Safe Rooms: A Design Primer
The concept of the Safe Room arose in response to the increased risk of kidnaping and terrorist attacks on high-profile or wealthy individuals and their families and aides. Typically the intent of the Safe Room is to provide short-term protection for the occupants until help arrives or the attackers leave the scene. In extreme, hostage type scenarios, the safe Room may be required for an extended period.
Typically Safe Rooms, also known as panic rooms, are fitted with warning devices that communicate with persons outside the Safe Room or threatened building. Upon entering the Safe Room, the occupant triggers an alarm, or phones the police or a security agent. Audible alarms may alert the intruders to the fact that the situation is known to security forces. Consequently, unless these alarms were disabled prior to the assault, the attacker knows that he has a limited time to complete his mission.
It is important, therefore, to emphasise that, other than in hostage situations, Safe Rooms are intended to be used for limited periods only, often as little as a few hours or so. Unless a particularly determined attack is anticipated, they are often designed with this limitation in mind. Accordingly, except in unusual circumstances, a Safe Room should not be confused with a high-security vault and may not necessarily resistant to all types of attack. As psychological as well as physical force plays a role in an attack, the Safe Room is not merely a bullet-resistant enclosure. Rather, it is a space offering multiple levels of security designed to meet anticipated threats.
General Design Criteria:
As with all construction, the design of a Safe Room responds to particular criteria, in this case relating to the level of risk that is anticipated. The design must also respond to such practical matters as costs and available space. Clearly there may be a difference between the design of a Safe Room for an important political leader and that of an individual who may fear some unspecified threat. A modest Safe Room may be resistant to handguns and physical attack only, whereas a more elaborate Safe Room may be designed to resist greater ballistic forces as well as chemicals and gaseous matter.
Typically the anticipated end user(s) of the Safe Room meet with a security consultant to evaluate the potential risks at the specific location where the Safe Room is to be located. A professional security consultant working in the industry will be well appraised of the current tactics and sophistication of an attacker and be able to advise on the design accordingly. A petty felon breaking into a residence in a wealthy neighborhood, for example, may arrive armed with a handgun or other small weapon. A determined terrorist intent on causing political turmoil, will more likely have researched the target location, have become familiar with the level of security in place and arrive with sophisticated weapons and electronic equipment capable of overriding or otherwise getting past some of the security that is in place.
Once the level of risk has been determined by the Security Consultant, a set of design criteria can be established. Typically an Architect is then called in to provide the detail design and documentation of the Safe Room – Panic Room itself.
Selecting a Location for the Safe Room:
Clearly it is essential that the targeted person can quickly get to the Safe Room at the time of the threat. Ideally, once the intruder’s presence has been detected, he should be able to do so without having to confront or show himself to his attackers. Multiple routes to a Safe Room – Panic Room are, therefore, desirable, though not always practical.
As the Safe Room may never actually see service, people are usually reluctant to give up prime spaces in their homes for this particular use, and often suggest the use of Cellars or Basements for this purpose. However, in a multi-storey building such as a townhouse or brownstone, a Basement Safe Room may become inaccessible to a resident on an upper floor, if the attackers breach the building at the ground floor. The occupant, in this case, would have to pass the intruders on the stairs, in order to get to the Safe Room below. Conversely, at attic Safe Room may not be ideal in cases where the intruders enter via the roof.
Depending on the configuration of the residence or building where the protection is required, a given location for the Safe Room may not be ideal in all cases. Again, the advice of a professional Security Consultant will be important in identifying the entry risks, and locating the Safe Room optimally with this information in mind. In larger buildings where there may be multiple routes or staircases to reach the Safe Room – Panic Room, the issue of location may be less problematic.
Where space is not an issue, and the budget is generous, “concealed” Safe Rooms offer an additional barrier to detection of the room’s occupant. A concealed Safe Room – Panic Room might be located behind a paneled wall, one panel which operates on concealed hinges giving access to the protected area on the opposite side. In such cases, it is important to design the panel such that no hinges, locks or other operating hardware are visible from the outside.
Architectural Design Criteria:
In some specialized cases, the end user may have the luxury of designing one or more spaces to serve exclusively as a Safe Room – Panic Room. Needless to say, however, few people can afford to have ‘dead space’ that may never be used. The more common approach, particularly in urban situations where floor area is at a premium, is to have one room, often a closet or a bathroom, do double-duty as a Safe Room. In these cases, there is no loss of real-estate to the intended purpose and the full area of the home or office can be utilized normally.
In the case of the double-duty Safe Room – Panic Room, security features, including bullet-resistance, sound-proofing and surveillance equipment, are built into the room as required. The room is then designed and finished normally, albeit around the concealed, protective features. An Architect plays an important role in disguising the security features, and integrating them into the design such that they are available in an emergency, but otherwise visually and functionally discreet.
Because closets tend to be relatively small, they can be a relatively economic space for conversion. However, if an attack is prolonged, an end user who suffers from claustrophobia may find the diminutive size of the enclosed space to be as troubling as the threat outside the Safe Room itself. Bathrooms, because of their modest size, and because they are often located internally are another common room that does double-duty as a Safe Room. Bathrooms also have the advantage of having water and other plumbing fixtures that may be beneficial during prolonged occupancy.
Safe Rooms – Panic Rooms Construction & Features:
Walls and Ceilings: Wall construction spanning directly from floor to ceiling is often favored because of the structural continuity of the framing. Unit masonry (e.g. brickwork or blockwork), can be effective in stopping bullets, but prolonged attack with sledgehammers can eventually dislodge individual masonry units. Steel stud walls, braced with additional reinforcing ties can be faced with steel sheet and/or proprietary bullet-resistant materials such as Kevlar. These in turn, are covered with sheetrock, tile or other decorative finishes normal to the subject room. Steel and Kevlar panels have the advantage of being available in large sheet sizes, and minimize the number of joints which can be the weak point of any assembly. To minimize this weakness, it is common to overlap the resistant sheets or to reinforce the back-side of each joint with similar materials.
Where construction does not include concrete floors, ceilings can be constructed similar to stud walls. In all cases it is important not to overlook penetrations that may be made for light fixtures, power points or plumbing pipes. Ductwork passing through protected walls should also be carefully considered to ensure that the security is not breached, or that poisonous gasses are not forced into the Safe Room by this route.
Floors: Concrete floors are ideal. In other forms of floor construction, (e.g. wood), it is important to provide supplementary protection suitable to the anticipated level of attack. As Safe Room construction often uses heavy materials concentrated in a small area, it is important to ensure that the floor is designed or reinforced to take this heavy load.
Doors: Doors are one of the most critical and complicated aspects of the Safe Room – Panic Room design. A bullet-resistant door with internal steel framing can weigh several hundred pounds, yet it must be designed to operate smoothly, easily and without fail in an emergency situation. The hardware must be selected to provide substantial, secure locking without compromising the smooth operation of the door itself. Most importantly, it must allow the door to be secured quickly, preferably from a single control point. The hardware should not be capable of being overridden or tampered with from the outside.
Sound Insulation: The attackers may try to verbally “psyche out” the Safe Room’s occupants. Effective sound insulation will limit the ability for unwanted communication of this sort. Conversely, it will also prevent the intruders from hearing phone or radio conversations carried out by the occupant with security or police forces.
Miscellaneous Safe Room – Panic Room Accessories:
Well-designed Safe Rooms – Panic Rooms should contain the following items:
Cameras & Monitors: Concealed cameras located outside the room enable the Safe Room’s occupant to secretly monitor the movement and numbers of attackers on a monitor screen. It is common to locate one visible camera outside the room. An attacker disabling the exposed camera may not think to look for other hidden cameras, giving the Safe Room occupant an advantage in that situation.
Gas Masks: Gas Masks are necessary in the event that the attackers force poisonous gas into the Safe Room. Where an odorless gas might be used, an electronic device may be used to detect any noxious materials.
Bottled Water & Non-Perishable Foods: There should be a small provision of bottled water and non-perishable foods (such as dried trail mix or similar nourishment) for the occupants.
Ventilation: It is important to consider a protected means of ventilating the Safe room with fresh air.
Radio Communication: It should be assumed that attackers will disable land line phone service prior to entry. Safe Rooms lined with steel may interfere with cell phone transmissions. Accordingly, radio communication to the outside world is important. Typically a small radio transmitter is hard-wired directly to a concealed antenna outside the steel-lined enclosure. The radio can be pre-programed to signal the police or a security service in an emergency.
A Look Inside A Safe Room – Panic Room
The rooms, hidden behind the walls or fixtures in a home, are reinforced with steel plates and bullet-resistant kevlar. An intruder can’t see the room, but the occupant can watch what’s happening on video monitors inside.
A. Layers of hard steel lattice sandwiched around bullet-resistant kevlar.
B. Safe rooms and panic rooms have multiple forms of communication with the outside world: phones, walkie-talkies and panic buttons to alert security forces.
C. Flame retardant material coats the walls. Sound-proofing is also put in place to muffle any noise.
D. The safe room – panic room is outfitted with exhaust systems.
E. Toiletries, water.
Safe Rooms: A Design Primer