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A safe room is a location in your home that you can retreat to in case of a threat. This could include home invasions, extreme weather like tornadoes and hurricanes, civil unrest leading to acts of arson and vandalism, or an intentional attack on you or your family for any number of reasons.
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FEMA’s Safe Room Definition
Here’s how the Federal Emergency Management Agency Defines a Safe Room:
“…protect occupants from a variety of hazards, including debris impact, accidental or intentional explosive detonation, and the accidental or intentional release of a toxic substance into the air. Safe rooms may also be designed to protect individuals from assaults and attempted kidnapping, which requires design features to resist forced entry and ballistic impact. This covers a range of protective options, from low-cost expedient protection (what is commonly referred to as sheltering-in-place) to safe rooms ventilated and pressurized with air purified by ultra-high-efficiency filters. These safe rooms protect against toxic gases, vapors, and aerosols.”
It’s All a Matter of Degree
How much money you spend and the number of safeguards you add to your Safe Room depends on your personal level of concern and the potential threats that could realistically happen.
Someone living in a coastal area subject to hurricanes would be well advised to pursue structural reinforcements to withstand high winds. Whether or not the room needs to be reinforced with bulletproof walls is more of an emotional decision, although in certain parts of the world it might make sense.
Assess Your Situation
Whether or not you choose to design and build a safe room depends on your situation and, to a large degree, your location.
- Do you live in an area with weather extremes?
- Do you live in a home without a basement?
- Do you live in a neighborhood subject to crimes and violence?
- Are you concerned that someone may try to violently enter your home?
- Have you ever considered a nuclear attack or nuclear accident as a possibility?
- Do you believe civil unrest could represent a danger to you and your family?
- Do you have a safe and secure place to store weapons and vital records?
All of those situations could be a reason to consider a dedicated area in your home for a Safe Room. And it’s not an extreme idea. In fact, both FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security offer specific instructions and guidelines for building a Safe Room, and they recommend it for many people.
It all gets back to that question of degree. Are you preparing to survive a tornado or the end of the world as we know it?
Contracted Construction or DIY
There are companies solely focused on the design and construction of safe rooms. Prices vary, although they tend to be expensive propositions mostly due to the costly and somewhat unique materials and installations they use including bulletproofing, complex ventilation, secure communication, and reinforced walls and ceilings.
There’s also the do-it-yourself option that you can gradually upgrade over time. If some tasks are beyond your capabilities, you could always meet in the middle and hire a contractor to do the more complex installations and finish it yourself.
At the end of the article, we’ll provide links to more information and resources on Safe Room design and construction.
Safe Room Factors to consider
This will be driven by the ambition of your project and what kind of disaster or threat you are preparing for. Retrofitting and reinforcing the walls of an existing first floor walk-in closet to withstand a tornado or hurricane for a few hours will cost hundreds of dollars. Reinforcing walls to be bulletproof with other advanced features related to ventilation and communication will extend into the thousands.
If cost is an issue, the best way to manage it is to take a methodical, measured approach over time that allows you to upgrade as you go and avoid a major financial hit at the outset.
New Construction or Existing Construction?
It’s obviously easier to design and build a Safe Room during the course of new construction. It could also be relatively less expensive if no tear-outs or demolition have to take place and skilled tradesmen are engaged in the overall construction.
Own or Rent?
It’s easier to design and build a safe room on property that you own, and if it’s intelligently designed, it should add value to the property. It also makes it easier to rationalize the added expense rather than investing in the construction of a rental property.
The biggest question for any renter is the landlord’s opinion of any construction in a rental property. A lot of that depends on your relationship with your landlord. But that doesn’t mean you’re without options if you know how to assess existing space.
Existing Space Opportunities
This is a photo of one room on the first floor of a home in a neighborhood devastated by an F-5 tornado. It is not an expensive and well designed Safe Room. It’s a bathroom. A standard bathroom with no special reinforcements or installations.
It survived simply because of the nature of its existing design: 4 walls in close proximity without windows and some added reinforcement as a result of a concentration of plumbing and electrical pipes, sturdy fixtures like a bathtub and shower stall, and wall to ceiling vanities and cabinets.
Almost any home or rented property has rooms and areas that can provide safer locations. They could include bathrooms, laundry rooms, walk-in closets, garages, and obviously basements. Any of these spaces could be easily upgraded and adapted to become a Safe Room.
Even without any upgrades, it’s worth remembering that a small enclosed space in any house or building will have more structural integrity.
Local Building Codes
Even if you own the property, there are local codes and sometimes permits required for any new construction or improvements. A lot of it depends on the degree of the improvement and on your local area.
There is such a thing as an “instant” Safe Room. They are essentially the size of a very large safe and have a similar appearance. They’re delivered to your home intact and typically are intended for installation on a concrete floor in the corner of a garage. They are also set up outside and next to mobile homes on a concrete foundation.
They can be exceptionally heavy and typically cannot be installed in an existing home without significant effort and equipment other than a garage or exterior installation with a firm foundation. They’re primarily designed for natural disasters.
Construction and Location
Both FEMA and conventional wisdom have defined certain parameters for the location and construction of any Safe Room. Here’s the standard list of considerations:
Easy access has a lot to do with the nature of the emergency. Tornadoes and hurricanes are usually predicted in advance and there’s sufficient warning to reach a Safe Room located anywhere in a structure.
Some have cautioned that a violent break-in in the middle of the night could require rapid access to a Safe Room, but it begs the question: If there are multiple family members located throughout the house, where should the Safe Room be located? That’s up to you.
There’s also the question of the overall structural integrity of a building. Areas in a basement or at least the first floor will do a better job of withstanding natural disasters than a second-story location.
Many Safe Rooms are designed to be non-descript and unapparent. One of the reasons is purely cosmetic but the primary reason is to keep intruders from finding its location.
Various methods are used from sliding bookcases to non-descript walls on hinges that open to reveal the entrance to the room. The same applies to any exits.
Entrance and Emergency Exit
Any Safe Room should have both an entrance and at least an emergency exit. Some recommendations state the exit should be obscured or hidden to allow occupants to leave without being seen. Here again, that level of security is up to you and your level of concern.
Regardless of the circumstances, a secondary exit is a good idea. Many structures and surrounding buildings collapse after disasters, and if debris blocks the primary entrance, the secondary exit is the only way out.
Both the entrance and exit should be well secured with locks to prevent any forced entry.
Safe Room Structural Reinforcement
This is about 3 areas: foundation, walls, and ceiling.
The Safe Room should be bolted or somehow firmly attached to the foundation. Ideally, the foundation is concrete.
The walls should be reinforced to withstand high stress from winds, building collapse, or any other impacts that could compromise the safety of the room.
The ceilings also need to be reinforced to offer the same level of protection and potentially heavier debris loads.
There are a few ways to bulletproof walls and ceilings.
- Bulletproof panels that can be installed in 4×8 sheets. They’re very heavy and expensive. They can also be covered with drywall to make them cosmetically attractive.
- Kevlar fabric can also be attached to walls and ceilings. It’s not as effective as bulletproof panels but relatively less expensive and easier to install.
- Conventional materials like concrete or sand between plywood sheets on walls can also serve as a fairly effective, low-cost bulletproof barrier. The caution is that the total amount of material is very heavy and would require a concrete foundation for support.
Bulletproofing is an extreme step, but if you have concerns about active gunfire penetrating your Safe Room, it’s worth considering.
There’s not a lot of coverage about fireproofing and Safe Rooms. That’s surprising when you consider the level of threat that any fire could present to the occupants of an enclosed room potentially surrounded by fire.
The fact of the matter is that both natural and manmade disasters are often accompanied by fire. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes have left their share of fires in their wake. And arson is a common occurrence during times of civil unrest and even following a common burglary.
It’s worth taking the time to incorporate fireproof materials and insulation in any Safe Room. A contractor can probably give you the best advice, or you can roll up your sleeves and do some homework. It doesn’t matter how many exits you have; if you’re surrounded by fire, you have to wait it out.
This is another subject that seems to get little coverage on the subject of safe rooms. Given some of the design recommendations for many Safe Rooms, it seems to be critical to providing ventilation and filtered airflow for a room that is essentially sealed off from the outside. This is particularly important when you think back to the FEMA caution about protection from toxic gases, vapors, and aerosols.
A sophisticated and pressurized ventilation system is another expensive proposition if you’re going to go all-in on a Safe Room installation. It’s another decision that you have to balance with your situation and your concerns about the level of threat.
A good question relates to how long any person or group can expect to remain in a Safe Room. At a minimum, it will be the length of time for the threat or natural disaster to pass. In the case of tornadoes, that can be measured in minutes. Hurricanes take hours, but some events have variable time frames.
The most significant long-duration event would be in the event of a nuclear detonation, nuclear accident, or a long-term threat from a chemical spill or on-going civil unrest. It creates the need for some long-term planning for continued survival in a small space.
Typically, natural disasters tend to be of short duration, although the long-term devastation could go on for months. In an extreme situation following a catastrophic natural disaster, it’s possible that the Safe Room is the only intact and habitable structure left on someone’s property.
It’s in situations like that when fundamental needs and supplies have to be evaluated in the context of duration or time-frame.
Assume loss of electric power. Situations that put you in a safe room are typically devastating enough to cause the accidental or even intentional loss of power. Battery-powered lighting is the obvious choice, but consider flashlights that can be powered or recharged with a hand crank. Candles are probably a bad idea in a small, enclosed space.
A ceramic space heater makes sense but without electricity, you’ll be dependent on plenty of blankets, warm clothing, and maybe some chemically activated hand warmers to get you through a cold spell.
The standard assumption is that an adult male should drink 3 liters of water a day and an adult female 2.2 liters. So you know, 3.75 liters equals a gallon. You have to do the math depending on the size of your family or group and estimate the duration of your needs, but the last thing you want to do is abandon your Safe Room prematurely because you ran out of water.
It also makes sense to stock a water purification filter and water purification tablets in the event that a local disaster has compromised standard services and supplies after you emerge from your shelter.
Sophisticated Safe Rooms have a bathroom installed, but that’s a luxury. Most Safe Rooms have a portable, chemical toilet. You could also improvise your own. Remember the toilet paper, pre-moistened wipes, and other sanitation supplies like hand sanitizers, feminine products, paper towels, dental care, and anything else you and your group deem necessary for basic sanitation.
You may be sleeping in your Safe Room, so plan accordingly. Stacking bunk bed/cots are one option, although the size of your group, your room, and the duration will affect any decision about sleeping arrangements. Most Safe Rooms appear to be designed for short-term occupancy, and beds and bedding are not apparent.
Don’t plan on doing a lot of cooking, although a small microwave could be an option. Any food should be ready-to-eat. How much food you choose to store is up to you.
Have an expedition level medical kit stocked. Make sure you have any prescription meds stored as well. Anything can happen before or after events forcing you into a Safe Room, so be prepared. Gas masks are also a good idea.
Store your weapons of choice including ammunition. The standard recommendation is a rifle and a handgun. In fact, a Safe Room is an excellent location for long-term storage of any weapons or ammunition. Which brings to mind another benefit of a Safe Room.
Alternative Benefits – Safekeeping
Because a Safe Room represents a safe, secure design that is often incognito, it creates an ideal location for hiding stuff—stuff that’s important to you and has value both emotionally and logically. Here are some examples.
- Birth certificates
- Marriage license
- Social security cards
- Other legal certificates
- Wills, insurance policies, titles, and deeds
- Stocks and bonds
- Other very important documents
Cash and Coins
- Cash in the event that power outages make debit and credit cards unusable.
- Coins with silver content or even pure silver coins or small denomination (1/10 ounce) gold coins in case things get really complicated.
Heirlooms and Valuables
- Irreplaceable photos
- Grandpa’s watch and grandma’s wedding ring
- Anything else your family treasures
Prepper Supplies and Equipment
Preppers tend to accumulate a wide assortment of equipment and supplies for a range of possibilities. What better place to store that equipment than in a room designed to get you through the worst?
Space considerations are the primary limiting factor depending on the size of your Safe Room and the extent of your accumulated equipment and supplies.
Do You Need a Safe Room?
It seems like a good idea, especially if you live in any area prone to weather extremes or are concerned about extreme events and actions that could occur for any reason. The key is to sufficiently research the subject and determine the degree to which you would want to pursue the design and construction of a Safe Room.
Here are links to a range of information and resources to get you started:
Sources for Information, Contractors, and Materials
- Design Guidance for Shelters and Safe Rooms – FEMA Publication 453, May 2006
- Various FEMA Publications on Safe Rooms
- The High-Security Shelter – How to Implement a Multi-Purpose Safe Room in the Home
- Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House – FEMA 2016
- SAFE ROOM DESIGN: guidance in the specification of Safe Rooms designed as a response to the threat to people from Chemical, Biological, or Radiological (CBR) incidents.
- A Refuge From The Storm: An introductory guide to storm shelters and safe rooms
- Protection from Fire and Thieves: Including the Construction of Locks, Safes, Strong Rooms, and Fireproof Buildings
- SafeRoom.com – All Saferoom systems are tailored to the specifications of your project, and all components are crafted from the highest quality materials available. Every piece is thoroughly tested in our private facility to ensure reliable protection.
- UltimateBunker.com – We are professionals and can Build and Install a Safe Room or Panic Room Inside any Private Residence or Business. Furthermore, we use the best building materials and most qualified craftsmen on each project.
- The Panic Room Company – Our secure room is unrivaled in its success, due to the modular nature of its design, and the scalable levels of security. It allows anyone to seek protection from threats and communicate with the police or security services.
- Panelized Bolt Together Safe Rooms – A U.S. Safe Room® Bolt-Together Safe Room Kit features easy-to-install modular steel panels that can be fitted to closet space, or simply convert a part of any larger room into a fully secured safe room tornado shelter, storm safe, or multi-use safety storage.
- Safe Rooms Available Online – Superior quality steel safe rooms, storm shelters, tornado shelters, panic rooms, gun safes, and bunkers.
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