N E W Y O R K, April 2, 2002 -- In the new movie Panic Room, Jodie Foster barricades herself in a high-tech bunker inside her New York brownstone, while burglars try to get in.
The movie apparently struck a chord with audiences, becoming the biggest Easter weekend opening in history, grossing a record $30 million.
(If you haven't seen the movie but plan to, you may want to stop reading here because the experts reveal some details from the film.)
Real-life panic rooms, which security companies actually call safe rooms, are becoming increasingly common in the homes of the rich, who fear they may be targets of stalkers, kidnappers, home invaders, assassins or terrorists.
They have become something of a status symbol in posh areas like Los Angeles' Bel Air and Holmby Hills, where there are believed to be thousands of such rooms. The rooms range from the simple — a reinforced door with a phone and a fridge — to the elaborate, with video banks, computers, air-cleaning systems and even protection against bacterial warfare.
A wide variety of people and businesses are in the market for bunker-type rooms, said Bill Rigdon, the vice president of Building Consensus, a Los Angeles company that specializes in safe-room construction. Customers can choose features like "isolators" that tie into steel girders so if there is an explosion beneath the floor, it will still hold together. Safe rooms also come with pressure-resistant windows and Kevlar bulletproof panels that look like normal walls.
"Customers are anyone from wealthy Kuwaiti businessmen to celebrities, producers, directors, guys who head software companies and Fortune 500 companies," Rigdon said. "They are attracted by the fact that they are safe in their homes."
Increasingly, businesses are considering installing safe rooms too, as the rooms become the bomb shelters of the early 21st century. All government offices and buildings have something they consider a safe room where employees can be safe in the event of an emergency.
How Safe Are They?
In the movie, the "panic room" fails, but with today's technology, that should not happen, said Mark Llewellyn, a 27-year FBI veteran, now retired, who consults on security for Rigdon.
The room in the movie did not have the right set-up or security, Llewellyn said. "It is supposed to be just a safe place, and if it is prepared properly, it is just that," he said.
People can stay in a panic room as long as events warrant, whether it is a few minutes or a few days. "The idea is to be in control and to be unreachable," Llewellyn said. Some rooms have exits so that you can escape to safety, or the police can reach you to provide assistance.
State-of-the-art safe rooms include an independent phone line, a back-up generator, oxygen scrubbers to replenish the air supply, and closed-circuit television screens connected to computers. A joystick allows the safe room occupant to lock and unlock doors throughout the house to trap an intruder.
After Sept. 11, there was a flood of elaborate security requests amid panic about biological weaponry because of the anthrax scares, Rigdon said. As a result, Building Consensus redesigned its air filtration systems to combat a biological threat.
"We provide dummy vents, so no one knows what vents to go into," Rigdon said. The company also provides wash stations that allow residents to get rid of any potentially harmful substance they may have been contaminated with. "They go in, pull a chain and are showered by a separate water system to wash away any possible biological materials."
The company has installed dummy electrical panels in homes and buildings to provide extra time in case someone is trying to cut power. They also offer very small, high-tech cameras — not like the big ones in the movie — that will give a 360-degree view of the perimeter of the home, and ham radio systems that operate even if cellular and satellite communications have been knocked out.
An elaborate panic room can cost anywhere from $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars. But they can also be created on a low budget.
"Anyone can create a safe room in their own home by choosing a room they feel comfortable in, installing a reinforced door, and having a plan for what to do in a crisis," Rigdon said.