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4 Steps of Incident Response: How to Prepare for and React to Events


Cyberattacks have become a virtual inevitability, challenging organizations of all sizes across all industries. Dealing with these threats requires more than just fortifying cyber defenses—it also requires preparing a decisive and well-orchestrated response when an incident occurs. An Incident Response (IR) plan should become a core part of any organization’s cybersecurity effort.

Why Make an Incident Response Plan?

There are several vital purposes that an incident response plan serves, such as:

  1. Protecting Your Brand Reputation: Trust is hard to build but easy to lose. A cyber incident can tarnish a company’s reputation overnight, leading to loss of customer trust. Clients and partners want assurance that their data is safe with you; demonstrating a clear and actionable IR strategy showcases a proactive approach, reassuring stakeholders of your commitment to security. 

  2. Minimizing Financial Impact: Cyber incidents come with hidden costs. Beyond the immediate fallout, you can suffer potential loss of business, regulatory fines, and legal expenses. An effective response strategy can reduce downtime, curtail losses, and prevent potential fines and lawsuits.

  3. Ensuring Regulatory Compliance: Many industries now have strict regulations concerning data breaches, requiring timely reporting and action. An incident response plan ensures that your organization is prepared to act according to these regulations, avoiding potential legal complications.

Ultimately, an incident response strategy is a crucial shield that prepares your organization for the worst, ensuring resilience in the face of adversity, safeguarding brand image, and minimizing disruptions. In a world where cyber threats are evolving rapidly, being proactively prepared should be ingrained in every aspect of your approach to security.

Incident Response Frameworks: NIST vs. SANS

When it comes to established incident response steps, two of the most widely respected frameworks are those created by the National Institute of Standards of Technology (NIST) and the SANS Institute. Although these frameworks differ, both were specifically designed to support IT professionals in building their own incident response processes.

The NIST Incident Response framework outlines four foundational steps:

  1. Preparation
  2. Detection and Analysis
  3. Containment, Eradication, and Recovery
  4. Post-Incident Recovery

Conversely, the SANS Incident Response framework provides a total of six steps:

  1. Preparation
  2. Identification
  3. Containment
  4. Eradication
  5. Recovery
  6. Lessons Learned

Side-by-side, the NIST and SANS frameworks for incident response steps are nearly identical, with some variations in their grouping and phrases; however, there is a key difference in Step 3 of each process: in the NIST framework, containment, eradication, and recovery all fall under a single umbrella. In other words, NIST’s professional perspective is that you do not have to complete containment of all threats before beginning the eradication process. Rather, these steps can (and should, according to NIST) overlap.

What is the Best Framework for Incident Response?

Although there is some debate about the strengths and drawbacks of each, both frameworks serve a useful purpose. In the end, selecting the ideal framework is a decision that should be based on your organization’s needs, preferences, and available resources.

In this guide, we will be taking a closer look at the NIST framework, breaking down each of the steps in detail to help inform your own incident response plan preparation.

The 4 Key Steps of NIST Incident Response

NIST takes a comprehensive four-step approach to incident response, helping prepare organizations to effectively identify, manage, and learn from cybersecurity incidents. These steps are meant to be used as a foundation upon which to build your organization’s carefully customized plan for incident response. Depending on various factors, you may need to expand upon or alter the four basic steps accordingly.

1. Preparation: Laying a Strong Foundation

Preparation forms the cornerstone of an effective incident response strategy. Without proactive planning, organizations risk facing disorderly and ineffective responses when an incident strikes. NIST emphasizes the need for establishing guidelines, tools, and teams in advance.

  • Incident Response Policy: Begin with a clear incident response policy. This foundational document outlines the criteria for incidents, assigns responsibilities, and details the protocol for reporting and managing them.

  • Establish a Team: Hire or assemble a dedicated Incident Response Team (IRT). Choose members from various disciplines to ensure a diverse skill set. The team’s role is crucial in managing and mitigating incidents effectively. Today, a growing number of organizations are deciding to partner with professional cybersecurity providers for incident response, rather than attempt to take on the task in-house.

  • Tool Deployment: Empower the IRT with state-of-the-art tools that aid in detection, analysis, and response. Tools should be kept updated and periodically tested for efficacy.

  • Training and Awareness: Continuous training ensures that the staff remain adept at handling evolving threats. Simultaneously, organization-wide awareness programs help employees recognize and report potential threats.

2. Detection and Analysis: Identifying and Understanding the Threat

Detecting and analyzing cyber threats requires a combination of technology and human insight. Early detection is the key to effective incident management. The faster an organization identifies a threat, the better it can strategize its response. As part of this step, your organization needs to establish methods for:

  • Continuous Monitoring: Implement monitoring solutions that scan network traffic, system behaviors, and logs for anomalies. Real-time monitoring helps in early threat detection, which can make a measurable difference in the impact of an incident.

  • Incident Confirmation: A critical aspect is distinguishing between false positives and genuine threats. Validate incidents using threat intelligence and Indicators of Compromise (IOCs).

  • Incident Classification: Establish a framework for classifying incidents based on severity, type, and impact. Proper categorization ensures appropriate resource allocation for incident management.

  • Detailed Documentation: Documentation aids in post-incident analysis, legal considerations, and refining response strategies. Maintain detailed logs and chronicles of every incident and the steps taken.

3. Containment, Eradication, and Recovery: Addressing the Threat Head-On

Once an incident is detected and analyzed, swift and decisive action is required. This phase is about controlling the damage, ensuring the threat is entirely neutralized, and restoring normalcy. The steps involve:

  • Short-term Containment: Immediate actions can make a world of difference. Quickly isolate affected systems to minimize the spread and limit potential damage.

  • Long-term Containment: While immediate actions stem the tide, it’s essential to strategize for the longer term. Implement strategies that offer a robust defense and prevent similar incidents.

  • Root Cause Analysis: Delve into the cause behind the incident. Understand vulnerabilities exploited, study the nature of malware, and trace the attack patterns. Knowing the “why” and “how” is crucial for prevention.

  • System Restoration: The ultimate goal is to bring operations back to normal. Restore systems from verified backups, validate the integrity of the data, and ensure zero remnants of the threat remain.

4. Post-Incident Activity: Lessons from the Frontline

Every incident, regardless of its scale, offers a learning opportunity. The post-incident phase focuses on reflection, analysis, and improvement, ensuring that the organization emerges stronger and more resilient. In this final phase, you will:

  • Review and Reflect: Convene a debriefing to evaluate the handling of the incident. Acknowledge successes, identify shortcomings, and strategize for improvement.

  • Update Policies and Procedures: Use the insights gained to refine the incident response strategy by updating tools, policies, and practices as needed.

  • Assess Legal and Regulatory Implications: Ensure all regulatory requirements are met post-incident. This may involve notifying stakeholders, regulatory bodies, or affected parties. Stay compliant to avoid legal repercussions.

  • Conduct Awareness Training: Transform the incident into a valuable training module. Using real-world scenarios reinforces the importance of cybersecurity and provides practical insights.

How to Create an Incident Response Plan for Your Organization

Having reviewed the key steps of incident response, we’ll now look at the work that goes into making an effective IR plan. Developing this plan requires a high level of attention to the many details involved, with the creation process often mattering just as much as its eventual implementation. Here are some key recommendations to keep in mind as you create and tailor an incident response plan to suit your organization’s unique needs:

  • Establish a Formal Incident Response Capability: At the outset, it’s vital for organizations to recognize the necessity of a systematic response to computer security incidents. This isn’t just a best practice; for federal agencies, it is mandated by the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). By having a formalized process, you’re equipped to take swift and effective action when security is compromised.

  • Craft a Comprehensive Incident Response Policy: This foundational policy serves as the bedrock of your incident response initiative. It clearly delineates what constitutes an incident, sketches out the hierarchical structure for incident responses, and lays out roles and responsibilities. Furthermore, it provides directives for incident reporting and other crucial facets.

  • Design Detailed Incident Response Procedures: This is where the rubber meets the road. Procedures must be comprehensive, covering every phase of the incident response journey. They provide a step-by-step guide to action, ensuring that in the heat of the moment, your team isn’t left floundering.

  • Formulate Information Sharing Protocols: When incidents arise, there’s often a need to liaise with external entities, whether they’re media outlets, law enforcement agencies, or incident reporting bodies. Collaborate with your organization’s public affairs, legal team, and top brass to set in stone the dos and don’ts of external communication.

  • Be Prepared to Share Incident Information with the Right Bodies: Especially for federal civilian agencies, it’s mandatory to notify incidents to US-CERT. But beyond being a requirement, such reporting can be invaluable, as bodies like US-CERT offer insights into new threats and patterns. This knowledge can bolster your organization’s defenses.

  • Select the Right Team Model: Before building your incident response team, evaluate different team structure and staffing models. The ideal model will vary based on your organization’s resources and needs.

  • Collaborate with Other Internal Teams: An effective incident response isn’t a solo venture. It necessitates collaboration with other departments, including IT support, legal, public affairs, and even facilities management. By creating a cross-functional response mechanism, you ensure a more holistic and effective solution.

  • Partner with a Qualified Incident Response Service Provider: Although some organizations build an in-house incident response team, there is immense value in bringing specialists on board. They bring with them extensive expertise and specialized tools and resources, as well as the capabilities for training sessions, simulation exercises, and continuous monitoring and improvement. Considering the complex and constantly evolving nature of cyber threats, hiring a specialized incident response service provider can be a game-changer. Not only does it augment your existing capabilities, but it also ensures you have an extra layer of expertise to lean on during critical incidents.

Bolster Your Security Strategy with a Robust Plan for Incident Response

By understanding and implementing strong incident response practices, organizations can minimize damage, recover faster, and learn invaluable lessons to fortify their defenses for the future. Embracing the principles laid out in the NIST framework provides a solid foundation but remember: the effectiveness of any plan lies in its execution. Regular training, reviews, and staying updated with the latest in cybersecurity are essential components of an effective incident response strategy. Protect your organization not just with advanced tools, but with knowledge, preparation, and a plan of action.

I hope you found this information helpful. As always, contact us anytime about your technology needs.

Until next time,


Meet the Author
Tim Burke is the President and CEO of Quest. He has been at the helm for over 30 years.
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