Safe At Home

Fortress: Some people are having their very own installed in their home so any bad guys who happen to get inside can't get at them. They aren't inexpensive.

April 06, 2003|By Trif Alatzas | Trif Alatzas,SUN STAFF

Most people have secret hiding places in their homes - a safe for cash, a locked drawer for documents, a cabinet for guns or liquor.

Some are taking it a step further: Building rooms to hide themselves.

While a jittery nation worries about crime, war, terrorism and chemical attacks, more Americans than ever are finding refuge in "safe" rooms - steel and concrete havens, some buried beneath floors, others tucked behind bookcases.

And the public's hunger for security is producing a small but growing industry of manufacturers of in-house fortresses.

Safe rooms cost as little as $6,000 for a shelter not much larger than a telephone booth, to more than $80,000 for one as large as a bedroom. And those prices buy only the standard shell of a room. Some homeowners are spending thousands more on options such as trap doors, protected telephone and power lines, air filtration systems and closed-circuit television.

Paula Milani of Livermore, Calif., fortified an extra room at her ranch and hid it behind a bookshelf. The idea grew from a conversation with her young niece, who inquired one night during a sleepover about the home's security system and whether it would protect them if intruders entered the house.

About the size of a powder room, Milani's shelter is lined with light-wood paneling and beige carpeting. Milani has never had to use the room in an emergency situation. In the meantime, it serves as a fancy gun locker.

"I know I would be safe there," said Milani, 39. "It gives me enough time to call 911."

Manufacturers say these rooms are designed as temporary shelters from criminals or natural disasters, and are built only to provide safety until authorities can arrive.

"The things that we design are really not intended to be bomb shelters," said Robert Davis, president of Red Alert Inc. in Staten Island, N.Y., who builds safe rooms and fortifies homes for wealthy clients. "These are designed to secure the occupants of particular residences or businesses in the event of some type of attack."

The rooms are often sought by corporate executives, celebrities and diplomats. This secretive security business gained notoriety last year with the release of Panic Room, a film starring Jodie Foster. In the movie, Foster's character and her daughter seek shelter in a room that could provide safety for days.

"These are for special individuals," said Roy Yost, vice president of Advanced Building Structures in Monkton, who said he has built concrete safe rooms for an arms dealer and a family that had a similar shelter overseas.

"Some of them are very eccentric."

Zytech Engineering, a Westminster-based company that designs and markets safe rooms, believes that the fear of the unknown will convince mainstream America to invest in safety, and is airing a television advertisement showing two men with sledgehammers banging futilely against its prefabricated steel safe room.

The TV ads have resulted in hundreds of telephone inquiries and orders to build more than eight safe rooms, said Jeff Quante, Zytech's chief operating officer.

"We have mixed emotions at being in the business at this time in history," Quante said. "But our room is impenetrable and it keeps you safe. By the time you get in there, the call for help already has gone out and no one is getting in there."

The most inexpensive model costs $8,900 and resembles a portable toilet commonly seen at construction sites. It has two security-keyed cylinder locks, a steel door, small seat and can hold up to three people. Zytech claims the room's walls will resist bullets from high-powered rifles and it will keep armed intruders at bay for at least an hour.

The company's high-end model can cost more than $45,000 and is built with a communication system and alarms, and can be retrofitted to include protection from nuclear or chemical attacks.

About the size of a bedroom, the shelter can hold up to eight people and be assembled in a home within a day or two.

Zytech hopes to use aluminum and plastic to make its safe rooms impervious to chemical or biological attacks as well as to lower the costs. The shelters are made for Zytech by Dunn Industries Inc. in Northeast, a company that manufactures tanks to store materials such as water, chemicals and petroleum.

The National Home Builders Association said it does not track sales of safe rooms, but added that interest in them from consumers is increasing. The trade group said it believes that safe rooms will one day be an option offered in most upscale homes.

Others are skeptical.

"People may think about it, but I don't see it happening," said Chuck Fisher, a Philadelphia-based security and management consultant and chairman of the Private Security Service Council, a trade group. "If you were going out to build a house, and you have the choice to put a deck or a concrete-insulated room and you can only afford one of them, you're going to put in the deck. Safe rooms are way out there on the other end of the list."

Milani agrees that they aren't for everyone. But her room provides peace of mind.

"Unfortunately, in the world that we live in, you think about your safety more," Milani said. "This is for the things in my life that I can't replace."

Inside a safe room

Safe rooms typically are built to an owner's specifications and can include several options depending on someone's budget.

Most rooms come with standard features such as steel doors, first aid kits and lighting. The shell can cost from $6,000 to more than $80,000.

Buyers have been known to include such things as furniture, weapons and air filtration systems.

The rooms typically are found in a basement or are hidden in other areas of the home.

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