The Silence of the Alarms

How plant managers are playing with fire.

When flames took hold at the Kader Toy factory in Thailand in May 1993, it heralded the start of the world’s worst industrial fire, killing 188 workers and seriously injuring 500 more. The investigation into the tragedy found the failure of the fire alarm as the principle cause. Despite disasters like this, an alarming number of obsolete systems remain in situ — putting industrial sites and employees at risk. 

Every industrial or manufacturing plant should have an up-to-date alarm monitoring system because even the slightest changes in temperature, flow or environment can damage the production process and lead to costly downtime. Chemical processing, for example, requires critically controlled temperature and humidity levels, so the slightest variation can result in defective products or outputs, damage to equipment and can crucially halt production all together. Having a fully functional, operational alarm monitoring system is therefore essential, no matter the industry.

Despite the importance of fire prevention, between 80 and 90 per cent of alarm systems fitted in industrial facilities in the UK today are obsolete — a worrying statistic given that malfunction can cost millions. With the stakes so high it’s hard to comprehend why plant owners take the risk and continue production with alarm systems that aren’t fit for purpose.

Clear and Simple

The late 1960s and 70s saw a huge increase in the installation of hard-wired, panel based, annunciator systems. The panels featured a series of color-coded warning lights showing the system’s overall status, as well as monitoring specific conditions from different points across a site. Any condition changes were relayed back to the central control panel, triggering a warning light to alert the plant operator of any issues requiring immediate action.

At the end of the 80s and early 90s industrial plant managers began moving away from hard-wired alarms in favor of PC based SCADA systems. In contrast to traditional annunciators that were considered old fashioned and took up too much room, computer-based systems offered a contemporary, compact alternative. Manufacturers could now connect multiple communication points without having to install miles of cabling and it essentially didn’t require huge capital investment. It was during this time that many alarm manufacturers, including Babcock, Century and Highland Electronics either went out of business or were taken over.

Operation Overload

Digitization undoubtedly improved the efficiency of alarm systems to monitor, analyze and report across a wider range of communication points. However, the increase in capabilities led many operators to overload the systems. Sites increasingly became reliant on control systems with complex displays, making it difficult for operators to distinguish critical alarms. This approach was widely publicized as the reason for several high-profile incidents, including the fire at the Buncefield oil storage depot in Milford Haven and the Texaco oil refinery plant explosion in Pembroke.

Despite incidents like these, thousands of industrial plants remain at risk across the UK. There is often a reluctance to prioritize alarm replacement, with operators ignoring the warning signs. Convincing senior level plant management that investment in a replacement system is worthwhile can be difficult, especially because the financial return isn’t immediately apparent. Ironically, the return is generally only realized once the system has helped a company to avoid a production loss by alerting operators about an issue.

Yet, replacing an alarm system doesn’t have to be a timely, costly or disruptive exercise and can safeguard facilities when a system fails with minimum disruption. Omniflex is the leading monitoring specialist in the UK with the capabilities to configure a replacement for any redundant alarm system, whoever the original manufacturer and whatever the specification. We engineer all solutions off-site and design them specifically to fit into an existing alarm structure. This drastically reduces installation time and associated production downtime.

Alarm failure has cost industrial plants millions of pounds, and in the case of the Kader Toy factory, over 150 lives. With such a lot to lose it’s incredible that so many take the risk, especially when retrofitting a replacement to an existing system doesn’t cost the earth.

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