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Panic in Comfort With the Modern Safe Room

The ultra-secure spaces designed for waiting out an emergency.

The safe room of the future may be your very own board room.
The safe room of the future may be your very own board room. Yuri Samoilov

Ever since the release of the 2002 movie Panic Room, in which Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart play a mother and daughter taking refuge in their home’s specially designed safe room during a burglary, the idea of a secret, impenetrable home bunker has quietly seeped into the popular consciousness. But what exactly is a panic room, and where are they being installed?

In recent years, stories about the domestic safe rooms of the rich and paranoid have been popping up all over. From the New York Times to the New York Post to the Daily Mail, the story is the same: real panic rooms have become a necessary amenity for high-end homes, but for the most part, they are no longer the secret closet most people have in mind.

“The hidden room, the ‘Jodie Foster Panic Room,’ that’s a thing of the past,” says Tom Gaffney, CEO of Gaffco Ballistics, a company specializing in creating high-end safe rooms. Gaffney, who is frequently quoted about the state of the panic room, has been creating safe spaces for decades, starting in the 1980s. He began by designing secure check-cashing stores in New York’s South Bronx, before moving on to banks and corporate spaces. Gaffney now works mainly in ultra-high-end residential spaces, which he, for one, didn’t see coming. “Ninety percent of our work is high-end residential, 10 percent is corporate,” he says. “Our residential work tends to be the true one percent of society. Very high net worth individuals. … If you told me what I’d be doing 20 years ago, I’d say you’re mad.”    

Gaffney sees the decline of the secret safe room stemming from two main factors. For one, with real estate at a premium in most spaces, and especially in New York City, where the majority of his business comes from, no one has the square-footage to hide an extra room. On top of that, there is a practical element. If you have a little safe room hidden away that you never use, you don’t really know how to use it in the case of an actual attack. Now, the trend in residential safe rooms is to turn a regular use space in the home, often the bedroom, into a possible fortress.

One of Gaffco's safe rooms from their brochure.
One of Gaffco’s safe rooms from their brochure. Gaffco Ballistics

All of the panic rooms Gaffco builds are outfitted with a satellite phone so that they can never lose communication with the outside. Increasingly, they integrate the robust interconnectivity of standard smart homes so that all the rooms outside the reinforced one can be monitored. The levels of protection vary somewhat, however.

The main concern in creating panic rooms can vary from region to region, depending on the likely threat. “People in Palm Beach don’t have as much concern over a dirty bomb as people in New York City would,” says Gaffney. “People in San Francisco wouldn’t have the same concern as people in Los Angeles.”

Most safe spaces Gaffco builds focus first on preventing damage from ballistic attacks like guns or even rockets, and making forced entry impossible. They do this by building defenses right into the building itself. Walls can be reinforced with steel barriers and seemingly standard wooden doors can conceal a layer of military-grade polymer. If there are windows, those too will be made of bullet-resistant glass. And it’s all seamlessly integrated into the normal architecture.

“We’ve got glass that looks like normal glass, it doesn’t have a green tint to it, so you can’t even tell it’s bullet resistant,” says Gaffney. “Doors are high-end wood doors that look exactly the same as the doors in the rest of the residence. All of the security hardware concealed so you don’t even know it’s there.”

A step up from ballistic protection are the safe rooms that provide their own air filtration systems to help protect people from chemical, nuclear, and other airborne threats. Surprisingly, Gaffney says that the home movie theaters of the very wealthy, which are often located underground, make the perfect spot for such safe rooms.

“The idea of the movie theater is that in the case of a dirty bomb attack, you’re underground to begin with,” he says. “It’s a fallout bunker because it’s underground, but as it’s a movie theater, that’s usually equipped with food and water anyway. It has communication, it has air filtration, it has the air conditioning unit. It’s usually soundproofed, too.”

A pretty normal looking door, until you look at all the locks in the side.
A pretty normal looking door, until you look at all the locks in the side. Gaffco Ballistics

In addition to the ever-expanding residential market, Gaffney says that it is becoming increasingly standard for corporate spaces to have a safe room built into their offices. Usually this will be the board room, but it can also be places like a bathroom—anywhere employees can hide and wait for the authorities, in the case of an attack. This is in response to an increase in what Gaffney describes as “active shooter policies,” put in place to direct an employee’s response to an attack by a gunman.

No matter the venue, in designing their panic rooms, Gaffney says they follow the general example set up by U.S. embassies, which is to create layers of safety, with the safe room at the core. “The embassies are designed so that every area you fall back to, the security gets stronger,” he says. “The marines move backwards to the ambassador’s office which is a pure safe space within itself. We build to their specifications.” Most embassies, like many of Gaffco’s current safe rooms, also hide their defenses just under the surface of the building’s facade, when they are built up to the correct standard.

Panic rooms as we tend to think of them may no longer be around, but demand for them seems to be as great as ever. Gaffney told us that his company’s revenue doubled over the last year, working mainly on the homes of the very rich. And he for one, doesn’t see their increased interest in high-level safety precautions as panicky. “I really don’t think they’re paranoid, I don’t think they’re expecting the worst,” he says. “I think they’ve got a higher sense of the lack of security in the world today, based on events that are happening every day of the week.” Whether or not that’s true, his clientele definitely have a safe space to ponder it.