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Installing a Safe Room (Panic Room) in Your Home

A safe room, also sometimes called a panic room, is a room in your home or business in which you can barricade yourself as a defense against home invasion, robbery, kidnapping or other violence. Another type of safe room is a space to protect your family during hurricanes, tornadoes and similar hazardous natural events. While the two share some similarities and can completely overlap, the style of panic room discussed in the this article does not take into consideration the needs of a natural disaster safe room.

Safe rooms have been in use for some time by the wealthy, famous, elected officials as well as by criminals. While a safe room can be made vault-like with steel or concrete, that isn't always necessary. Many times all that is needed is a space that provides temporary safety while help is summoned. Many homes can be easily retrofitted to create this type of safe room.

Practical Considerations

As we mentioned, in many cases all a safe room must provide is relative safety for a short period of time, until help can be summoned. Worst-case scenarios like attacks by elite military-trained commandos occur only in the movies (mostly). Other worst-case scenarios like being assaulted with poisonous gas or having the structure set ablaze are extremely difficult to defend against. Most defensive needs are met by a windowless room with a reinforced door along with some basic equipment like a telephone, flashlight, defensive weapons and water.

Before we get into the details of how to build a safe room, consider whether it could even work for you. For instance, if your home or business was suddenly invaded, would there be time enough for family or employees to get into the safe room? In situations where an alarm sounds, time may be sufficient, but in situations where someone bursts in, you may be face to face with the invader before you realize what is happening. Could you get to a safe room in this situation? If you are asleep, without some sort of alarm, it is unlikely you could get to a safe room once you are aware of the home invasion. However, if despite these potential shortcomings, you feel a safe room is a viable security measure, read on for our recommendations on constructing and equipping a safe room.

Construction Considerations

Ideally, a central location should be selected or a location nearby where people may be most vulnerable, such as near the bedrooms. Another consideration is that the location already be semi-secure in that there is only one entrance and it is windowless. A safe room does not have to be a separate, single use room. An existing room, such as a large closet, laundry room, utility room or bathroom may be suitable. A bedroom, because it has a window is not suitable.

The objective is to keep a would be attacker at bay, at least long enough for help to arrive. The time required may be only long enough for an attacker to realize that police are coming or in the case of a determined attack long enough to encompass police response time. Typically, an attacker is not going to be prepared for an assault on a safe room. That is, they are unlikely to have power tools or specialized equipment. Although an attacker may have a pry bar and may be carrying a weapon, possibly a firearm. Furthermore, if determined, an attacker may be able to make use of equipment and tools available in your home or business.

Given these considerations the following construction guidelines may adequately protect persons until help arrives. A typical interior wall is framed with 2" x 4" studs centered every 16 inches. The wall is then covered with drywall, typically 1/2" in thickness. While drywall may provide privacy and some soundproofing, it can easily be punched through with a bare fist. Removing the drywall inside the safe room and replacing it with 3/4" or 1" thick plywood will provide a high degree of deterrence. Plywood, by virtue of its alternating layers or "plies" is very resistant to force. It could take a few minutes for a person to tear a small hole through 3/4" plywood with a pry bar or hammer. Once a hole is made, the plywood is still sufficiently rigid to resist being bent or pried back by hand. In order to resist ramming or kicking, the plywood should be fastened to the studs with deck screws, rather than nails.

Another layer of deterrent is the use of 1" chicken wire. The chicken wire can be used on either or both sides for maximum deterrence. The wire interferes the attackers assault in two ways. If the attacker encounters the chicken on their side of the plywood, it makes pounding, hammering and penetration of the wood more difficult. It will also make use of power tools or saws more difficult. Chicken wire on the interior side of the plywood helps to provide additional structural support against hammering and penetration. Additionally it prevents the attacker from reaching into the safe room if a breach is created in the plywood.

The same protection should be installed in the ceiling to protect from an attack from the attic or upper floor. The floor, in most cases will already some have level of protection. Adequately sized plywood may have been used in the floor, although a lower cost material, such as OSB, may have been used and will not provide the same level of protection. However, attack from below is less likely due the general difficulty of mounting such an assault.

Applying plywood to both sides of each wall will effectively double the level of protection.

If you are concerned about an attacker firing upon you inside your safe room, the addition of one half inch steel can be placed inside the wall cavity. While plywood has been known to stop bullets from hand guns, it cannot be counted on to do so, especially at point blank range. For that matter, 1/2" steel cannot be guaranteed to protect against projectiles either, especially if the attackers are using high powered weapons or rifles.

The door to the safe room should be solid wood or steel. The door frame should be reinforced with steel over the wooden studs to resist splintering. The door should be mounted to open outwards to resist being kicked in. Use heavy-duty exterior hinges (the type that prevent removal of the hinge pin). The exterior doorknob should ideally be small and/or flimsy - giving the attacker nothing to pull on the door with. The gaps around the door edges should be kept as small as possible to provide as little purchase for tools.

Use of a long-throw deadbolt will help to secure the door closed. Use four inch long screws in the mounting of all strike plates. A second deadbolt roughly 18" inches above the floor may provide additional security.

Equipping the Safe Room

The most important thing to equip is a land line telephone connection and simple corded telephone. The telephone should not require electricity or batteries to operate. Additionally, as a back up, a cellular phone and charger should be permanently kept in the room. The room should also be equipped with an unswitched electrical outlet and a light. Supplies for the room should include a basic first-aid kit, flashlight, fire extinguisher, water and at your discretion, a defensive weapon such as a stun gun. If your home has an alarm system, a control pad should be located inside the safe room as well.

More elaborate precautions could be employed to make a safe room even more secure. However, most attackers are likely to be poorly organized and are unlikely to anticipate your safe room. Once they realize you are inaccessible and that police are on the way, they are likely to abandon their attack. However, in the case of determined attacks including domestic violence, additional precautions may be necessary. It is up to you to evaluate your needs and adequately provide for your safety.

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