The 5 Incident Severity Levels – And a Free Matrix

Brenda Gratas June 1, 2023
- 12 min read

Just as a red flag warns of imminent danger, incident severity levels in IT Service Management (ITSM) act as crucial indicators that alert organizations to potential problems. By understanding and leveraging them, businesses can swiftly and effectively respond to incidents, minimizing their impact on operations.

In the dynamic business operations landscape, unexpected disruptions are an unavoidable reality. How organizations respond to and manage them becomes the differentiating factor that defines their resilience and success. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore the concept of incident severity levels, their importance, how to apply them in your organization, and how having a powerful tool like InvGate Service Desk can help you automate the process.

So let's raise the flag of incident severity levels and set sail on a journey to Incident Management excellence.


What are the severity levels?

Incident severity levels are a crucial help desk metric that measure the impact of an incident on a business. They are typically ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the most severe and 5 the least. 

These levels assist help desks and support teams in prioritizing and addressing incidents based on their seriousness and potential impact on business operations.

Though they may vary from organization to organization, the five most common incident severity levels are as follows.

  • Severity 1 - A critical incident with a very high impact. It often involves a complete system outage, customer data loss, major security breaches, or critical infrastructure failures.

  • Severity 2 - A major incident with a significant impact. It could include partial system disruptions or affect critical functionalities. 

  • Severity 3 - A moderate incident with a moderate impact that may affect non-critical functionalities or cause inconveniences for users.

  • Severity 4 - A minor incident with a low impact that may include non-critical feature malfunctions or low-priority user complaints. 

  • Severity 5 - A low-level deficiency with a very low impact. These requests are not associated with any immediate disruption or impact on business operations.

Within ITSM, severity levels play a crucial role in the Incident Management practice, helping organizations effectively and efficiently plan how to respond to different incidents. These plans should include steps for:

  • Identifying and classifying incidents.
  • Escalating incidents to the appropriate level of management.
  • Communicating with affected parties.
  • Restoring service.
  • Investigating the incident and taking corrective action.

In addition to incident response, proactive IT support practices are instrumental in mitigating potential issues before they become significant problems. By implementing proactive measures such as regular system monitoring, preventive maintenance, and security audits, organizations can identify and address potential issues proactively. 

When incident severity levels and proactive IT support practices are combined, organizations can achieve a comprehensive Incident Management strategy that encompasses both reactive and proactive approaches to maintain a resilient and reliable IT environment.

What’s the difference between severity and priority in Incident Management?

While severity and priority are closely related, they possess distinct meanings and serve different purposes in the Incident Management process. 

As defined in the previous section, severity refers to an incident's impact and criticality. How does it disrupt business operations? Does it affect systems or services? Does it cause financial or reputational harm? The severity level helps classify incidents based on their potential consequences and guides organizations in allocating appropriate resources and response times to resolve them.

On the other hand, priority focuses on the urgency of the incidents. Which issue needs to be addressed first? By assessing incidents holistically, considering both elements, organizations can establish a logical order of incident resolution based on the overall impact on the organization.

Why is it important to set an incident severity classification?

Setting an incident severity classification is of paramount importance not only for Incident Management but also for other ITSM processes, such as IT Asset Management (ITAM). By integrating incident severity classification with ITAM, organizations can achieve a comprehensive approach to managing their IT infrastructure and effectively manage incidents, optimize asset performance, and mitigate risks.

Classifying incidents according to their severity can make a significant change to the way organizations manage potential disruptions because:

  • It helps to prioritize incident response - Organizations can quickly identify those that must be addressed first, ensuring that the most critical incidents are resolved as quickly as possible.

  • It helps drive continuous improvement - Organizations can identify recurring issues by analyzing and categorizing incidents based on their severity. This data-driven approach helps identify underlying problems, prioritize areas for improvement, and implement preventive measures to mitigate future incidents. 

  • It helps to communicate with stakeholders - When incidents occur, stakeholders (including customers, employees, and Management) need to be informed about their severity and impact. Categorizing incidents into severity levels provides a clear and standardized way to communicate the severity of the situation, manage expectations, and ensure that appropriate escalation and communication channels are used.

Incident Management severity levels

As seen earlier, incident severity levels provide a clear and standardized framework for assessing the impact and criticality of issues, enabling teams to prioritize their actions based on the urgency and potential impact.

Let's have a look at the five common incident severity levels in greater detail and some examples:

Severity Description Examples
SEV 1 A critical incident that demands immediate attention. It significantly impacts business operations, causes extensive downtime, or results in substantial financial losses.
  • Client-facing service is down for all customers.
  • Security breach.
  • Critical infrastructure failure.
  • Customer data loss.
SEV 2 A major incident with a significant impact. It allows the organization to continue its operations, albeit with some limitations.
  • Client-facing service is down for a sub-set of customers.
  • Critical functionality affected.
SEV 3 A moderate incident that has a noticeable but manageable impact on business operations.
  • Temporary disruption to a client-facing service.
  • Non-critical functionality affected.
SEV 4 A minor incident that has minimal impact on business operations.
  • Minor errors or inconveniences for users. 
  • Temporary disruption to a non-critical system.
SEV 5 A low-level deficiency that involves feature requests, usability improvements, or general feedback that can enhance the product or service in the long run.
  • Minor performance issue.
  • Cosmetic error.

Incident severity matrix

Example of an incident prioritization matrix.

An incident severity matrix is a visual representation used to classify and prioritize incidents, requests, and changes based on their impact and urgency on business operations.

This incident severity matrix has two axes: impact represented along one axis and urgency represented along the other. As mentioned earlier when we explained severity vs. priority, impact measures the degree to which an incident affects the organization, while urgency determines the speed at which a resolution is required. 

To utilize this matrix effectively, first you need to assess the impact and urgency of each incident. Assessing the former involves considering factors such as the number of affected users, financial losses incurred, and damage to reputation. Urgency can be evaluated by considering the time required for service restoration, the risk of further damage, and the potential legal implications.

To simplify the explanation, the matrix focuses on three levels of impact and three levels of urgency. However, it's important to note that the severity matrix can be customized to accommodate specific requirements, including considering additional severity levels if needed. By combining different levels, the matrix can generate a range of potential priority scores, enabling effective incident triaging.

It is crucial to align Incident Management priorities with service levels in the context of ITSM, ensuring that the most critical incidents are addressed first. This alignment is typically established in a Service Level Agreement (SLA), a formal document codifying the support and resolution commitments for both ends.

Within ITSM, the incident severity matrix serves as a valuable tool for both IT service providers and customers to manage incidents and adhere to the agreed-upon service levels effectively. By utilizing it, organizations can align incident resolution efforts with the commitments outlined in the SLA.

How to define ITIL incident severity levels in your organization

ITIL provides a widely recognized and adopted set of best practices for ITSM, including Incident Management. Defining incident severity levels in alignment with the ITIL framework is crucial for organizations seeking to establish a standardized and effective Incident Management process. 

While the exact approach will always vary depending on your organization's industry, size, and operational characteristics, here are a few best practices to help you define severity levels effectively and aligned with the framework.

1. Align severity levels with business impact

Consider the potential financial, reputational, regulatory, and customer satisfaction consequences of different incident types.

2. Define clear and measurable criteria

Establish specific and objective criteria for each severity level. Consider system availability, service disruptions, number of affected users, response time requirements, and business process dependencies. Clearly define the thresholds that differentiate one severity level from another to avoid ambiguity.

3. Involve stakeholders in the process

Engage IT support staff, IT teams, business leaders, and end-users to gather diverse perspectives and ensure a comprehensive understanding of the impact of incidents. 

4. Leverage historical incident data

Analyze historical incident data to identify patterns, trends, and recurring issues. Examine incidents' impact, resolution timeframes, and the resources required for their resolution. This analysis can help to set realistic and relevant severity criteria.

5. Regularly review and refine

Monitor the effectiveness of the severity levels in guiding incident response and resolution. Seek input from Incident Management teams, support staff, and end-users to identify areas for improvement or potential adjustments. Keep the severity levels up to date to ensure their ongoing relevance and accuracy.

6. Document and communicate clearly

Document the defined severity levels, criteria, thresholds, and implications. Ensure that this documentation is readily accessible and communicated to all relevant stakeholders. Provide clear guidelines and examples to assist personnel in classifying incidents accurately. 

How to automate the incident severity rate on InvGate Service Desk

Having the proper help desk software to streamline Incident Management processes is crucial. InvGate Service Desk offers a range of features to automate the assessment and assignment of incident severity levels.

Intelligent incident classification

InvGate Service Desk can automatically classify and assign incident severity levels by analyzing attributes such as impact, urgency, and predefined criteria. This automation reduces manual effort and ensures consistent and accurate classification.

Customizable severity rules

Administrators can define and configure severity rules based on their specific needs, such as business impact, system criticality, and Service Level Agreements. These rules can be customized on the tool to align with the organization's unique context and requirements, ensuring that incident severity levels accurately reflect the impact and urgency of incidents.

Automated escalation and notifications



Based on the assigned severity level, InvGate Service Desk can automatically trigger appropriate escalation and notification workflows. For critical or high-severity incidents, the system can initiate immediate alerts and notifications to key stakeholders, ensuring that the incident receives prompt attention from the right individuals or teams. This automation helps expedite incident resolution and minimizes the risk of delays or oversight.

Incident response

InvGate Service Desk also helps to automate the incident response process by providing workflows that guide users through the steps involved in responding to an incident. This process includes tasks such as triaging the incident, communicating with affected users, and restoring service.

SLA management

InvGate Service Desk allows organizations to define SLAs based on incident severity levels. The tool can automatically monitor and track SLA compliance, ensuring incidents are resolved within each severity level's defined response and resolution timeframes. This automation helps organizations meet their contractual obligations and deliver efficient customer service.

Analytics and reporting

Organizations can generate reports and dashboards on the tool to analyze trends, identify patterns, and track the distribution of incidents across severity levels. This helps monitor the severity classification process's effectiveness, identify improvement areas, and make data-driven decisions to optimize Incident management.

Incident Management severity levels pros and cons

So far, we’ve explored what severity levels are, their importance in Incident Management, and how to implement them effectively in your organization, including using the right tool. However, like any approach, while severity levels offer benefits, they also present challenges that need careful consideration.

Pros of Incident Management severity levels

  1. Clear prioritization - By categorizing incidents into different severity levels, teams can quickly identify and focus on critical and high-impact incidents that require immediate attention.
  2. Efficient resource allocation - The optimization of resource allocation ensures that the right personnel and tools are assigned to incidents based on their severity, leading to improved response times and resolution efficiency.
  3. SLA compliance - By aligning Incident Management processes with severity levels, organizations can more effectively track and manage SLA compliance. It ensures that incidents are addressed within the agreed-upon timeframes, promoting customer satisfaction and maintaining contractual obligations.

Cons of Incident Management severity levels

  1. Subjectivity in classification - Determining the severity level of an incident can be influenced by individual judgment, experience, or interpretation. This subjectivity may result in inconsistencies or disagreements in how incidents are classified.
  2. Limited scope of impact assessment - Incident severity levels primarily consider an incident's immediate impact and urgency, but they may not always be able to comprehensively assess long-term or cascading effects. 
  3. Overlooking contextual factors - Certain incidents may have unique circumstances or dependencies that are not adequately reflected in the severity level alone.

Wrapping up

Effective Incident Management is crucial for organizations to minimize disruptions, mitigate risks, and maintain operational efficiency. Incident severity levels provide a structured framework for prioritizing and addressing incidents based on their impact on a business.

By implementing them, organizations can achieve clear prioritization, efficient resource allocation, and consistent decision-making during the incident response. Organizations should strive to balance the benefits and limitations of incident severity levels, adapting them to suit their unique business context and continuously refining them based on feedback and evolving needs.

Additionally, leveraging IT Service Management tools like InvGate Service Desk further enhances incident severity classification and escalation by automating the process to expedite incident resolution. Want to see its features by yourself? Request a free 30-day trial today and experience how the tool can streamline your Incident Management process.

Read other articles like this : ITSM, ITAM

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