Safe Rooms (For the Rest of Us)

Image from PictureHistory.Com

Image from PictureHistory.Com

Safe rooms, or panic rooms, aren’t just for celebrities and the ultra-rich. In fact, preparing a basic safe room costs very little and should be a fundamental part of every family’s personal safety plan.  In this post, we will examine the basic requirements for a safe room and how to use one in case your home is broken into while you are there.



Real-World Safe Rooms 

Hollywood movies often portray safe rooms as multi-million dollar armored bunkers custom-built inside a home. However, this often is only the case on the big screen or in the homes of ultra-rich celebrities.  For the rest of us, a safe room is a central location to which you and members of your family can retreat if your home is broken into while you are there. Safe rooms often are an existing bedroom that has been equipped with some minor improvements and stocked with some necessary emergency equipment. The purpose of a safe room, as the name implies, is to keep you and your family safe until you can summon help and it arrives.  Leave the designer bomb-shelters to the celebrities.

Choosing the Perfect Room

Many considerations go into choosing a good room to make your safe room. Location and entrances are two of the most important:

  • A safe room should be centrally located and easily reached by all family members.  In many cases, this will be a master bedroom. However, in families with small children, it may make better sense to have the children’s room be the safe room as it will be easier for many parents to retreat to the children’s room than vice-versa.  In very large homes, especially those with more than one floor, it may be desirable to have more than one safe room so everyone can reach one quickly regardless of where in the house they are if an emergency occurs.
  • Safe rooms optimally should have only a single door and at least one window.  A single entry door means only one point of entry to worry about and only one way for an intruder to enter.  The door should open inwards and the hinges located inside. A window is very important as it may be necessary to communicate with the police before they will enter the house, and because a route of escape may be required in the event an attacker breaches the safe room or another emergency that requires evacuation (like a fire) occurs. Please note that the requirement for a window makes the safe room ineffective as a shelter in natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes and severe thunderstorms.  You will need to choose a separate location in your home for a storm shelter.

Whether a safe room should be on the first or second floor, have a secondary retreat like a large closet, or be equipped with a bathroom is open for debate.  No one answer will be right for every family.

Safe Room Improvements

Regardless of the room and its location, a few improvements will be required to transform it into a safe room.  The two most significant ones involve the single door:

  • Most interior doors are hollow-core wooden doors that cannot withstand even a few well placed kicks. To slow or prevent an attacker from breaching the safe room door, it should be replaced at minimum with a solid-core hardwood door. Optimally, the safe room door should be metal or metal sheathed for increased strength and security.  Doors of these materials and in interior doorway sizes are available in many hardware or building supply stores and custom doors are available from many companies.
  • Interior door hardware (hinges, knobs, locks and latches) are designed with privacy in mind, not security, and so also must be improved to slow or stop an attacker’s entry.  Guidelines for safe room door hardware is similar to that for exterior entry doors – reinforced hinges, 3” #2 screws, a single- or double-cylinder deadbolt in addition to a latch lock and doorjamb reinforcement.  A door bar or Katybar that can be deployed quickly to reinforce the door locks and hardware is optional, but recommended.

Safe room windows should be pinned with removable pins if you haven’t already installed these throughout the house.  Unless they feature a quick release, burglar bars should not be used on safe room windows as they prevent occupants from escaping in an emergency.

Celebrity safe rooms sometimes feature backup generators, isolated air supplies and independent water supplies similar to what one might find in a bomb shelter.  However, these likely are beyond the reach (and the real needs) of the common family.

Safe Room Equipment

In addition to the above improvements, some basic equipment is required for a safe room to be effective.  Some of this equipment should be considered mandatory:

  • A cellular phone (that gets good signal in the safe room!) that can be used to summon the police. A wall charger for this cellphone is also a good idea, as is an emergency charger (one that uses AA batteries). A landline in this room is helpful but cannot be relied upon in an emergency.
  • A flashlight and extra batteries.
  • A ring with a key to each exterior entry door and to each of the family’s cars. A glowstick (the kind that you snap and shake to light) attached to the keyring is a good idea to help you or the police spot the keys if they are dropped or thrown out the window.
  • A first aid kit with basic supplies to treat trauma. Family members may be injured in the process of reaching the safe room.
  • A small supply of any emergency medications required by family members (insulin, adrenaline, nitroglycerin, etc.) and a small supply of bottled water if required to take them.
  • A ladder capable of reaching the ground from the safe room window.  For first-floor safe rooms this may be a stepstool or short ladder.  For second or higher floor safe rooms this may require a fire ladder.

Optional, but recommended equipment, includes:

  • One set of dark, durable and warm outdoor clothing for each family member. How often do you sleep in attire suitable for a run through the neighborhood?  Don’t forget shoes.
  • Personal protection devices and any ammunition, batteries or refills required to use them.

Using a Safe Room

Every member of the family should know where the safe room is located and how to reach it from any place in the house.  Specific circumstances under which to retreat to the safe room (i.e., alarm going off, an intruder being spotted, any family member shouting “safe room!”) should be agreed between all family members.  Safe room drills, performed regularly, also are recommended.

Once all family members are in the safe room, the deadbolt and door bar or Katybar should be deployed.  Once secured, the door should not be opened until the police are on-scene and the 911 operator instructs you that the officers are immediately outside the safe room door.  Have one family member call 911 and summon aid. This family member should remain on the line with the 911 operator and relay information and instructions to the rest of the family. Don’t hang up until instructed to do so by the 911 operator.

Other family members should make ready other safe room equipment, treat injuries or dispense medication and look after children.  These roles should be agreed upon in advance and practiced during safe room drills.

Once the police arrive, it may be necessary to communicate through the safe room’s window or to throw or drop house keys to the police.  (If an intruder broke a window to enter and left the exterior doors locked, the police officers will need to be able to unlock a door from the outside.)  Only do this once instructed to do so by the police or the 911 operator. Never, under any circumstances, communicate with police officers through the safe room windows with a personal protection device in your hands.

If it becomes necessary to flee the safe room – because of another emergency like a fire or because the safe room door has been breached – do so through the safe room window quickly, but safely and using a ladder to minimize the potential for injury.  Family members should agree in advance where to go once outside the house. Don’t forget clothes, shoes and a flashlight.  If you encounter police officers responding to the 911 call once outside your house, immediately stop, raise your hands above your head and identify yourself as a family member. Follow all instructions the officers give you.  Never engage police officers with any kind of personal protection devices in your hands — drop them to the ground if necessary.

The Bottom Line

A safe room, even a real-world one, may seem like an extravagance or serious inconvenience.  However, it is important to remember that the Department of Justice and FBI report that being home when a break in occurs creates a one in three chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime. The cost and effort of setting up a safe room is minimal.  The consequences of not having one, or failing to use one in an emergency, can be catastrophic.


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