Inspectioneering Journal

Applying Situational Awareness to Achieve Excellence in FEMI

By John Reynolds, Principal Consultant at Intertek. This article appears in the March/April 2022 issue of Inspectioneering Journal.


Under ideal conditions, when a new industry event occurs that involves significant loss of primary containment (LOPC), industry codes and standards would be updated to recognize the threat, and then put requirements and recommendations in place to capture the lessons learned. That is what usually happens. Each company or site would then put management systems and procedures in place to localize those industry requirements and recommendations to their own needs. And then, in our perfect world, that would be the end of that particular threat at all companies and all sites. But we don’t have a perfect world.

The airline industry comes closer to eliminating threats of airplane crashes than we do in the hydrocarbon process industry. Why? Because they meticulously investigate and find all the causes of airplane crashes (direct, root, and contributing causes), and then put rules and procedures in place to avoid future airplane crashes happening for the reasons learned in their investigation. Why doesn’t that happen in our industry? There are multiple reasons why the “perfect world” does not work in our industry, but one reason is inadequate situational awareness.

This article is all about applying situational awareness for achieving excellence in our fixed equipment mechanical integrity (FEMI) program. Vince Lombardi, the first Super Bowl winning coach at Green Bay said, “perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” Situational awareness is one method in which we can “catch excellence.” The best FEMI personnel never lose sight of FEMI situational awareness and the need to apply it continuously in their everyday work environment and activities.

There’s an old military saying which goes like this: if things are all quiet on the western front, then you may be susceptible to an enemy ambush. The best military units are very sensitive to this issue and are constantly aware of the possibility of an ambush and prepared to immediately react to it and defend against it. The same is true for law enforcement personnel where, for instance, it takes exceptional situational awareness when an officer makes a traffic stop for some sort of perceived offense. The officer is trained to use excellent situational awareness to anticipate anything that could go wrong in a traffic stop that might potentially threaten their safety and be immediately prepared to counter those threats.

As you can imagine, in our line of work we have a lot of potential threats that can interfere with maintaining adequate FEMI. This article is all about using situational awareness effectively to anticipate FEMI threats, understand them, and prepare the necessary steps to avoid a potential LOPC from the threat.

Situational Awareness is especially important in our dynamically changing work environment in hydrocarbon process plants. It would be less important (though not unimportant) in a relatively static work environment that is not changing much. But in our industry, we have constant changes in issues such as:

  • Process conditions (too often without adequate management of change [MOC])
  • Equipment modifications and additions (sometimes without adequate MOC)
  • Employee turnover and contract workers unfamiliar with our work environment
  • Administrative and organizational changes
  • Technology and methodology changes
  • Procedural changes

All these types of changes can lead to a breakdown in applying our FEMI management systems and procedures. That’s where the high value of situational awareness comes into play.

What is Situational Awareness in FEMI?

Situational awareness is about knowing what is going on around you in your workplace regarding FEMI issues and threats. This requires you to continuously be sensitive to issues and changes in your direct FEMI work environment and be conscious of those issues that could result in a FEMI threat, both short and long term. However, we can't continuously pay attention to the hundreds of single FEMI details. Instead, we need to focus on those FEMI elements that are most important to continue to achieve our biggest objective of preventing FEMI events of higher consequences. A few examples of FEMI situational awareness issues in our dynamically changing work environment might include:

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