What Is a Safe Room?

The Moat Around Your Castle Has Gone High-Tech

Keep out of harm's way -- with a Gaffco Safe Room. Sales illustration of a bullet and flame-resistant safe room, dollhouse view
Gaffco Safe Room. Spencer Platt/Getty Images (cropped)

A safe room is a shelter, detached or built within a structure, that is strong enough to provide safety from any or all catastrophic events. The type of event you want to be safe from (e.g., a weather event, a terrorist event) will determine the specifications of the safe room.

A safe room (not spelled saferoom) is the two-word description of a "hardened structure" meeting specifications and guidelines set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the International Code Council .  The concept has gone by different names.

Anyone who has seen the film The Wizard of Oz will remember the tornado shelter or storm cellar at Dorothy's Kansas home. The generation who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s Cold War era may be more familiar with the bomb shelters and emergency shelters built at that time. The American thriller film Panic Room starring Jodie Foster introduced the concept to a new generation in 2002.

"A safe room is insurance against problems like theft or natural disasters," claims Allstate Insurance. "Also called a panic room, it's simply a reinforced room that can provide a safe shelter." 

In an entire castle high on a hill surrounded by water was a safe place to be when intruders entered the walled community. The castle's keep was even more fortified. Primitive versions of safe spaces have existed for thousands of years; today's castle has more technology and is often hidden.

Reasons for a Safe Room

Because of the rising frequency of extreme weather, FEMA strongly encourages homeowners and communities to build safe rooms to FEMA standards. Strong winds and flying debris have long been the reasons for people in America's midwest to build safe rooms for tornadoes. If this weather event is your primary purpose to stay safe, you want a room underground. If you built a self-contained room on the second floor of your house, you may be protected but you would be hurled like a missile — your safe room would become an uncontrollable space craft. Community safe rooms are reinforced and often built above ground to specific anchoring specifications. For individuals, it's safer to be underground, surrounded by earth.

Fire has been a danger ever since humans began building combustible housing, thousands of years ago. The preferred response has been to run from something burning, but some professionals predict extreme fire events to become more common as the earth's climate changes. The fire tornado, also known as a fire vortex or fire whirl, is an event that humans cannot outrun. Emergency shelters may be built for this reason.

What else do people want to be safe from?  In an age of terrorism, some people have become extremely worried about bullets, missiles, bombs, chemical attacks, and nuclear dirty bombs. People of great wealth or certain social position may believe that a well-equipped safe room will protect them from perceived or real enemies — kidnappers or threats of home invasion. A well-built room can protect you and your family from extreme events or other people, but are potential dangers real? Except for underground survivalist bunkers, most safe rooms are designed as temporary structures built by people who have assessed a risk.

Risk Assessment

When anyone buys or builds a house, a risk assessment is performed — sometimes without even being aware of it. Anytime you consider circumstances that might cause danger to you or your family, you are performing a risk assessment — Is your house too close to a river? too close to a busy highway? too close to a power plant? in an environment prone to fires? tornadoes? hurricanes?

The federal government thinks about risk assessment all the time with their buildings — the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. has higher risks than a local Agricultural County Extension Office, so the structures will be built differently.

"An appropriate shelter depends on your location, the size of your family and your home's condition," explains the State Farm Insurance Company. "For example if you're in an area with a high risk of hurricanes, consider a larger shelter because you may have to wait out the storm for hours. Tornadoes pass by relatively quickly."

Determining the risk of something bad happening is vital to our own survival. "True fear is a gift that signals us in the presence of danger," writes security expert and ; "thus, it will be based upon something you perceive in your environment or your circumstance. Unwarranted fear or worry will always be based upon something in your imagination or your memory."  Mr. de Becker says that worry is a choice and can actually prevent timely action. Know the difference between fear and phobia. Know your realistic risks. What's the chance that anyone wants to kidnap you or your family? You might not need a safe room, even if the salesman says you do.

Building a Safe Room

Does form always have to follow function? If the function of a safe room is safety and protection, does the form of the room have to look like a vault or strong box? A safe room or emergency shelter doesn't have to be ugly, especially if an architect is involved with the design — or if you have the wealth of the Sultan of Brunei, owner of what is to believed to be the most elaborate safe room in the world.

Construction materials and details common to safe rooms include steel and concrete; kevlar and transparent bulletproof polymer for glazing; locking systems; entry systems — incredibly large, heavy doors; air filtration; video cameras, motion detectors, and peepholes; and communications equipment (cellphones may not work through the fortified walls). Standard items to be stored in a shelter will depend on the expected length of time it will be occupied — emergency food and fresh water might calm nerves; a bucket for each occupant might be desirable, especially if a self-composting toilet isn't included in the budget.

"Actually, it is the engineering designs and materials that dictate the safety a shelter can provide," maintains the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA). The NSSA is a professional organization that verifies that standards are met by manufacturers. FEMA does not certify or endorse any contractor or manufacturer.

Safe room manufacturers tend to specialize. Some provide walk-in gun vault rooms to protect you and your Second Amendment. A Utah-based company called for the survivalist in us all. , developed the specifications for the movie Panic Room. The illustration on this page shows a model safe room by Gaffco Ballistics, a company that specializes in bullet-resistant systems in an age of terrorism and mass shootings. Gaffco provides services for residential and commercial facilities and also offers , as "transportable as a standard shipping container."

A safe room does not have to be large or costly or even permanent. FEMA recommends creating a simple but sturdy storm shelter in the basement or firmly anchored to a concrete foundation. The walls and doors should be strong enough to withstand forceful wind and flying debris. Extreme weather is your likeliest danger, unless you are the Sultan of Brunei.

Resources and Further Reading

: Building a Safe Room For Your Home or Small Business, includes Design Drawings.

Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms

t — "There is a common misconception that a steel 'storm door' with three locks and three hinges can provide tornado lifesafety protection: it cannot. Only door assemblies designed and tested to resist tornadoes can provide life-safety protection for you and your family."

defines the criteria and processes officials should use in determining security level.

Sources

  • Allstate. Deconstructing a Safe Room Infographic. Infographic Journal, https://infographicjournal.com/deconstructing-a-safe-room/
  • de becker, Gavin. Child Safey. https://gdba.com/child-safety/#distinguish-between-fear-and-worry
  • FEMA. Safe Rooms. https://www.fema.gov/safe-rooms, Department of Homeland Security
  • National Storm Shelter Association. Information for Homeowners. http://nssa.cc/consumer-information/
  • State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. How to Design a Safe Room. https://www.statefarm.com/simple-insights/residence/how-to-design-a-safe-room

Fast Facts: Summary

FEMA Definition: "A safe room is a hardened structure specifically designed to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria and provide near-absolute protection in extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes."

Risk Assessment: Determine what dangers you are escaping.

Siting: Places to build safe rooms include underground, basements, and above-ground. Often dangers come packaged together — don't build an underground hurricane shelter in a flood or storm surge area. You'll be protected from the wind, but drown in the water.

Construction: Prefabricated modules must be properly anchored. Custom built safe rooms are usually more expensive.

Building Codes: Local building inspectors must monitor the construction and installation of safe rooms to ensure compliance with FEMA P-361 and ICC 500.

Cost: The federal in the past. Local communities may offer property tax reductions for individuals or build community shelters.