The fight against alarm fatigue

November 6, 2017

An officer cadet undergoes ECDIS training. Credit: Transas


A modern bridge hosts hundreds of alarms. Each one can sound at different times and can combine into a confusing cacophony. Given the fact that they are not usually all managed together, the repetition of beeps and buzzes sounding throughout a watch can easily result in alarms being missed or ignored by the watchkeeper: a problem that is branded ‘alarm fatigue’.


Alarm fatigue occurs when a person is exposed to a large number of frequent alarms and becomes desensitised to them. This desensitisation can lead to longer response times or to missing crucial alarms altogether.


It is not disputed that alarms on the bridge are essential for continued safe ship operations, not that the presence of every alarm wholly justified. However, their frequency can be an annoyance and distract the attention of the bridge crew from the task at hand. The ability to think clearly can be compromised and bridge crew have been known to switch off alarms to alleviate the aggravation.


Obviously watchkeepers missing or switching off alarms poses a great risk to ship safety and can be a contributing factor to an incident such as a collision or a grounding. This puts the issue at the top of the agenda for ship managers.


A safety digest published by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) highlighted the risk of turning off a bridge navigational watch alarm system (BNWAS). A BNWAS is a mandatory system that requires the officer on watch (OOW) to periodically push a button. If the button is not pushed, a series of alarms are first sounded in the navigation bridge; if the watchkeeper does not respond, then other navigational officers or the shipmaster are notified.


On a general cargo coastal vessel described in the MAIB report, the BNWAS was considered to be a nuisance and was switched off. The third officer fell asleep during the watch and the vessel collided with an island. There were many factors that contributed to the incident but ultimately had the BNWAS been switched on, an alarm would have been raised and the incident could have been prevented.


The trouble with ECDIS

Artiom Guzar, quality assurance and international safety manager at Norbulk Shipping, said alarm fatigue was most commonly associated with the use of electronic chart display and information systems (ECDIS) and setting up a look-ahead vector that was highly customisable. “When setting look-ahead alarms for various width, length ahead, and objects, if these are set up too broadly, the look-ahead vector will trigger alarms when meeting certain objects such as depths, marine zones, and so on,” he explained.


Norbulk requirements for setting up the ECDIS are very specific to the area of navigation and rely heavily on risk assessment for a particular voyage. This ensures navigators receive only the most neccessary alarms. Norbulk provides guidance on the width and length of look-ahead vectors for particular areas of navigation; for example open sea and pilotage waters. It also specifies which objects should be set in order to be identified by the look-ahead function, as not all of them will be applicable to particular circumstances. This is an effective way of taking action on alarm fatigue.


Help not hinder

Vessels have become more automated and seafarers must contend with more instrumentation vying for their attention. Thome Ship Management believes that in such working conditions it is vital to think of the human factor and deal with alarm management. It says alarms and alarm systems are an integral aspect of a human-machine interface, which, with displays and controls, should support, not hinder, optimal human performance.


Sartaj Gill, head of group training at Thome, stressed the importance of crew understanding alarm management. Part of this involves simulators at its training facilities to make sure new seafarers are comfortable working around and paying attention to the beeps and buzzes that they would experience in real-world conditions.


The company said it was a challenge when there were so many alarms on ships, and it believes they need to be balanced “both technically and human-element-wise”. For instance, it advises that if a vessel were to operate in very congested waters with a high likelihood of alarms going off, then another watchkeeper needs to be on the bridge to manage this.


Demand for alarm management training to mitigate alarm fatigue is rising. In response, maritime e-learning specialist Videotel will launch an alarm management training programme later this year to specifically address alarm fatigue. Aspects of this training will include what alarm systems are and their benefits when used properly; what can go wrong; alarm ‘flood’; alarm fatigue; and not knowing what alarms mean, as well as how to manage alarms effectively.


A human-centric approach

A further problem arises when the general fatigue of the crew results in watchkeepers falling asleep while on duty and missing crucial alarms. At the beginning of 2017, seafarer fatigue was at the centre of a large study calledProject MARTHA, a USD3 million, three-year project conducted by an international partnership of researchers and industry, and sponsored by the TK Foundation.


Among other significant findings, the study uncovered that watchkeepers (and masters) appear to suffer more fatigue than day workers. Masters and day workers get more sleep than watchkeepers, but masters are more at risk of fatigue than other ranks. Night watchkeepers get significantly less sleep than others. Fatigued watchkeepers are more likely to suffer from alarm fatigue. This suggests finding a way to alleviate fatigue may go some way to improving the problem of missed alarms.


Kuba Symanski, secretary-general of Intermanager, believes the problem of seafarer fatigue in the industry is “as big as we want it to be”. He said the first step in working to improve seafarer fatigue must be an awareness campaign and then “no-nonsense support for individual seafarers”. 


“Fatigue risk management is not about putting more people on board, it is about streamlining operations with a human-centric approach,” Symanski added. In parallel, alarm fatigue also needs a human-centric approach, and is essential to support the watchkeeper.


The Nautical Institute’s director of projects, David Patraiko, said alarm fatigue was still very much a problem, but depended on the ship and trade. He told Safety at Sea that the bright spark on the horizon was something the IMO has called an integrated navigation system (INS). This has an built-in alarm management function, which, if used, could alleviate the issue of alarm fatigue. The installation of such a system is not mandatory, but there is a performance standard for it.


Patraiko said that from the Nautical Institute’s point of view, “We are not saying that people go out and buy an INS, but we are suggesting they give it a good think when they are equipping their ship.”

He does warn, however, that under the IMO’s e-navigation agenda – a strategy to create better organisation of data, and data exchange and communication between ships and ship-to-shore – it was likely that many of the e-navigation functions would come into the INS. That could result in more of them being fitted in the future, which, it is hoped, will reduce alarm fatigue.


The Nautical Institute is doing a lot of work within the IMO e-navigation agenda. Patraiko said that because e-navigation was supposed to be user-led, one of the things the working group identified when it started was that alarm management was a big priority for seafarers. This has made it a priority for the Nautical Institute, which is now working with the IMO to ensure that when e-navigation comes in, the best alarm management systems come in with it.


Contact Catherine Austin 

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Recent Posts
Please reload