Proper safe rooms are seen as something of a bucket list item for most preppers: A fortified sanctuary within your own home, a citadel where you and your family can retreat in case of trouble to remain safe, no matter what is happening.
It is an appealing concept, but more importantly an effective one: the U.S. State Department and FEMA both make use of safe rooms in foreign and domestic roles to provide security for citizenry and their own personnel alike.
A safe room is not the answer to every disaster question, but it can definitely solve a fair few of them. Knowing when to retreat to your safe room, and more importantly what should send you scurrying into it is a vital part of survival.
In today’s article we will discuss what disasters can be avoided or survived using a safe room and how a given safe room setup will help you.
Table of Contents
What is a Safe Room?
A safe room is a concept, not an off-the-shelf shelter module, though those do exist.
A safe room is simply any location, typically a single room, or two small connected rooms, within an existing residence or commercial structure that are hardened to resist direct attack and the catastrophic forces exerted by natural disasters.
Safe rooms are a place for your family, or the employees of a business, to go in case of emergency or threat.
Oftentimes stocked with a variety of survival equipment, including food, water and weapons along with communication gear, a safe room is sort of a one-size-fits-all response to a given emergency.
A safe room will allow you to survive the onslaught of a natural disaster, wait out intruders and resupply yourself with what you need to for the trials ahead.
Unless you were talking about strict construction standards for FEMA safe rooms, those that are intended to survive hurricanes and tornadoes, there is no hard-and-fast set of rules or guidelines for the construction of a safe room; they will all be individually constructed and equipped based on the desires of the owner.
A Note on Safe Room Capability
The term safe room can technically encompass anything from a simple bedroom with a reinforced door and upgraded set of hinges to a technologically-advanced, hardened, miniature bunker with composite armor walls, floor and ceiling, a full communication suite, air filtration and exchanger systems and hidden escape tunnels.
An entry-level safe room will often see a homeowner simply replace a hollow interior door with a solid one, and upgrade the hinges of the door with lengthened, strengthened screws.
After this modest reinforcement, they might stash their BOB inside as a ready source of supplies along with a dedicated emergency cell phone. This might serve as nothing more than the first fallback point in case of societal unrest or home invasion.
Those with considerable construction skills or nearly unlimited funds may construct what is a bunker by any other name.
Construction that is either steel-reinforced poured concrete or sheet steel armored with fiberglass, composite layers or kevlar and enclosed by a mega-duty vault door, all anchored to an immovable foundation using the strongest fasteners and construction techniques known to man.
Within, a veritable command center full of security camera monitors, redundant, dedicated communications lines and all the weapons, food and survival gear a prepper might want. These top of the line survival shelters even include chemical toilets and sleeping accommodations.
The difference in cost between these two approaches, but more importantly the difference in capability, is stark. You should not assume that just because you call a room a “safe room” that it will arbitrarily perform like the latter instead of the former.
A converted bedroom will not protect you from airborne contamination without significant modifications to the room and to your home. A reinforced interior door is not the equal of a solid concrete and steel bunker complete with blast proof vault door.
This is not to make anyone feel bad about not having the resources or the capability to construct such a heavily armored safe room, only caution that you should maintain a realistic expectation of what it can protect you from.
Emergencies You Can Survive in a Safe Room
The following eight emergencies run the gamut from natural disasters to man-made cataclysms. For each of these, the right safe room is a surefire defense against the threats they present.
Below each heading I’ll describe a little bit about each scenario, how the safe room can protect you from it, and more importantly how you can adapt either category of safe room- a simple one or an advanced one- to keep you safe.
1. Home Invasion
Home invasion is probably the most common and most thought of example of an emergency that calls for a safe room.
After all, what could be better upon waking to hear or see intruders in your home than running off to your own private bunker, locking the door behind you and waiting the dirtbags out?
All of the things in your home can be replaced, but your lives cannot be. The concept certainly makes sense, and is ideal in any situation where the rule of law is still in place and you can generally expect the cavalry to arrive, either the police or neighbors.
Since most home invaders are generally there for loot and plunder, not necessarily just mayhem, even a simple safe room may be more than adequate to keep you and your family safe from harm.
If you live alone, or just with a partner, this is an ideal time to convert the master bedroom to a safe room. All you’ll need to do is close or lock the door and you’ll be all set for the duration.
There are still a few possible concerns in this scenario though: one would be the intruders may just start banging rounds through the walls if they know you are occupying a room.
That means in an ideal world the walls will be armored to resist at least handgun fire, or you’ll have a fixed point of cover within the room, something that can block bullets.
The other point of concern is fire. You should never back yourself into a corner you cannot escape from, and it is far from unheard of that sadistic home invaders set fire to the premises before or after they’re done looting.
If your safe room is of the “bunker” variety with no other way out, you might face a terrible death by burning or asphyxiation.
If you rely on a simple safe room, you should have a dedicated method of communication inside, typically a cell phone, along with some means to protect yourself, like a firearm.
More advanced safe rooms should be completely proof against any average home invader’s attempts to breach it, and furthermore would give you the advantage of having closed circuit television monitoring over the rest of the house.
Tornadoes are ferociously powerful storms and more than a match for all but the strongest structures. The extreme winds and just as importantly what the wind is blowing will pose severe hazards if you are inside a conventional residential home. If you have a safe room, now is the time to use it.
A safe room that is properly tornado reinforced will be located near the very center of the home or even better in the basement below ground level.
Reinforced and unified walls ceiling and floor will be required in addition to strong anchoring to prevent the safe room from being blown over or toppled in case the structure around it is obliterated.
It is actually a fairly common occurrence to be trapped underground in a storm shelter or basement after a strong tornado has passed, so if you can afford it installing a secondary escape tunnel is a good idea.
More advanced safe rooms will feature communication suites to allow you to contact authorities and other survivors via radio and other “durable” communications methods.
It should go without saying this is the ideal place to pack your tornado survival kit, protective gear and other supplies to help dig out, survive and take shelter in the aftermath of a monster twister.
Storm rated shelters are one area where we do have specific guidelines for construction, and you can contact FEMA or ISO to get the full scoop on what you need to do if you want 100% tornado protection.
With the right build put in the right place you can actually stay snug as bugs while the worst Mother Nature has to offer roars past you. You might emerge into a stripped, barren and devastated landscape but you’ll be alive.
Hurricanes are similar to tornadoes in that they’ll produce extraordinarily powerful winds and wind-blown debris, and are more than capable of leveling conventional structures.
Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes also come with additional threats, those of flooding and storm surge.
Hurricanes are also capable of spawning tornadoes out of their massive systems. As with tornadoes, a hurricane may warrant use of the safe room if you have access to one.
Unlike tornadoes however, a safe room that is fit for surviving a hurricane should not be located below ground level for obvious reasons; they can just as easily turn into a watery tomb.
This can be a little challenging because a heavily reinforced safe room, one typically made of concrete or steel, cannot be supported by a residential house structure that is not substantially reinforced.
This is due to the far greater mass of those heavy-duty building materials. But, for all that, if your house is not located in a flood-prone area, a ground floor safe room still makes a lot of sense for hurricane survival.
You should still take care to ensure environmental sealing to prevent water intrusion, both from above and below.
As with a tornado, you want to stash all of your survival and other readiness supplies inside the safe room, along with an NOAA weather radio to get updates on the status of the storm and the local situation.
Being safe and sound inside your reinforced, anchored safe room while a hurricane passes harmlessly overhead will be quite a comfort.
4. Terror Attack
Terror attacks can take almost any form, from direct action assaults on civilians packed into a crowded venue with guns or bombs to chemical or biological agent releases, to the deliberate setting of mass fires. No matter what kind of terror attack should break out near you, your safe room is likely the correct answer.
Why? Consider how many times we are starting to see rolling terror attacks, as of the kind perpetrated by the Boston Marathon bombers in America and the coordinated, multi-cell Terror attacks in Mumbai, India some years ago.
Both resulted in sweeping manhunts by local and government police forces that wound up being quite dangerous for civilians.
As the terrorists move through civilian areas killing profligately and at will the authorities follow along behind, searching homes and businesses in a mad attempt to pin down and cut off the attackers, limiting casualties…
One wrong move might yet see innocent people gunned down in the crossfire.
You won’t be able to make use of your safe room out in public if a terror attack kicks off near you, but you’ll sure be able to if you live in or around the outskirts of a major city currently undergoing terror attack while at your home.
Why take the chance that your luck will run out and it’ll be your door kicked in by a terrorist in a desperate attempt to stay one step ahead of pursuing police?
Furthermore, if the bullets just start flying down the street as a result of the last stand gun battle, why would you risk catching one of these stray rounds popping through your window or wall?
You shouldn’t. Take cover in your safe room if you have one. Any safe room equipped to deal with this circumstance will need to be modestly to heavily reinforced, with armored walls and an especially durable door and hinge set to resist forced entry.
Having access to TV, internet and radio inside to monitor the developing situation is a good idea, as is having medical supplies and weapons.
5. Airborne Contamination
Airborne contamination could take the form of almost anything. Radioactive fallout, vapors from a chemical spill, a biowarfare attack or just copious amounts of smoke from a wildfire.
The point is the air is no longer safe to breathe, and you shouldn’t risk it. A properly equipped safe room will give you the ability to deal with encountering bad air one way or another.
This is one of those disasters where having CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) defense capability built-in to your safe room is a godsend.
A full filtration and environmental/atmospheric system with air scrubbers, sensors, overpressure system and more will let you take it easy until the authorities sound the all clear.
There’s just one problem with this approach: it is fantastically, colossally, slap-your-mother expensive and beyond the reach of all but the most financially well-prepared preppers. But there is another way, one that will work for preppers on a budget.
Using nothing but duct tape, thick plastic sheeting and easily sourced gas masks or respirators, bodysuits and a few other common items you can effectively lock down your house with airtight seals.
Doing this will keep out or at least reduce the amount of contaminants that can get in while protecting your body and lungs from incidental exposure.
Your safe room should be a sort of bastion or keep, one that is the least likely to be contaminated by outside air, and the one where you store your chemical or biological protective equipment.
This will allow you to retreat there, don protective gear and then re-emerge better equipped to face whatever disaster has caused the air to turn toxic.
Almost no building made can survive the worst earthquakes. If the shaking, heaving, rattling and rolling does not split or topple a building the subsequent destabilization of the foundation and the surrounding soil almost certainly will.
Not for nothing, many smaller buildings get crushed in the shadow of larger ones that start to break apart or fall over after an earthquake.
A safe room, properly made, can protect you from even this most Titanic of threats, the one where the very foundations of the Earth turn against you.
An advanced safe room built from the best and strongest materials and using the most earthquake-resistant technologies can sustain truly mind-boggling pressures and stresses without being compromised and will likely survive even its host building collapsing all around it with you at the center, completely unharmed.
Such mega-duty building techniques are, as one would expect, very expensive.
A cheaper approach for the layman is the deliberate reinforcing of a single room in the house either during construction or as a remodeling project paying careful attention to secure all overhead materials, since falling debris is one of the major hazards during any earthquake.
A heavy duty table, securely bolted to the floor, can make a ready cover point for such a safe room.
No matter which approach you take to earthquake-proofing a safe room just make sure to keep your BOB inside and a variety of methods for signaling and communication, including a survival whistle and a handful of lights.
It is entirely possible that you’ll be buried in rubble if an earthquake is strong enough, and rescuers will be keenly alert to anyone trying to signal for help. This is definitely a macabre case of the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
7. Kidnap / Sexual Assault Attempt
A safe room is the perfect response to a suspected kidnap or sexual assault attempt. Either of these heinous crimes rely on the bad guy getting to you. if they cannot get to you, they cannot kidnap you or assault you.
Even a simple safe room with a fortified door will fend off the bad guys long enough for help to arrive or for you to organize a proper defense.
In a residential setting, some people utilize their bedroom as their safe room and this is perfect for defense against an assault or kidnapping so long as you can lockdown prior to the assailants gaining access.
Instead of potentially having to traverse the house to enter the safe room, all you’ll need to do let’s throw the lock on the bedroom door. If you sleep with your door closed and locked, you are already way ahead of the game.
As with any other safe room, you have a few necessary supplies with it. Most importantly in this case is a way to defend yourself and a way to contact the outside world to summon assistance.
Don’t rely on a landline in this case! Plenty of clever criminals will set themselves up for success by severing phone lines to cut you off from aid. A cell phone is your best bet here for most people, but you might also go with radio or even satellite phones.
8. Domestic Violence
It is not pleasant to think about, but your safe room might be the one asset that saves you from the person you should have to worry the least about. Domestic violence is an all too common occurrence, and both men and women can be victims of it.
If your partner becomes completely unhinged and threatens you with physical violence, instead of risking more harm or potentially nasty legal fallout you can just retreat to your safe room and hunker down until police arrive.
Using a safe room in this way is complicated by the notion that your domestic partner likely has free reign and access in the house the same as you. If they know you have a safe room, they may very well try to cut you off from accessing it.
The solution in this case depends on how much your partner knows about you. If this is a longtime live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, or a husband or wife they will probably know all your tricks and know about the existence of the safe room.
Is this is someone that does not live with you, or you’re not entirely close with yet, they probably don’t know about it.
In the case of the former, it is a good idea to have a smaller, secondary safe room even if it is just a bathroom, with a strongly reinforced door and hinges that will resist attempts to break it down or bust through it.
In the case of the latter they should not know you have a safe room or what it looks like, and you can take advantage of this gap in their perception to secure yourself within it.
Make sure you have some medical supplies in your safe room in case you were already injured by your nefarious former partner, as well as lethal and non-lethal weapons and a dedicated cell phone.
Top 10 Survival Items for Your Safe Room
A safe room is not just a hardened structure to withstand direct assault. A safe room is also your armory, comms shed and resupply point. Any good prepper will have his safe room stocked with a variety of survival gear to endure any crisis.
For quite a few preppers that have them, their safe room is the nucleus of their survival plan, the idea being you go in light when trouble appears but you come out heavy; better equipped than when you entered.
Below is a short list of the 10 most essential preps to keep inside your safe room.
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- Communications – Far and away the most vital prep to keep in your safe room. If you are cloistering yourself in a room, even a hardened one, with only one way out (likely) you must have a way to summon the cavalry. Ideally this is a self-contained method of communication like a cell phone or radio, and not a landline.
- Water – You might be in your safe room for a long time depending on what you are facing, so a supply of bottled water is essential.
- Food – You are unlikely to need a substantial quantity of food while you are waiting for the worst to blow over inside your safe room, but some basic calorie-dense snack options or even a few MREs are good options for keeping energy and morale levels high.
- First Aid Kit – Whatever has sent you into your safe room, it is nothing good. There is always a chance you might be injured on the way to your safe room, and you had better not crack the seals again if further harm could be lurking just on the other side of the threshold. Make sure you have the things you need to deal with minor and major injuries and know how to use them.
- Prescription Meds and Lenses – More than a few preppers omit vital prescription medication and eyewear from their supply lists as simple oversight, and it follows that some will not think to include these crucial supplies in their safe room packing list.
- Weapons – A safe room shines when you are facing human threats, and if that is your reason for installing one in the first place you need weapons for dealing with these two-legged critters in case your defenses fail.
- Emergency Toilet – Unless your safe room happens to be one of the bathrooms, you can make everyone’s life a lot more pleasant if you have a simple emergency toilet inside with all necessary disposal items. An ad-hoc solution could be a five gallon bucket with lid and heavy duty can liners.
- Lighting – Assume you’ll lose power while inside your safe room. A variety of flashlights, headlamps, lanterns and plenty of batteries will keep you lit when the power grid goes down or your in-home power fails.
- NOAA Emergency Radio – A hand cranked emergency radio will keep you tuned in to updates from authorities when all other methods of communication fail. Advanced models can also feature USB charging ports fed by the hand-crank dynamo, so as long as your muscles hold out you can be assured of having a way to power your devices.
- Duct Tape – If you are worried about sealing up your safe room against vapor intrusion or just making improvised repairs on the fly, duct tape will get it done. Make sure you get a brand that is thick and sticky so you can affect a better seal around doors and windows with it.
Set Up Your Safe Room Today
Safe rooms are not the solution for every disaster scenario, but they’re the perfect answer to quite a few.
So long as you know what you’re up against and what capability you can expect out of your safe room, there is no reason you shouldn’t head for it at the first sign of trouble. After all, that is what it’s there for!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.