Safe rooms 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 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.

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.

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.

Well, all right, one might ask again, but who actually buys these things? Installers are very hesitant about revealing who, never mind where, their business comes from. But Phil Kolman, president of United Protective Systems, a security systems installer in lower Manhattan, said that if someone were to suggest that his clients were, say, entertainment, diplomatic and business figures living near Central Park and the United Nations, well, he wouldn't immediately contradict that.

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