Introduction to Safe Rooms
Safe rooms are places that can be used to hide when an intruder invades your home. Safe rooms are also sometimes called "panic rooms", a name that has become more popular since the release of a movie by the same name. The term "safe room" can also be used to describe a room that is used as a shelter that can be used during severe weather events such as tornadoes or hurricanes. (This article refers to safe rooms used to protect against human attack and does not apply to safe rooms used to provide protection against weather.)
The primary goal of a safe room is to provide a temporary area of refuge in the unlikely event that an intruder invades your home. Emphasis should be placed on the word "temporary": in the vast majority of cases, the safe room only needs to be used for the short period of time it takes for the police to arrive at your home after they have been called. This should be fifteen minutes or less in most urban areas in the United States. Homeowners located in rural areas or in places that have a slower police response may need to stay in their safe room a little longer.
Prior to planning a safe room, a home security assessment should be conducted. This assessment should identify the homeowners security risk profile, including the identification of likely attackers and their capabilities. The number of occupants of the home, their ages, and their ability to defend themselves should also be considered. Finally, the home's location, surroundings, and police response times should also be evaluated.
At the conclusion of the home security assessment, you should have a better idea of what type of safe room you should construct. In general, homeowners that face a low to moderate degree of security risk can construct a simple safe room, while homeowners that face a high-degree of security risk may need to construct a more elaborate type of safe room.
The following are some basic guidelines that can be used when planning a safe room:
Safe Room Location
Most homeowners can't afford to built a dedicated safe room in their homes, so instead take an ordinary room in their house and equip it so that it can do double-duty as a safe room. Rooms such as bedrooms, closets, laundry rooms, and storage rooms are commonly used as safe rooms. Bathrooms often make good safe rooms and they provide the added benefits of having both toilet facilities and a supply of fresh water.
The safe room should be conveniently located in the home so occupants can quickly reach it in the event of an emergency. A central location near sleeping and living areas is usually a better choice than a more remote location such as a basement or attic. Ideally, the safe room would be located at the interior rather than the exterior of the home, and have no accessible windows.
Safe Room Door
The safe room should have a sturdy door that is capable of preventing an intruder from forcing his way into the room through the door. A simple safe room can utilize a swinging door that fits into a standard door opening. Existing interior doors are typically made of hollow core wood and these types of doors are not suitable for use as safe room doors. The door should be replaced with one made of either solid wood or metal.
The door should be equipped with at least one heavy-duty deadbolt lock located at the center of the door. Additional security can be obtained by also installing deadbolt locks at the top and bottom of the door.
All lock strike plates should be reinforced so that the screws holding the plate are attached into the wall framing rather than just into the door frame itself. Screws used on the door hinges should also be fastened into the wall framing. The hinges on out-swinging doors should be equipped with studs that prevent the door from being opened when the hinge pins are removed from the outside.
For those with higher-security needs, special doors are available that are made specifically for safe rooms. These doors are constructed of impact resistant materials and have specially reinforced door frames. If desired, these doors can be ordered in bullet-resistant versions that provide various degrees of protection against firearms. These doors are secured using either heavy-duty deadbolt locks or electromagnetic locks. These doors are available as regular swinging doors or as sliding pocket doors.
A door viewer (peephole) should be provided on the safe room door to permit occupants to see who is outside.
Safe Room Walls
The safe room should have walls that prevent an intruder from forcing his way into the room through a wall. Standard wall board (drywall) provides very little protection as it can be kicked-in quite easily. The potential for this to happen can be reduced by choosing a safe room location that has a minimum number of walls that face in the direction of the expected intruder, but you will likely end up with at least a few exposed walls.
Existing walls can be made much stronger by installing 3/4" plywood to replace the wall board on one or both sides of the wall. The plywood should be securely fastened using screws. For a greater degree of protection, bullet-resistant panels can be installed on the walls. (See Introduction to Bullet-Resistant Materials.) These will provide a level of protection against firearms as well as increase the physical strength of the wall. Drywall can be installed on top of either the plywood or bullet-resistant panel and painted so that the wall matches others in the room.
For maximum security, walls constructed of masonry or concrete can be used. Because of the weight of these materials, they generally can only be used on the floor at grade-level unless special structural modifications have been made.
Safe Room Floors and Ceilings
It is possible for an intruder to attempt to enter the safe room through the floor or ceiling. Due to the time and difficulty involved in making this type of attack, it is far less likely to occur than an attempted penetration of the door or wall. Most homeowners that face a low to moderate degree of security risk probably don't have to worry about this type of attack, while those in the higher risk category probably do.
Floors are constructed in such a way that makes it difficult for an intruder to enter through them, so in most cases, ceilings provide the greatest vulnerability. A ceiling constructed of drywall can be easily penetrated from the attic above. To provide increased strength, 3/4" plywood and/or bullet-resistant panels can be installed on the top or bottom of the ceiling joists.
If masonry or concrete walls are used on the safe room, it may be desirable to use these same materials on the ceiling and floor so that all six sides of the room provide the same degree of protection.
Safe Room Ventilation
Intruders may attempt to force occupants out of the safe room by using tear gas, pepper spray, or other irritants. This is more likely to occur if the intruder knows that the homeowner has a safe room and has prepared in advance for the attack.
Homeowners facing a low to moderate degree of security risk are unlikely to encounter an adversary of this type and can probably get by using the safe room's regular ventilation system. If protection against irritants is desired, gas masks can be provided for each expected occupant and stored within the safe room.
Homeowners in the higher risk category may wish to consider the installation of special ventilation systems that filter the air coming into the room and provide positive air pressure within the room to keep irritants and other gases out. These special systems can be complicated and need to be specifically engineered for the room which they are expected to provide ventilation for.
It is critical that the occupants of the safe room have a means to rapidly communicate with the police and other emergency agencies, both to notify them that an intrusion has occurred, and to verify that it is safe to exit the room after the situation has been resolved.
We recommend that at least two means of communications be provided; either a cell phone and a regular wired phone (land-line), or two cell phones that each use a separate cellular service provider. Because it may be difficult for occupants to remember to bring their regular cell phones into the room when an emergency occurs, it is recommended that cell phones be purchased exclusively for emergency use and kept in the safe room at all times.
Homeowners in the high risk category or who are located in very remote areas may wish to consider the use of two-way radios as a secondary means of communications. These can be radios that operate in the amateur (ham) radio band, or with special permission, radios that operate on public safety frequencies.
If the home is equipped with an alarm system that reports to an off-site monitoring center, it is recommended that a panic button be installed within the safe room. This button should immediately send an alarm to the monitoring center when it is pressed.
If the home has a video surveillance system, video monitors that allow viewing of relevant cameras should be provided in the safe room
Equipment and Supplies
At a minimum, the safe room should be equipped with the following equipment and supplies:
Flashlights and batteries
First aid kit
Any special medications needed by occupants (for example, insulin for a diabetic)
Temporary toilet facilities
The quantity and type of supplies needed may vary depending on the number of occupants, location of safe room, and the total amount of time that it is expected that the room will be in use.
Homeowners may choose to equip the safe room with firearms or other defensive weapons. This is a highly personal decision and one that must be made with great care. Homeowners that have small children must take precautions to assure that weapons don't fall into the wrong hands.
Homeowners who do choose to have a weapon should receive professional training on its use. Without proper training, weapons can become a liability rather than an asset and may actually increase the level of danger in the event of an attack.
Safe Room Enhancements
There are numerous enhancements that can be made to safe rooms to provide increased security or greater user comfort. Some of these include hidden doors used to conceal the entrance to the safe room, a secondary exit used to allow escape, and emergency power and lighting systems. Safe rooms may also be constructed to be bomb blast resistant, fire resistant, or soundproof. Safe rooms can also be constructed as true security vaults so that they can be used to store valuables in addition to being used for emergency purposes.
Examples of Types of Security Measures Used in Safe Rooms
The following table provides examples of the types of security measures that can be used in safe rooms depending on the level of security risk.
Important Considerations When Planning a Safe Room
While safe rooms are designed to provide an increased level of protection for occupants of the home in the event of an attack, nothing can absolutely guarantee personal safety or security. A highly-motivated, well-equipped adversary can defeat any safe room given enough time.
Any type of safe room is better than no safe room at all. It is far better to construct a simple safe room that is available today than it is to plan an elaborate safe room that will never be built.
Training for the occupants who must use the safe room is absolutely essential. Occupants need to learn how to get into the safe room quickly and lock the door. Families with small children need to establish procedures for gathering up the kids and getting them to the safe room rapidly in the event of an emergency. Regular drills should be conducted so that when a crisis arises, everyone knows what to do.
If you have questions, or need help in designing a safe room for your home, please contact us.
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Published May, 2016