A new employee in their first week of work is startled when a fire alarm blares into their space. They begin to panic and search frantically for an exit, leaving their work behind as they flee to safety.

Little do they know that the fire alarm is regularly initiated for drills and testing purposes. In a few months, the employee becomes accustomed to the warnings and, at times, even continues working without regard for the blaring sirens and flashing strobes.

In hospitals all over the country, there exist extremely robust building automation systems (BAS), designed to provide constant monitoring of critical equipment. They are screaming for help, and no one is paying attention. It isn’t due to negligence or apathy. It is due to a condition known as alarm fatigue.

Alarm fatigue is caused by two major oversights at the infancy of installation and design of the system:

  • Lack of alarm standards and specifications.
  • Lack of development of an alarm management plan.

These issues face building managers regardless of system size or scope but can be overcome with some planning. Creating a clear set of alarm standards and specifications as it relates to equipment, services or spaces will provide the building manager with a guide to apply as conditions or equipment are added or replaced. For many existing systems, this will require going back to the beginning or starting from a clean list of all alarm points provided by the BAS staff or contractor.

Developing an alarm management plan can be completed once the alarm standards are established. The plan will define the risk, response and escalation required for each alarm type. This will allow operators to prioritize the alarms as they arrive and take appropriate action for each, while providing a clear path for escalation when an alarm goes unacknowledged.

The American Society for Health Care Engineering (ASHE) has developed a tool to help members make the decisions necessary for an alarm management plan. It can be accessed via the link in the ASHE Resource box on this page.