Incident Response Plan 101: How to Approach it

Payal Wadhwa

Payal Wadhwa

Aug 06, 2023

Incident Response Plan

We are living in the age of zero-day exploits, where security teams have no time to prepare for risks. And in such an age, agility takes precedence over all other aspects. Security teams need a clearly laid-out incident response plan that serves as a blueprint on how to initiate quick action.

Forward-thinking organizations today go beyond acquiring a cyber insurance policy; they embrace a comprehensive safety net. Employing a mix of safeguards and an airtight incident response plan serves as a crucial failsafe.
Organizations with solid IRPs are able to significantly mitigate damage and gain control over crisis situations.

Read on to understand what should be included in an incident response plan and how to approach an incident when you encounter one.

What is an incident response plan?

An incident response plan is a documented set of guidelines to detect and manage security events, contain damage, and minimize business disruption. It clearly lays down the roles, responsibilities, and action plan for the incident response team enhancing their response capabilities.

Importance of incident response plan

Having an incident response plan is crucial because it saves organizations from the harrowing experience of an uncoordinated response. It delineates responsibilities, enhances response capabilities, and reduces detection and mitigation time. As a result, there are fewer operational disruptions.

Here’s why every organization should have an incident response plan in place:  

Security events are unavoidable

Even highly resilient organizations are not immune to security incidents. Cyber attacks cannot be avoided or prevented—and so, they need to be detected and contained. That’s where an incident response plan comes into play.

Avoiding chaotic responses

An ideal incident response plan has a combination of proactive and reactive damage mitigation measures. Not having a structured approach will only result in delays and disjointed responses which may even worsen the situation.

Maintaining reputation

A well-prepared incident response plan specifies communication protocols with stakeholders and customers both at the time of occurrence and in order to appraise them of progress.
Additionally, it helps initiate swift responses, minimizes business disruption, and preserves organizational reputation.

Business continuity 

Incident response plans include recovery strategies for restoring services quickly and minimizing downtime. Contingency measures are also specified to enable the delivery of critical business services. This ensures business continuity even in the face of cyber events.

Also find out: What does incident management policy include?

What does the incident response plan include?

An incident response plan broadly includes answers to what should be done in case of an incident, who should do it, when it should be done and how it will be done.

The plan covers details on the following:

Purpose of plan and scope of incidents covered: This includes an overview of how the incident plan aligns with the organization’s mission (the purpose) and the type and extent of incidents covered in the plan (scope).
It also lists the critical systems that fall under the scope.

Roles and responsibilities: The roles and responsibilities of the first responders and every stakeholder, from entry-level to the executive suite, are clearly defined.

Communication channels: This includes two pathways. The internal communication channel specifies whom to contact in case of a possible incident. External communication channels specify how and when to notify customers, partners, and other key stakeholders.

Identification and classification: Incident identification and triage instructions help with the prioritization of security incidents that need immediate attention to enhance response effectiveness.

Incident response steps: These steps are a playbook for the organization, covering everything from containing the damage to restoring business operations. They cover details on dos and don’ts such as isolating the compromised networks and avoiding the deletion of malicious files.

Data and evidence collection: These are instructions for preserving evidence to support forensic analysis, documentation requirements, and compliance purposes. This helps at the time of post-incident review to decide the further corrective course of action.

Metrics: Metrics indicate the parameters that’ll help evaluate the effectiveness of the plan.

Check out a complete guide on security incident management

How to approach when there is an incident?

The correct way to approach an incident is to prepare for it in advance, initiate prompt responses when it occurs, and delve into details post-incident for future learning. Each of these stages has sub-steps for managing the response effectively.

The three stages and the sub-steps include:

Stage 1: Before the incident: The Preparation Stage

The preparation stage plays a vital role in the effectiveness of the incident response plan and damage reduction. It makes the approach structured and improves the response timing at the time of disruption. The stage involves the following steps:

  • Conducting a risk assessment to understand the organization’s risk exposure and prioritizing critical assets
  • Developing an appropriate security plan documenting roles, communication plan (internal and external), infrastructure deployment needs and processes
  • Training the staff
  • Testing the plan
  • Having visibility on alerts logged from different sources.

Sprinto captures these alerts in its incident management module from different services like AWS guard duty, Inspector, Windows Defender, etc. which most organizations make use of. 

Staff-reported incidents can also be managed through a dedicated employee portal and can be viewed in the incident management window.

Stage 2: During the incident

The core emphasis of this stage is to put the plan into action. It involves monitoring, detecting, and managing the incident. The key steps involved are:

1. Identification and triage

The security operations team continuously monitors critical infrastructure and raises an alert when anomalous activities are identified.

The first responders then perform triage to deduce which of these events need further investigation based on severity.
On further analysis, the incidents that require attention are escalated to higher executives along with proof supporting their conclusions, for incident response.

2. Communication and coordination

The communication plan clearly defines the stakeholders that must be informed, the communication channel, and the message templates to be used. Usually, the stakeholders are informed using email, social media updates, work chat tools, or a status page.

Similarly, for internal communication, the first responders have well-defined contact details of the authorities that must be contacted in case of an incident.

3. Containment, eradication, and recovery

This step breaks down the incident response into three phases: containment, eradication, and recovery.

  • The containment phase involves limiting further spread by quarantining the affected systems and networks
  • Eradication calls for removing the attacking vector like malware from the impaired security assets to get rid of the root cause
  • The final step is to restore the assets to their original good state by way of reconfigurations, backups, etc.

Stage 3: Post-incident Steps

This stage serves as the organization’s performance card and aligns with the bigger picture—strengthening the security posture. It involves measuring the response effectiveness, conducting forensic analysis, and documenting the learnings for iteration and enhancement.

1. Post-incident review

A retrospective of the incident response is conducted to understand what went well and what could have been better. Information from various sources like logs, response trackers, and team feedback is gathered to analyze the weak areas that need rework.

The incident response plan is also updated to adjust the misfires and get future-ready.

2. Investigation and analysis

This step involves identifying the factors that caused the underlying problems and initiating action to prevent their recurrence.
Machinery, methods, and manpower (human errors) must be scrutinized to locate the original source of disruption. SIEM tools, fault-tree analysis software, etc. can be used for root cause analysis.

3. Lessons learned

Lastly, there is documentation of the incident and key takeaways are communicated organization-wide. This is done promptly to retain incident details effectively and swing back into action as early as possible. The improvement process is cyclical and gradual and improves the organization’s response capabilities over time.

Recommended: Best practices for implementing a Cybersecurity incident response plan

Tips to implement an effective incident response plan

The perfect incident response plan is a myth. However, what distinguishes an average plan from a great one is dynamism, well-tested hacks, frequent training, leverage of technology, and room for perpetual improvements.

Strengthen the implementation of an incident response plan with the following tips:

Devise a detailed plan with built-in flexibility

The incident response plan should be detailed to suit the business environment’s needs and yet flexible because real-world incidents cannot be tackled with over-prescription and rigidity.
You may take references from already developed plans like that of NIST or ask for one sample plan from a vendor but it should be tailored to your risk profile. 

Indulge in tabletop exercises

Tabletop exercises are simulations that help the team understand various risk scenarios and identify any flaws in their plans.
These exercises must be a plan of the overall incident response strategy to assess the organization’s awareness level, response timing, coordination, and communication.

Frequent testing of the plan is vital

We tend to miss out on intricacies when drafting a plan on paper. Testing the incident response plan by way of tabletop exercises or technology-related tests like testing intrusion detection systems is crucial. It helps manage loose ends and strengthen overall cyber preparedness.

Use automation to accelerate responses

Tools for intrusion detection, threat hunting, analysis, and reporting can be used along with automated playbooks. You can also set up incident monitoring by integrating your cloud-hosted threat detection service with Sprinto. We send proactive alerts and help you track them till closure while ensuring security compliance.

Keep retraining the teams

Incident response training cannot be a one-and-done process. Teams need to be retrained to accommodate advanced threats, upgrading technologies, new risk scenarios, and previous failures.
The repeated exercise helps reduce human error, and build confidence and coordination while fostering a culture of security.

Key people involved in the incident response plan

For a small business, the incident response team may be as small as an IT administrator and the business owner. The HR may act as a public representative for external communication as people in startups/small businesses wear multiple hats.

As the size and complexity of an organization increase, the management of resources and personnel becomes streamlined. Larger organizations may have an entire computer security incident response team (CSIRT) with multiple people managing various stages of the lifestyle.

In such a scenario, the incident manager is responsible for oversight, coordination of efforts, and decisions regarding delegation of duties. Security operations center (SOC) analysts detect anomalies and initiate escalations while IT admins help contain the damage. There’s also a public representative for managing brand image after the incident and a legal advisor on an as-needed basis.

Sprinto for incident management

The incident response plan is thus a tactical tool and a subset of the broader incident response strategy. Executed well, it helps organizations minimize damage, restore normal operations quickly, and save funds. Using an automated tool like Sprinto can further help you fine-tune incident management processes.

Sprinto has an in-built incident management system and even lets you add and integrate your own systems. It aids with data-loss tracking and timely closure to ensure security never takes a backseat. There is centralized visibility on the incident source, severity, checks, and actions initiated to trace the process throughout its lifecycle.

Want to build an airtight incident response plan and stay compliant with the latest infosec frameworks? Speak to our experts today.


What is the NIST framework for incident response?

The NIST framework for incident response is a set of guidelines to help organizations manage security incidents. It comprises four stages: preparation and prevention; detection and analysis; containment, eradication, and recovery; and post-incident activity.

What is the difference between SOC and an incident response team?

The security operations center is involved in multiple security tasks and one of them is continuous monitoring to identify threats and events. The incident response team’s prime focus is incident investigation, containment, and recovery. However, it is important for both teams to work in collaboration for better incident response and airtight security.

How often should the incident response plan be updated?

Most frameworks recommend regularly testing/reviewing and updating the incident response plan. The best practice is to update it at least annually or when a significant change in the organization occurs.

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Payal Wadhwa

Payal Wadhwa

Payal is your friendly neighborhood compliance whiz! She turns perplexing compliance lingo into actionable advice about keeping your digital business safe and savvy. When she isn’t saving virtual worlds, she’s penning down poetic musings or lighting up local open mics. Cyber savvy by day, poet by night!

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