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Creating a safe room in your home

When Homeland Security director Tom Ridge recently released anti-terror tips that included stocking up on duct tape and plastic to seal off a room against gas or biological attacks, the idea of creating a "safe room" in the home wasn't just for America's elite anymore.

"Panic Room," the 2002 Jodie Foster movie thriller, gave the general public a taste of what people with money have been doing to help protect themselves against intruders. That movie's safe room epitomizes what can be done. High-end projects like the one in the movie are loaded with security features from entry devices keyed by a person's fingerprints or a retinal scan to bulletproof walls, as well as communications equipment and air-filtering and recirculation systems.

"Some of the options include the bookshelf-hidden door [an entry camouflaged as a bookcase], sliding steel doors and swinging steel doors," says Gary Drake of Drake Construction, a Beverly Hills-based general contracting firm that has built safe rooms for celebrities and show-business executives.

Remodeling is not as cost-effective as including a safe room in the original construction, he says. Installing bullet-resistant Kevlar and adding a dedicated phone line, backup generator and security features such as a keyless entry ("If you're cooking dinner and something goes wrong, you don't want to have to find a key") in an existing room can cost about $40,000 to $60,000, he estimates.

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Zytech Engineering, a Maryland company, aims to be the Henry Ford of safe rooms by bringing high-end features together in packages at a low-end price of $17,000, which Zytech execs believe is affordable for most people concerned about security.

If you don't think you can afford that, though, you can create a viable safe room for much, much less, says Neal Rawls, a security expert based in Florida and author of Be Alert, Be Aware, Have A Plan: The Complete Guide to Protecting Yourself, Your Home, Your Family.

Top safe room considerations
"The very first thing you want to consider is that your safe room is easily accessible, and you want it to be in the interior of the house, preferably with no windows," he says, adding that the most likely scenarios in which most of us might need a safe room are home invasions and major storms.

Using a bathroom makes the most sense, he says, because bathrooms are meant to be easily accessible and contain the toilet facilities, running water and personal supplies (stock your medicine cabinet) for a long stay. Not all people have windowless bathrooms, but securing a one-window bathroom is easier than trying to secure other rooms with multiple windows, he says. In fact, in the event of a home invasion, a homeowner safely locked in the room can send a signal for help by sounding an air horn or shouting out that window.

"One thing you want to have is a lock on the inside of the room to keep the bad guys out, but you also want to be sure your children can't get in and lock you out of it," Rawls says. "A slide-bolt on the inside is not a necessity, but it helps ... You also want to have some sort of communications equipment."

Anything from a cell phone to a ham radio will work to allow you to call for help and keep tabs on what is going on outside.

Another item that will make the room safer is a solid-core door: "Something intruders just can't kick in, unlike a plywood door," Rawls says.

"A secure door will do many of the same things that a full-fledged safe room will do," Drake agrees. "You can turn a nice walk-in closet into a safe room at rock bottom for just the cost of the door, a phone and a couple of flashlights. You're just trying to stay safe for 15 minutes or a half-hour till someone comes to help."

As for the anti-terror recommendation of duct tape and plastic, Drake says that trying to tape up plastic sheeting is difficult under normal conditions, let alone when someone is stressed because of a terror attack. A duct tape and plastic barrier is also likely to be more porous than using duct tape alone to seal any openings into the safe room, he adds.

The duct tape and plastic tip from the U.S. government mirrors Israeli civil defense precautions, says Rawls, who started his business by advising reporters on how to stay safe while overseas.

"You can stay in a sealed room five hours for every square foot of floor space," he adds. "In the case of a chemical attack, it's a small amount of a chemical and it's going to blow away."

The bigger question is whether there'll be enough warning to use a safe room in that scenario, Drake says. So avoiding a false sense of security so that you keep aware of what goes on around you may be the most important factor in making a safe room effective.

-- Posted: April 7, 2003


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