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Alarms management and the BP disaster

11-15-2010 04:24 PM CET | Energy & Environment

Press release from: PPCL

April 10, 2010 saw the beginning of what was to become one of the world’s worst oil spills. In recent weeks the BP investigation team, put together to uncover the likely causes of the accident, have released their findings. Not surprisingly the event came down to a series of events and not one single action. These events were both mechanical failures and human error, but the unfortunate factor is that ignoring alarms was one of the early phases of the disaster which, if paid attention to, may have reduced the impact of the chain of events that led to the disaster.

No one would want to have been in Tony Haywards’ position. Having to explain to the entire world that the effects of the BP disaster could have been decreased if senior staff didn’t ignore alarms alerting them to the danger of what was to happen. Ultimately, they had no idea how big the disaster would actually be, but their actions formed an integral step in a long line of errors or plant failings which ultimately led to the global environmental disaster. One cannot hypothesise as to whether listening to these alarms would have fully prevented the disaster, but we do know that it would have seriously lessened the impact of it.

To those working outside the process industry, ignoring an alarm for fear that it is false, is a preposterous idea. However, within refineries it is common knowledge that a large percentage of alarms are false. This disturbing statistic leads to apathy and glorified guess work being used to control potentially dangerous situations. Companies like BP spend millions of dollars on sophisticated equipment, only to have it undermined by ineffective alarms systems. This has been the case for so long that no one any longer thinks to question it, except for one company - PPCL - thinking ‘outside of the box’ and working with the ‘geometry of n-dimensional space’.

PPCL have discovered the fundamental connection between alarms, process controls and operating objectives, which provides the first-ever method to calculate values for alarm limits and their interactions. Through locating the operating envelope of a given process, alarms can be accurately and significantly rationalised. False alarms then become a thing of the past. This capability obviously has significant applications in disaster prevention.

Geometric process control (GPC) is the technology which has enabled the operating envelope of a process to be scientifically calculated. GPC visualisation tools can easily select historical operating behaviour that meets or improves desired specifications of performance. The software then wraps a ‘skin’ around this desired behaviour and will alarm and correct the process anytime it strays from this envelope. By having scientifically calculated alarms, false alarms are significantly reduced. This means that when an alarm does sound it is usually an accurate warning. The business benefits are abundant. Obviously, alarms rationalisation improves the safety of any process. It also means that outputs can be more tightly controlled which has financial and quality implications too.

As we have discovered, the impact of the BP disaster could have been lessened. Whilst this is a shocking revelation for our planet, it should serve as a warning to other companies in the oil industry. Whilst false alarms may seem ‘the norm’ they are in fact a dangerous space to play in. Danger exists in environmental terms, financial terms and of course safety. Companies who don’t seek to rationalise alarms are leaving themselves open for future peril.

Formerly Curvaceous Software Limited, PPCL improves the business efficiency of process plants worldwide, through research, development and delivery of applications based on its unique Geometric Process Control (GPC) technology. PPCL has won many awards and holds numerous patents centred on its award-winning GPC technology, for process improvement, control and optimisation. Please visit www.ppcl.com for more details.

Editors please contact:
T: +44 (0)1753 893090
E: enquiries@ppcl.com
W: www.ppcl.com

PPCL
PO Box 43
Gerrards Cross
Buckinghamshire SL9 8UX
United Kingdom

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