Not just in the movies: Safe rooms a rare security feature for cautious homeowners

By Lukas I. Lalpert The Associated Press
Thursday April 18, 2002

NEW YORK — Welcome to the new world of real estate ads: four-story brownstone, six fireplaces — and high-tech, armor-reinforced safe room. 

That describes the house in Jodie Foster’s hit movie “Panic Room.” In real life, safe rooms are still exceedingly rare, but offer cautious (and very wealthy) homeowners a safe haven from home invaders. 

“People who think these are like bomb shelters — that’s not what they’re for,” says Lou Palumbo, director of the Elite Group, a security firm that has designed safe rooms in New York and Los Angeles. “The concept is to insulate you and your family from intruders who are trying to rob or kidnap you.” 

The safe room can be as simple as a closet with a reinforced door and a phone inside. Typically, it’s a room separated from the rest of the house by reinforced walls and a hidden, magnetically locking door. Features include independent ventilation systems and phone lines — and, for longer stays, perhaps a toilet. 

For the ultra-security-conscious, options can include lining the room with armor or bullet-resistant Kevlar, setting up a closed-circuit TV network to watch the rest of the home, and installing a backup generator. 

Foster’s battle against intruders from within her secure walls earned more than $73 million at the box office in three weeks, creating a buzz about the little-known security technique. (Screenwriter David Koepp changed the name to “panic room” for a more compelling title.) 

The idea is simple, Palumbo explains. If an intruder enters your home, you flee to the safe room. Inside, using a phone line protected from the attackers, you summon the authorities. 

Industry experts won’t speculate about how many safe rooms there are, although a number are in Manhattan townhouses and Hollywood mansions. None come cheaply: A fully equipped room can cost up to $500,000. 

Jeff Schlanger, chief of security services for security firm Kroll Inc., says a safe room’s design is determined by a threat analysis: the buyer’s “station in life,” the home’s location and the potential threats the homeowner faces. 

William Bratton, ex-commissioner of the New York Police Department, says he sees little need for such a room in American homes. 

“It’s something that might be more applicable or more widely used in foreign countries,” Bratton said. “If you’ve got the money, that’s great. But what are the chances you’re ever going to use the darn thing?” 

And if you do, there’s no guarantee of success. In 1999, billionaire banker Edmund Safra was killed in his Monte Carlo penthouse after retreating to a reinforced bathroom because he feared intruders had entered the house and set it on fire. 

There were no intruders; the fire was set by Safra’s nurse, Ted Maher, who told authorities that he concocted the plan so he could save Safra’s life and earn a promotion. 

The concept of a room protected from the outside world is hardly new. In medieval times there was the castle keep; in the 1950s, bomb shelters. 

Reinforced rooms have been built for years in homes that could lie in the path of natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornados. 

In Snellville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, a planned subdivision gives potential buyers the option of having a reinforced room built into the 7,500-square-foot, $1.2 million homes. 

“We live in a tornado-prone area, and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has been recommending safe rooms in houses for several years now,” said John Miles, an architect involved in the construction. 

Safety from natural disasters comes more cheaply than protection from predators. Miles says the cost of a reinforced tornado room runs only around $2,000. 


On the Net: 

Kroll Inc.: http://www.krollworldwide.com 

FEMA: http://www.fema.gov/mit/saferoom/index.htm