV12.

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