Alert! 15 - Automation and alarm management
“Ship systems are protected by strict design standards and tolerances, by redundancy - particularly for critical systems - and by feedback processes that will ultimately activate an alarm of some sort, or take corrective action.
Their efficiency and reliability will be undermined if they are not correctly set up, regularly monitored or properly maintained; these are tasks that, for the most part, have to be undertaken by the human element of any such system - that is, the seafarer.” (Alert! Issue 9)
It is the technological revolution that has changed the way in which people and systems interact with other people and/or systems. In the maritime industry, the human element of the human-machine/system interface is becoming an endangered species, partly because of the drive towards smaller crew numbers, but largely due to increasing automation.
Automation should make life easier for the seafarer and make operations safer, but if an automatic system is not ‘fit for purpose’ or is not correctly set up, regularly monitored or properly maintained, it can lead to an accident - as a number of accident investigation reports have already testified.
Automation can also be to the detriment of situational awareness and that instinctive feel for something not being quite right. Furthermore, automation can change the role of an operator into that of a monitor. It can also bring with it a plethora of alarms, which can be distracting, can cause confusion and can be ignored by those who are not aware of their sources and implications - thereby negating their important purpose of communicating to the operator that a hazardous situation exists or that a system is overloading or about to fail.
Equally, if the seafarer has not been trained to recognise and respond to that alarm appropriately, then an accident may result.