Let’s face it, most of us aren’t rich enough to purchase one of those neat prefab safe rooms rated to survive F5 tornadoes and Anti tank missiles (I know, I’m exaggerating…) but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a certain room in the house that is our go to Safe Room in the event of natural disasters or home invasions. This article will deal mostly with home invasion, but many of the same principles go into a “storm shelter” room.
But wait, why would someone want to run and hide when a burglar breaks in the door? Isn’t that why we have guns? Why should we hide and let them take whatever they want? First off, yes, you may have the means of defeating the intruder. Multiple intruders? Intruders with the same equipment in hand that you have in your desk drawer?
Let me state clearly, I am not advocating pacifism or any such thing. I am a staunch supporter of Stand your Ground laws. But sometimes that’s not the best way. Let’s say your wife isn’t a “gun person”, she could lock herself in the safe room rather than try to operate a tool she has only a passing familiarity with. What if you leave your 13 y/o in charge of his siblings while you run to the store? Maybe ha can handle firearms, but does he have the confidence necessary to take control of the situation? Beyond that, do you want your child to experience taking a life at such a young age? If he gets his siblings into the safe room then (let me pause for emphasis) EVERYTHING outside that room is replaceable. The situation can run it’s course without loss of life or serious emotional damage. And remember, just ’cause you’ve locked yourself in, doesn’t mean you’re helpless. We’ll talk later about what to do when inside.
But let’s move on. Let me state something so that it is abundantly clear. No Safe Room is Un-Breachable. But there are a lot of things you can do to make it harder than it’s worth. We’re going to discuss how to turn an existing room into a safe room. These same principles can be applied to new construction, often to greater effect.
Location, location, location. Where you locate your room is the first decision you have to make, and it’s an intensely personal decision. If you’re looking for a weather-safe room, you definitely want to go for an interior room. If you want to have a way out (away from the people in the house) then you’re talking about an exterior room with another door or window. If you’re concerned with entry points as vulnerable points in your room, you may again want to have an interior room. I cannot tell you where to have your safe room, only point out that it is a serious matter of consideration.
Entry points. Entry points are weak spots in your perimeter, since they are designed to, well, allow passage, so they will get the first and greatest attention. You should take a moment to go look closely at your door and frame. First off, most interior doors are hollow core doors. This means they have two sheets of ¼ inch plywood with dead air in between. This is not going to stand up to someone who is both determined, and has a strong kick. You should look into replacing it with a steel door (which are also hollow), or a solid wood door. Preferably out of something hard like Oak. The door to your safe room should have a peep hole. These can be purchased and installed with a relatively simple effort, or if you’re replacing the door, you may find one with it built in. If you’re installing it yourself, you may consider mounting it lower, so you can look through it while kneeling, or so your kids can look through it if you aren’t there. One other consideration is that (especially if you’re setting up for weather disasters) your door should definitely open INTO the room. If the storm leaves debris across the door you won’t be able to push it out. Opening into a room is pretty standard, so you likely won’t have to change anything.
Now let’s talk about the door frame. Most frames are a simple ¾ inch pine, which is a fairly soft wood. By the time you drill the hole for the bolt to fit into you’re talking about a very small amount of wood holding the door in place. A swift kick is all it really takes to tear out a door set up this way.
The striker plate can help add some strength to the door, but the standard screws that come with these things are only 1 inch long, and are only set into that little piece of ¾ inch wood, so they will probably pull out with that same kick. If you only make one modification to your safe room, do this; go to your local hardware store and get a box of 3 inch screws. Now go to your door and replace all the screws on your striker plates and hinges with the 3 inchers. This will anchor your strikers and hinges into the 2×4 stud behind the door frame, giving it a much beefier resistance to pull-outs. You should replace the hinge screws one at a time so you don’t risk getting your door out of alignment. They’re tricky to get back.
What about your locks? One thing you’ll notice about your dead-bolts is that they don’t (typically) stick out very far from the edge of the door, just seating in that ¾ piece of soft wood. Have you realized yet that every bit of your security rests on that little piece of scrap wood? You can get dead-bolts that have an extra long throw, again, seating into the studs behind the door frame. Or you can even get steel inserts that go into the wall that accept the bolt. These are not too complicated to install, just involved. It would be much better if you were able to put these in during new construction or a thorough remodel.
You can get dead-bolts in either keyed “one side” or keyed “both sides”. Keyed both sides is recommended for many home security applications, a burglar who breaks a door window can’t reach in and unlock it from the inside. However, these are a BAD idea for a safe room! If you’re trying to get away from an intruder in a hurry (they may even be chasing you down the hall!) you don’t want to have to fumble with a key. So leave these the typical keyed “one side”. And yes, in case you noticed, I am using plurals for a reason. To make your door really rock solid, you should have four dead-bolts. I recommend five actually. Put them in the four corners of your door, top, bottom, left, right, just keep them about 18 inches from the top/bottom edge. The fifth one? Right where it usually is. There are three reasons for this. One: Your door probably came pre-drilled for a standard dead-bolt (though not necessarily) and you’ll need to fill that hole with something anyways. Two: It gives an extra bit of protection right where the assailant is likely to plant their kicks. Three: Goes back to the scenario of locking up quick. It’s just instinctive to reach for the dead-bolt in it’s usual location. Get in and throw the main lock before your attacker gets there and it should hold him off long enough (if you’ve listened to the rest of this so far) to let you lock up tight.
Windows. Windows are typically seen as one of the weakest points of a home, despite the inherent dangers of climbing through broken glass. If you have a window in your safe room (that you aren’t keeping available as an exit) your best bet is to board it up. You could do bars, but then you’ll look like you live in Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela or something. If you are really concerned with appearances, get some window blinds and hang them inside the window frame instead of above it. Most blinds will have instructions for both. Close them up tight and it’ll cover almost all of what you’re doing to the window. You’ll have to remove any interior window trim. Get a good strong piece of plywood, maybe even paint the side towards the exterior if you want. Make sure it overlaps the window, I would recommend to the next stud. Not the one on each side of the frame, the next one. 16 inches should be the furthest you’ll have to look. Again using the 3 inch screws, anchor the tar out of that puppy, both around the edges and around the window sill. Now, you still only have a piece of plywood between you and them, maybe up to an inch. So you’ll need to reinforce it with 2×4’s, or even 2×6’s if you want overkill. I’d space them roughly 6 inches apart, running horizontally, placed edge on to the plywood. It would be easier to attach these before putting up the panel as a whole, screwed in from the exterior side.
Walls are also a lot weaker than most people realize. All you have between the studs is usually two pieces of ½ inch drywall and 3 ½ inches of air. Pretty easy to penetrate, even with a fist, let alone a foot or shoulder.
There are two basic ways to “harden” the walls around your safe room. The first, easy way, is to cut a hole in your sheet-rock, probably from inside your room. Make a funnel of some sort and pour pea gravel into the voids between studs. Remember, studs have a standard spacing of 16” from center to center, with variables for intersecting walls, window/doors etc. You can discuss all day how high you should fill the walls, but just remember the basics to help you decide for yourself. One thing to consider obviously is cost. Filling the voids to six feet will require more gravel than say, waist high. Next consider how high you expect the attack to come. Most people face with the task of penetrating sheet-rock are going to kick it, and the typical front on kick is not going to rise far above their hips, or maybe chest. That’s where you need to be protected.
The second, more expensive way to harden your walls is similar to the first, but when you cut the hole I your wall, insert a 55 gallon bag so the opening is sticking out. This will limit how high you can make your re-enforcement, but you can go higher incrementally. Using a funnel as in the method above, pour wet cement into the bag. The bag will contain it so it doesn’t try to seep through gaps in your construction or through switch boxes etc. The cement hardens and viola, you have a cement wall around your safe room. Do be mindful in both these methods that you need to avoid over taxing the walls from the inside out. Especially with cement, doing it in increments will avoid this. Just wait till it hardens, and it won’t be exerting outward pressure so you can add more on top.
Now, what to do when you’re locked up good and tight? First thing, call for help. Keep a phone in your safe room. Land lines can be cut, and would be by serious home invaders. Cell phones can be left on the counter in a panicked rush, and one that you leave in the room is being paid for (hopefully) for nothing. You can get a cheep pre-paid phone, but remember, most such arrangements allow for your minutes to expire monthly, so you need to make sure it’s current or you may end up with a dial pad paper weight when you need to use it.
If you only plan on calling 911, you can store an unused phone. Some time ago there was an agreement made that any phone, on any carrier, even without a plan of any sort, can access any tower to dial 911. So take an old phone, or a cheap phone, and put it in there. Just bear in mind if you want to make any additional calls (“honey, stay at the store till I call you back”), it will not work for that. Also be aware of battery life. Even keeping it turned off, you should check it occasionally to make sure it won’t fail during a crisis.
Observe. Remember I said you need a peep hole in your door? Watch what’s going on in your house. Any detail you can see could be used to aid the authorities in finding the intruders. (They also help verify when someone on the other side says “It’s safe now, I’m Officer So-and-so, open up”)
Arm yourself. Keep a firearm of some sort in your safe room. I recommend something that makes a loud “Schuck-Schuck” sound. Nearly as effective as firing it. Besides the universally feared sound, it makes a great blast to discourage someone from having an interest in any hole they may have made. Just make sure you’re responsible with it. If you teach your kids how to run to the safe room before you teach them how to handle the gun, make sure they cannot access it.
All of the above steps can be taken piece by piece, individually, modified to suit your situation. As with anything, you will find a trade off when it comes to security vs. effort/cost. Only you will know what you should do, just please do something, even at the very least, plan. A good evacuation plan (even evac to a room INSIDE the house) and rehearsals is probably to biggest single improvement you can make.