Avoiding Alarm Fatigue

| October 4, 2017

Sleep. Dismiss. Ignore.

Whether it’s our early morning alarm clock, an outlook invitation or a Building Management Systems (BMS) alarm, we are all exposed to alarm fatigue in some manner or another in everyday life. We receive and dismiss the same meeting invite that doesn’t apply to us or we get the same email once a week that we habitually delete. In these scenarios, and in specific regard to BMS alarms, the only way to properly deal with the inundation of alarms or notifications is to correctly prioritize them.

The proper prioritization of BMS alarms starts in the design phase by determining what alarms the facilities team wants to have included by the design engineer. There are traditional system alarms that have been specified since supervisory control systems were created, but there are also many that are not typically specified but are important to operators of the facility. By properly identifying and specifying the alarms that are truly important to the facility operator, we are taking our first step toward avoiding alarm fatigue.

Once the project is bid, the contracts are signed and submittals rolling in, the submittal review becomes the next major step in stemming alarm fatigue. The design team has specified alarms, and now the contractors and equipment manufacturers are responding with how they plan to achieve implementation of these alarms. At this point in the process timing is not ideal; some alarm needs may require adding points to control systems and thereby generate unexpected costs. Ideally, teams should be focusing during this phase on how alarms will be communicated between equipment to the BMS controllers, not whether they even can be.

Alarms that are not desired by facility operators but continue to show up on alarm logs at the BMS are more common than people think. To curb this issue, during commissioning, the project team can work with facility operators to properly identify alarm tiers. Alarm ties help facility operators organize and prioritize which alarms are most important to them.  For example, a filter alarm for the air handler serving the gift shop may not have the same tier as a low pressurization alarm for an operating room. Tiering allows non-vital alarms to still report to the BMS but only show up where desirable on the alarm log, thus not requiring immediate remote notification to pagers or emails.

To help facilitate prioritization of alarms, the commissioning process can utilize an alarm notification template. This alarm template can identify a number of things including the following:

  • All of the alarms required per contract
  • Any alarms that are available but were not included in the original design
  • Alarm tiers (priority and how they are reported)
  • Who will be receiving remote alarm notifications
  • How these contacts will be receiving remote alarm notifications

The ideal outcome of focusing on implementation of alarm tiering is to receive a remote alarm that is truely immediately important and to store the ones that are not in a place where they can be managed as needed. The project team’s primary objective should be to replace the words SLEEP or IGNORE with ACKNOWLEDGE and RESPOND in the alarm vocabulary.

Matt Wheeler
About

As a firm Associate, Matt is also a Project Manager and Market Leader for the Commissioning team. His approach to commissioning focuses around his operational background. Shipboard engine room maintenance and landside power generation facility operations work have enabled him to commission through a facility’s staff’s point of view as well as an owner’s. His focus as Project Manager is to leave the owner and maintenance staff with an efficiently operating building that meets all required design criteria and provides a high level of physical comfort to all of its occupants and staff. As the Market Leader, Matt plays a key role in overall firm’s Business Development, including lead development, lead management, pre-proposal contacts, proposal preparation and presentations, client maintenance and Marketing and Business Development leadership for the market.

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