How a Panic Room Works


A reinforced closet could make an excellent panic room.
A reinforced closet could make an excellent panic room.
© Photographer: John Wollwerth | Agency: Dreamstime

When you hear the words "panic room," you might think of the 2002 flick in which Jodie Foster hides in a fortified room in a Manhattan town house. Foster's character has a bevy of surveillance equipment and supplies, but thieves terrorize her and attack the room until she is forced to come out and confront them.

But panic rooms are generally less dangerous and exciting than they sound. For one, they're usually called "safe rooms," which makes them seem a little less dramatic. We can also trace their origins much further back than any Jodie Foster movie. Medieval feudal lords, for example, used safe rooms as protection from siege. But how close does Hollywood come to capturing a real panic room?

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Today's panic rooms can be extremely high-tech. Most security experts say that with basic communication equipment, occupants should have to hole up in the room for only an hour or two in case of a home invasion.

To understand the panic room, we have to understand why people want them. The most advanced fortresses come with hefty price tags, so only the wealthy can typically afford them. But in the wake of increased terror alerts and weather-related catastrophes in the United States, basic panic rooms are becoming more popular. They're constructed of weather-resistant materials and are stocked with gas masks and potassium iodine tablets to protect against biological and nuclear attacks. And some manufacturers claim their rooms can accommodate families for an extended stay -- even as long as a month.

Besides basic provisions and a good lock, panic rooms can include any number of features, from a battery of artillery to a fully stocked wet bar. But details are hard to come by -- because people are paying for privacy, most panic-room builders are unwilling to disclose much information.

In this article we will enter the panic room. We'll explore what real panic rooms are like and how they came into existence. Should you get one? Where do you get one? And what makes them safer than any other room in your home?

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Purpose of Panic Rooms

Most panic rooms have keyless entry for extra security.
Most panic rooms have keyless entry for extra security.
Chung Sun-Jun/Getty Images

Think of a panic room as a vault for people. In a country of gated communities, panic rooms are designed to be the ultimate in security. They range from simple rooms with reinforced doors to elaborate mini-fortresses that protect their occupants against biological and nuclear attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes and home invasions. High-end panic rooms, made with the most advanced materials, are more like luxury dens than bleak storm cellars.

Because of the Jodie Foster movie, many people associate panic rooms with home invasions, but this is actually not their most common purpose. As we mentioned, rooms built to withstand hurricane- and tornado-force winds have become more popular. These panic rooms are usually ground-floor closets or bathrooms whose foundations have been reinforced with steel and concrete.

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Many people who build panic rooms are trying to protect things, not people. Panic rooms can hide computer hard drives or permanently house artwork, rare books and other collections. You can make your panic room into a custom-designed safe that stores your delicate artwork in an airtight, climate-controlled environment. Your computer files can be safely hidden but accessible via an exterior generator.

Depending on how much safety you want and money you have, panic rooms have a wide range of safety features. You can reinforce a closet and throw in a few emergency supplies or build a house within your house.

Walls

A panic room, at the most basic level, is a box with an opening. So all six sides of the box -- walls, ceiling and floor -- must be fortified. You can reinforce a closet with plywood if you want a storm shelter, but it won't provide protection from invaders. The next step up is chicken wire or steel mesh, and blastproof Kevlar panels provide the ultimate protection. A cement-reinforced foundation can provide a stable base, and a steel ceiling, with optional Kevlar panels, will thwart invaders from bottom to top.

Most builders of modern panic rooms rely on lightweight Kevlar and plastics, allowing them to more easily build panic rooms on second floors -- off of the master bedroom, for instance. However, the ground floor is still the safest place for protection against natural catastrophes like hurricanes and tornadoes.

Entry

Panic rooms are designed to hide their occupants, so one of the best defenses is the invisible entrance. Bookcase entries and hidden pocket doors are popular choices.

The door is the one weak point of the fortified box, so its reinforcements are critical. Even if your walls aren't reinforced with steel, you might want to splurge on a solid steel door. Mortise locks, which are built into rather than attached to the door, provide another level of security, as do steel hinges and bolts. Steel doorjambs make it impossible for an intruder to kick in the door. High-end panic rooms often have keypad-controlled electromagnetic locks, which use magnetic forces to maintain the bond between a frame-mounted magnet and door-mounted hardware.

Most panic rooms do not have standard keys because they can be misplaced or fall into the wrong hands. Instead, doors might feature interior deadbolts, combination keypads or retinal or fingerprint-scanning devices.

­Next, we'll examine some of the features that can make your safe room even safer.

Panic Room Features

Depending on what you're using your panic room for, you might stock it with guns.
Depending on what you're using your panic room for, you might stock it with guns.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Communication

It's a good idea to leave a cell phone or ham radio in your panic room in case you need to communicate with the outside world. But if your panic room is too isolated or reinforced for reliable cell phone service, you can always install a buried phone line, an intercom system or an alarm button directly connected to a police or security team.

You'll also want to keep your communication secret from intruders. Soundproofing the panic room prevents an intruder from hearing your conversations with law enforcement. And if the invaders do discover that you're in the room, they won't be able to taunt you verbally.

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Surveillance

You might remember that Jodie Foster's panic room had a wall of monitors that dramatically displayed each corner of the house. The typical panic room -- if it does have surveillance -- has one monitor connected to a number of hidden cameras. High-end panic rooms can also utilize heat-sensing cameras, so if the home is attacked at night, you can covertly check out who's in the house.

Power

Most panic rooms are powered by generators. You have to be careful about ventilation, though, and always be mindful of carbon monoxide poisoning. Generators must be self-contained in the panic rooms, which necessitates more room -- and more money. In the most basic panic rooms, battery-powered or hand-cranked lights and phones may be sufficient.

Air circulation

The most elaborate and expensive panic rooms are airtight, temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers. They can have separate air-filtration systems that protect from biohazards, and dummy vents to throw off invaders. And as a last resort, high-end panic rooms can include oxygen masks.

Plumbing

Again, depending on how much you want to spend, plumbing can be as basic as a portable toilet -- or you can install separate plumbing and a septic tank. Of course, you'll want to stock the room with water (a gallon per person per day is a general guideline).

Supplies

This is where people can get a little crazy, depending on how much they're willing to spend. The supplies are what help the occupants survive an attack -- like food, water and first aid equipment.

Supplies for the über-wealthy can go way beyond the basics -- to keep the masters of the house preoccupied with thoughts other than who's stealing the good silverware, panic rooms can become luxurious dens with beds, wet bars and entertainment systems. Some owners even build two panic rooms: one for the parents and one for the kids. High-end panic rooms often include items like chemical washbasins -- to rinse off biohazards -- and gas masks.

Weapons

If you built your panic room to protect your family from hurricanes, stocking the room with weapons will probably not be a priority. But if you think you might have to defend your estate from armed terrorists, you'll probably want an arsenal. Pepper spray comes in on the low end, and the sky is pretty much the limit on the high end: You can arm each member of the household with a gun, for example, or install high-voltage stun devices under the carpet in case an intruder makes it into the room.

In the next section, we'll find out how you can get your own panic room.

Panic Room Construction and Costs

Workers in Sioux City, Iowa, construct a tornado shelter with cement-filled foam walls.
Workers in Sioux City, Iowa, construct a tornado shelter with cement-filled foam walls.
Dave Gatley/FEMA Photo

The easiest and most cost-effective way to install a panic room is during construction of a new home. You can work with an architect specializing in secure facilities or bring in a security firm during the blueprint stage. You'll probably want to tell as few people as possible about the panic room, so the designer often does not tell the contractor about it. It might be called a "mechanical room" on the blueprint, and then you'd bring in a security team after the contractors leave. You'll want to have the architectural and security firms sign confidentiality agreements to protect the secret room.

In existing homes, bathrooms, closets and wine cellars often get made over into panic rooms. A security firm can advise you on how to fortify a particular room so that it is easily accessible to you but not to intruders. Some companies also mass-produce personal safe rooms.

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The big decisions depend on the purpose of the panic room. If you're worried about safety from intruders, most experts say the room needs to hold long enough for the police to arrive, usually 30 minutes to a couple of hours. For protection from weather-related catastrophes, placement is the most important factor. The ground floor or basement is safest against a tornado, but high ground offers better protection against floods. Supplies and stability are critical.

For safety from nuclear or biological attacks, long-term protection is necessary. The Department of Justice Emergency Preparedness manual states, "Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide sufficient air to prevent the buildup of carbon dioxide for up to five hours" [source: U.S. Department of Justice]. If you want to be able to hide out for even longer, check out fallout shelters: One German company, ABC Guard, claims it has made a portable fallout shelter that can house seven people for up to a month.

Panic Room Costs

Panic rooms are pretty expensive, but since they are mostly marketed to the very wealthy, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Construction of a high-end panic room typically starts at $50,000 and can reach beyond $500,000, depending on amenities.

On the low end, converting a closet or extra room into a panic room usually starts around $3,000. Plywood reinforcements for a closet cost about $2,500, and bullet-resistant electronic doors start at $22,000. Add another $3,000 to $10,000 if it's professionally designed.

According to one estimate on Bankrate.com, adding bullet-resistant Kevlar, a dedicated phone line, backup generator and keyless entry to an existing room can cost $40,000 to $60,000.

­In the next section, we'll find out who has panic rooms and where they are most popular.

Panic Room Popularity

Panic rooms are mostly for high-level executives, politicians and celebrities, although corporations do install them to protect execs from disgruntled employees.

According to some estimates, nearly every new mansion in Los Angeles has a panic room, as do many Manhattan executive suites and town houses. Others say the panic room is mostly an urban legend. The exact numbers are difficult to pin down because the point of the panic room is to be a secret hideout. In fact, most homeowners will not show the room to a buyer until the home is already in escrow -- or they tear down the room before selling.

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Since Sept. 11, more middle-income families have been investing in panic rooms. And abuse victims are increasingly utilizing panic rooms instead of fleeing their homes (see sidebar).

FEMA is encouraging people to share their ideas for weather-resistant panic rooms. Additionally, the agency -- along with some cities and school districts -- is considering safe rooms in hurricane-prone areas to protect emergency responders and to store important documents.

Internationally, panic rooms have grown in popularity. Embassies have used safe rooms for at least 25 years to protect government officials and important documents during attacks. Since the 1980s, every U.S. embassy has had a panic room with bullet-resistant glass. In Israel, all new buildings and apartments have been required since 1992 to include bullet- and fire-resistant rooms. In Mexico, where kidnappings for ransom are common, many people use safe rooms as an alternative (or an addition) to bodyguards.

Next we'll look at the origins of the panic room.

History of Panic Rooms

The ancient Egyptians built safe rooms in the pyramids.
The ancient Egyptians built safe rooms in the pyramids.
Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

Panic rooms can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt. Secret rooms were built within the ancient pyramids to protect an entombed pharaoh's treasures from thieves. However, in terms of safety for the living, the idea of the panic room began with castles. The "castle keep," a room located in the deepest part of the castle, was designed so the feudal lord could hide during a siege.

"Priest holes," another precursor to the panic room, were designed to hide Catholic priests during the 17th century, when persecution of Catholics was at its height in England.

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In the United States, we can trace panic rooms to the Underground Railroad in the 1800s, when secret rooms hid escaping slaves. In the 1920s, hidden rooms stashed Prohibition-banned booze. Safe rooms for weather protection have their origins in storm cellars -- think Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

The features of the modern panic room are mostly derived from fallout shelters during the 1960s, which were created in response to the fear of nuclear attacks. The modern residential panic rooms began appearing on the West Coast about 25 years ago.

In fact, panic rooms are evolving into safe "cores," which include a fortified section or floor in newly constructed residences.

­While some may laugh off panic rooms as money pits that placate the fears of the wealthy and the paranoid, modern panic rooms are increasing in popularity among those desiring security in a post-Sept. 11, post-Katrina and post-Enron world. They are the ultimate gated community.

To learn more about panic rooms, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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  • Bubil, Harold. "Harden your hearth; A hurricane-safe room in your home keeps your family off the streets and out of the public shelters as the tempest draws near." Sarasota Herald Tribune, Oct 2, 2004.
  • Calvo, Dana. "Opening a Door to Panic Rooms." Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2002.
  • Cockle, Richard. "Panic rooms show solid gain." The Oregonian (Portland, OR), April 27, 2003.
  • Coledan, Stefano; Doran, Linda; Gourley, Scott; and Ruben, Paul. "Panic Room." Popular Mechanics, April 2003.
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  • Pancevski, Bojan. "Bunkers in vogue with Germans as fears of terrorism, cold war rise." London Sunday Telegraph, June 17, 2007.
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