Safe rooms still a secretive business in N.Y.

`Panic Room' movie spurs interest in Manhattan, surrounding regions

April 28, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Gazing at the movie screen, the audience watched tensely as the actress Jodie Foster scrambled into the bunker-like room, secured the door and snatched the emergency telephone for help in the new movie, Panic Room, a thriller about a woman under siege in a fortified hiding place in her Manhattan brownstone.

The look on her face said it all - no dial tone - and the audience let out a collective gasp. Well, except for Robert Davis, who snorted so loudly that people turned around in their seats to see what was going on.

"It's just so ridiculous," said Davis, owner of Red Alert Inc., a security company in Staten Island. "Anyone who knows anything about safe rooms knows the most important aspect is impenetrable communication to the outside. What happened in that movie, that would just never happen in real life."

Davis has reason to know. He helps make, and sells, real-life safe rooms. Such rooms, which have been around in one form or another for a couple of decades, are sort of a modified, next-generation version of the old air raid shelters: giant vaults built into homes or apartments to provide inhabitants with a secure fortress in case of attack.

Rooms wired

The rooms, which vary in size from just about as big as a person to living-roomesque, are usually built of thick concrete and metal that will withstand small rockets. They come equipped with wired and wireless communication, a variety of alarms and closed-circuit television monitors allowing those inside to keep tabs on their uninvited guests.

Deluxe models include self-contained air supplies with purifying systems, an emergency power supply, portable toilets (conventional toilets require plumbing, which is difficult to secure), food storage and medical supplies.

So who actually buys safe rooms? Because of their cost, from about $25,000 to a couple of million dollars, safe rooms are for the most part bought by the very rich or the very paranoid, installers say. And while the movie has boosted interest somewhat, they say, the majority of folks who actually follow through with the installation of a safe room are not impulse shoppers, but people who fear, legitimately or not, that someone wants to either kidnap them or kill them. Possibly both.

The existence of a safe room is a very hush-hush matter. No one - not the cleaning people, the building superintendents or even close friends - is let in on the secret (lest someone be persuaded to take part in an abduction or killing, safe room experts say). Thus, a casual guest, or even a good friend, would probably never know that behind that built-in bookcase or bedroom mirror lies a bulletproof cell.

Installation, too, is a matter for zipped lips. Installers are often required to slip in and out the side entrance - no uniforms, please - and to confine their work to the middle of the day so the fewest neighbors will see them coming and going.

A critical detail

CitySafe, a company in Farmingdale, N.J., even parcels out the construction process in pieces so no one person understands every iota - a critical detail that the builder of the room in Foster's movie neglected, allowing a thief, played by Forest Whitaker, to know all the room's weaknesses.

CitySafe says it is one of the best high-end makers of safes and vaults. The consultation fee for a safe room starts at $100,000, and the finished product averages about $1.2 million. In a green aluminum building in the middle of unassuming New Jersey farmland, CitySafe has no Web site and delivers the pieces of its modular safe rooms to their Manhattan destinations in unmarked trucks.

Karl Alizade, the owner, is a well-dressed giant who immigrated from Russia in 1951. He fought in the Vietnam War and then became a police officer before opening CitySafe in 1983.

In his employ are experts in barriers, electronics, communications and weapons. Not only are CitySafe's rooms designed to protect from "tool attack, torch attack, explosive attack and weapon attack, up to and including hand-held rockets," they are also equipped with counterattack mechanisms that subject intruders to high-intensity light flashes that create vertigo and nausea, ultrasound so obnoxious that it is supposed to render victims unconscious, pepper spray, tear gas, "sticky spray" that essentially glues the bad guys to one spot and lethal ammunition.

This is true even though Alizade considers the use of deadly force only in a worst-case scenario, since, in this country, it is illegal. (Other countries, he added almost wistfully, are not nearly so uptight.)

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