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Facing Fears With a 'Safe Room' at Home

Experts recommend low-tech options that start at $100.

October 21, 2001|ANNIE GROER | WASHINGTON POST

Before Sept. 11, Neil Livingstone advised perhaps a dozen clients a year how to create a residential "safe room" in case of "home invasion" by armed robbers or kidnappers. Now, as fears of mail-borne anthrax rattle a public already shocked by terror attacks five weeks ago, he receives daily inquiries about home protection.

"Everyone wants to know what to do," said Livingstone, chairman and chief executive of GlobalOptions, an international risk-management firm in Washington. "Everyone" includes his wife, Susan Livingstone, undersecretary of the Navy, who managed to escape through billowing smoke and searing heat from a Pentagon conference that fateful Tuesday.

After the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan and widening bioterrorism scares last week, she asked her husband how to make their Watergate apartment safer for themselves and their toy poodle, Bomber.

Options are multiple, dictated by levels of alarm and income: Spend $25,000 to $50,000 or more (potentially much more) on a steel and reinforced-concrete mini-bunker, complete with high-tech communication and ventilation systems, backup generator, gas masks, "moon suits," beds and enough food and drugs to last for months.

Or spend about $100 on plastic sheeting, duct tape, bottled water, a portable radio and first-aid kit to secure an existing room for a few hours. Livingstone advised his wife to take a low-cost, low-tech approach: reasonable preparedness without undue paranoia.

"I told her how to turn one bathroom into a safe room. We don't have windows there, but even if you have them, you can do it. You need a lot of masking or duct tape. You turn off all the heating and air-conditioning systems, put the tape over any ventilation ducts, all around the windows and door and cover any drains."

This is not the first time America has been on high alert. The Cold War and Cuban missile crisis sent many scrambling for materials to build and stock home bomb shelters in the event of nuclear war. Using mail-order plans, prefab kits or custom builders, they created shelters of various sizes and states of elaborateness. And a generation of students learned to scamper under desks during "duck and cover" air-raid drills.

Today's renewed sense of alarm has been a fact of life for decades in many strife-torn nations. In Israel, the government provides gas masks to citizens. "Every house, every apartment building must have a safety room, like a small bomb shelter made of steel, with a special door, also steel, very heavy," said Michal Mazoz of the Israeli Embassy here. "During the Gulf War, they told us to put up plastic to seal the windows so air cannot come through, and also on the door."

For added protection, Israelis were advised to wedge towels dampened in water and baking soda between door and floor "to help prevent gas from coming inside. And, of course, we have the masks. Some people bought a plastic suit and wore it when the alarms went off. My mother wanted to buy some, but my father said it was ridiculous," he said.

There is no law requiring Americans to have a safe room, and most have no clue what they are. "A true safe room that you see a lot of in Hollywood--a lot of movie stars, moguls, have it in their home--are reinforced against things to the point you can't shoot through it," says Chuck Vance, who heads a security consulting firm in Oakton, Va.

Vance (President Ford's Secret Service agent and former son-in-law) tells clients there are basically three levels of home protection: "a regular holding room, your safe room and then you've got almost a bomb shelter .... We are recommending the lower end."

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