Creating a Safe Room in Your Home

When the tornado siren sounds or high winds and tropical storms are headed your way, do you know where to take shelter?

Locating and choosing a safe room is an important and necessary step to emergency preparedness for any home. The words “safe room” might also bring to the images from the movie Panic Room starring Jodie Foster.

“There’s a difference between a room for shelter reasons and one for security reasons,” says Rick Tobin, TAO Emergency Management Consultant. “It is important to consider – what is your intention for this safe room?”

For the purpose of this article, we’ll be referring to disaster preparedness. If you are interested in home invasion safe or panic rooms, refer to the resource section below.

Choosing a Safe Room

An ideal location for your safe room can be an existing space such as a bathroom, closet or pantry. “These alternative safe rooms work best because of their absence of windows,” says Buzz Weiss, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA).

When looking at rooms, look for a space with no windows. Also ask: “Is the room using an outside wall or inside wall?” says Rick Tobin, TAO Emergency Management Consultant. “Inside is always best. It’s safer than the existing structure around you but there’s no such thing as absolutely safe.”

Building a Safe Room

Don’t have a safe location like this in your home? You can always choose to retrofit your home and build a newer safe room or a storm cellar.

However, safe rooms aren’t cheap. “The cost for constructing a safe room inside a new house is between $2,500 and $6,000,” says Weiss. “This cost depends on the type of foundation on which your house is built and the size and location of the shelter.”

Don’t get discouraged – there are a few options available to help you lower costs. “Sometimes there are funds and grants available for [retrofitting],” says Tobin. “Find out from your local building office or emergency managements if there are any grants provided or available – especially after disasters.”

“Ask your insurers as well,” says Tobin. Making disaster preparedness improvements to your home can possibly lower your premiums so ask your home owner’s or flood insurance agent about the retrofitting options available for your policy.

If you are building a safe room, you’ll have to take things into consideration such as the size and location of the room. FEMA suggests several places where you can build your safe room:

  • Your basement.
  • Atop a concrete slab-on-grade foundation or garage floor.
  • An interior room on the first floor.

“But be sure that walls that are used as walls of the safe room are separated from the structure of the residence so that damage to the residence will not cause damage to the safe room,” says Buzz Weiss. If you do build a safe room in the basement, “below-ground safe rooms must be designed to avoid accumulating water during the heavy rains that often accompany severe windstorms.”

WHN EXPERT TIP: Special Needs

If you or your family has any special accessibility needs, consider these when creating your safe room. For example, if someone in your family has a handicap and cannot descend stairs, the basement would not be your first choice for a safe room. Consider an interior first floor safe room instead.

WHN EXPERT TIP: Going Pre-Fab

Prefabricated manufactured shelters or safe rooms are also available – they can require less building construction experience to successfully install. You should always ask for documentation to see that it meets FEMA's recommendations. Prefab safe rooms must be securely anchored to their foundations. Prefab safe rooms must also have adequate ventilation.
– Buzz Weiss, GEMA

Using the Safe Room

After building or selecting an existing space for your safe room, check to see if it’s large enough for you and your family (and perhaps your pets!). Secure down any heavy items and clear clutter so that you won’t be injured by falling objects.

WHN EXPERT TIP: Extra Storage Space

A safe room can double as a master closet, bathroom or utility room as long as you keep its main purpose in mind by always having emergency supplies [and enough space for you and your family] readily available.
– Buzz Weiss, GEMA

Secondly, equip the safe room with emergency preparedness items or your “go” kits. “They should be in a duffel bag to move around quickly. Also have the capacity for mobility in case you need to leave your shelter behind.”

Top must-have items in your safe room:

  • Water
  • Food
  • Portable hand-crank weather radio
  • Flashlight and batteries
  • First aid kit

Third, make a plan to get to the safe room in a hurry. “When you hear that [tornado] train sound, you’ll want to be able to crawl around the coffee table in the dark to get that safe room,” says Tobin.

Practice the plan each month to keep it fresh and try to improve on your time. “Because warning times for tornadoes can be very short, quick access to the safe room is important in choosing a location,” says Weiss.

Additional Resources

Reviewed 5/2009