What are the 4 stages of a major incident?

A major incident is defined as an incident that has significant impact and urgency, affecting a large number of users and disrupting crucial business services (Major Incident Management process). Major incidents require an urgent coordinated response, often involving multiple teams across an organization.

It’s important to understand the different stages of a major incident so organizations can properly prepare for and manage major disruptions. Knowing what to expect during each phase allows for efficient allocation of resources and effective incident response. A structured framework enables organizations to minimize downtime and restore services quickly when outages inevitably occur.

Stage 1: Initial Response

The initial response stage focuses on the immediate actions taken to assess and contain the incident. First responders arrive on-scene to evaluate the situation, establish command, and call for additional resources as needed. They work quickly to protect life, property and the environment while coordinating across agencies. Key objectives of the initial response include:

  • Establishing scene safety and security
  • Conducting reconnaissance and risk assessment
  • Initiating life-saving procedures
  • Deploying resources
  • Evacuating and sheltering in place
  • Containing hazards
  • Preserving evidence and investigation

According to the London Emergency Services Liaison Panel, the initial response is led by the emergency services and focuses on saving life, containing the incident and mobilizing resources (https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/leslp_mip_v11.5_dec_2021_-_public.pdf). Coordinated teamwork and communication between agencies is essential during this chaotic phase.

Stage 2: Consolidation

The consolidation stage focuses on establishing control and coordination of the response. Key actions during this stage include:

Setting up a coordinated command structure and incident management team to take overall control of the situation. This establishes clear leadership and enables different agencies to work together effectively (https://academic.oup.com/bjaed/article/16/10/329/2288613).

Continuing triage and treatment of casualties while expanding capacity to manage increased patient volumes. This requires mobilizing additional resources from nearby hospitals and healthcare facilities.

Scaling up logistics to support operations, such as expanding transportation access for patients, arranging food/supplies for responders, and setting up communications/IT infrastructure.

Conducting detailed assessments of the incident’s impacts and identifying emerging response priorities and needs. This data gathering and analysis informs strategic decision-making.

Developing an Incident Action Plan to guide activities for the next operational period. This plan helps coordinate responders and allocate resources efficiently.

Liaising with partner agencies and stakeholders to share information and facilitate their involvement in the response. This coordination ensures an integrated multi-agency effort.

Stage 3: Recovery

The recovery stage focuses on restoring normal operations and services after a major incident. This involves several key steps:

Identifying and prioritizing critical systems and services that need to be recovered first. The goal is to bring back mission-critical systems as soon as possible to minimize disruption (Source).

Rolling back affected systems to a pre-incident state using backups and snapshots. This may involve reimaging systems from scratch (Source).

Validating that restored systems are functioning properly with tests and monitoring. Any bugs or issues that arise post-recovery need to be identified and addressed.

Reopening access and services to users and customers in a controlled manner. This is done incrementally to avoid overloading recovering systems.

Monitoring system performance closely. Resource usage, network traffic, latency, and errors are tracked to spot any lingering problems.

Documenting the recovery process thoroughly. This debrief is used to identify any gaps and improve plans for future incidents.

With careful planning and testing, organizations can aim to restore essential services rapidly in the recovery phase while minimizing disruptions.

Stage 4: Restoration

The restoration stage focuses on longer term rebuilding and returning to business as usual after a major incident. Some key actions in this stage include:

  • Conducting a comprehensive review of the incident to identify lessons learned and areas for improvement. This involves reviewing logs, timelines, actions taken, and feedback from various teams (Source).
  • Implementing any necessary changes to systems, processes, training etc. based on the lessons learned (Source).
  • Closing out the major incident formally once all actions are complete. This is an important step for record keeping and analysis (Source).
  • Conducting team debriefs to discuss challenges, highlight successes, address areas for improvement, and boost morale (Source).

The focus is on returning to normal operations in a sustainable way by applying the lessons learned during the major incident. This stage aims to rebuild any capabilities or infrastructure impacted and prevent similar incidents from occurring again.


During each stage of a major incident, there are various challenges that can arise and impede an effective response. Some common difficulties include:

Stage 1: Initial Response – Responders may face communication and coordination issues due to the chaotic nature of the initial emergency. There may also be insufficient resources, lack of planning, or unclear roles and responsibilities that hamper the initial response (Source).

Stage 2: Consolidation – Responders must balance managing the ongoing incident while transitioning operations over to recovery teams. There can be challenges around information sharing and logistics during this handoff (Source).

Stage 3: Recovery – Recovery efforts may uncover additional unanticipated damages or needs that strain resources. Balancing recovery speed with adequate planning is difficult (Source).

Stage 4: Restoration – Restoring normal operations requires coordination across many teams and systems. Shortcuts to accelerate restoration can lead to overlooked issues that cause problems down the road.

Best Practices

When managing the stages of a major incident, experts recommend several best practices:

During the Initial Response stage, having clear operating procedures and response plans is crucial for a quick and effective mobilization. Pre-determined roles, responsibilities, communication protocols, and escalation triggers enable teams to respond swiftly.

For the Consolidation stage, containment is key to limit damage. Isolating affected systems, revoking access, and suspending services helps prevent wider spread. Conducting forensic analysis, gathering evidence, and determining root causes during this stage also aids recovery.

The Recovery stage requires methodically restoring systems and services in order of priority. Checking restored systems for vulnerabilities before reconnecting them to the network is advised. Verifying fixes and patches are working as expected is also important.

In the Restoration stage, documenting lessons learned from the incident, revisiting response plans, and implementing improvements to be better prepared is recommended. Conducting retrospective analysis of the effectiveness of the response helps strengthen readiness.

Case Studies

Here are some real world examples of major incidents and how the four stages played out:

In the Equifax data breach of 2017, the initial response stage came when Equifax discovered suspicious activity on July 29 and launched an internal investigation. The consolidation stage involved bringing in a cybersecurity firm to conduct forensics and determine the scope of the breach. In the recovery stage, Equifax started notifying affected customers and providing credit monitoring services. Finally, in the restoration stage, Equifax focused on identifying and fixing vulnerabilities in their systems to prevent future breaches.

During the WannaCry ransomware attacks in 2017, the initial response came as organizations detected the ransomware spreading through their systems. In the consolidation phase, security teams worked to contain the malware and prevent further spread. The recovery stage involved restoring from backups and finding workarounds to regain access to encrypted systems. The restoration stage focused on implementing better security practices like patch management to guard against similar threats.

The 2014 Sony Pictures hack largely followed the four stages – the initial response to detect the intrusion, consolidation of the forensic investigation, recovery through restoring systems from backups, and long-term restoration by improving security defenses across the organization. This demonstrated the importance of incident response planning.

Lessons Learned

One of the most critical steps in responding to a major incident is conducting a thorough lessons learned analysis after containment, recovery, and restoration activities have concluded. The lessons learned phase involves carefully analyzing the incident to identify root causes, determine what worked well, pinpoint where gaps or breakdowns occurred, and uncover areas for improvement.

Some key lessons that are commonly identified from reviews of past major cybersecurity incidents include:

  • The need for more rigorous upfront system and network security to reduce the risk of exploits and breaches in the first place. This includes practices like patch management, vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, multi-factor authentication, and network segmentation. [cite url=(https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-lessons-learned-most-critical-step-incident-levone)]
  • The importance of having clearly defined processes, procedures, roles, and responsibilities within the incident response plan. Ambiguity slows down the response. [cite url=(https://hitachi-systems-security.com/lessons-learned-the-unsung-hero-of-the-incident-response-planning-process/)]
  • The need for regular incident response training, simulations, and practice, so that teams are not responding haphazardly in the heat of battle. Muscle memory is key.
  • The criticality of rapid detection and immediate containment actions to limit damage. Delayed or timid responses allow adversaries to maximize impact.
  • The value of strong communication, coordination, and information sharing across stakeholders during response activities.

Taking the time to capture and integrate lessons learned makes incident response teams more effective and allows organizations to minimize damage from future incidents. It is one of the most crucial steps in the process.


In summary, understanding the four key stages of major incident response is critical for organizations to effectively manage major incidents. The four stages – Initial Response, Consolidation, Recovery, Restoration – provide a strategic framework to contain damage, restore normal operations, and learn from the incident.

Having a plan in place for each stage can help limit the impacts and restore services more quickly. It enables teams to coordinate priorities, resources, communications and actions effectively. Learning lessons from each incident further enhances preparation and responses for future events.

Major incidents can significantly disrupt organizations and customers. By leveraging the four stage model and applying best practices, organizations can build resilience, safeguard interests and recover from incidents in a systematic manner.