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How to Create a Safe Room

A safe room is intended to offer protection from a chemical or biological incident by minimizing the amount of the agent that enters the room, thereby reducing or eliminating its effect on the occupants. They are especially useful when infants or small children are present in the home, since it is difficult or expensive to obtain personal protection systems designed for kids. A safe room also provides protection for pets as well as giving its occupants mobility, a place to sleep, and allows reading and watching TV more easily than a gas mask and chemical safety suit. When equipped with a robust HEPA filter, it may also offer protection for longer periods of time than a gas mask filter, which generally has a 3.5-hour life span in a toxic environment.

People in Israel and those who live near chemical manufacturing or processing plans have created safe rooms in their homes for years. Captain Dave has reviewed data from multiple military and industrial sources, including the Israeli Defense Force, and is please to recommended the following guidelines to preparing your own safe room:

 

Picking the Safe Room Location

Pick a room on an upper floor (not the basement) with few windows. The fewer external walls, the better. A room with an adjoining bathroom is always nice. We often recommend the master bedroom since it usually includes full bathroom facilities, a TV, a phone and is comfortable. Basement rooms should not be chosen because some poison gasses have a tendency to collect in low places.

The room should have a minimum of one-square yard of floor space per person, but for optimal comfort, at least twice this much space is recommended.

Preparing the Room Ahead of Time

Ideally, you are reading this well ahead of a biological or chemical emergency and have time to plan and prepare your room. Preparations include both steps you can take to make the room airtight and supplies you may want to store in the safe room.

Buy enough of the following to cover all the windows and other entrances in your safe room area:

  • Weather stripping (get enough for the door, too.)
  • Clear plastic film, at least 1 mm thick, wide enough to cover your windows
  • Scissors or something else to cut the plastic to fit
  • Duct tape
  • Caulk and a caulk gun
  • A portable HEPA air filtration system. (You can create safe room without the HEPA filter device, but this will significantly increase your level of protection.)

Before the event, install the weather stripping material on all windows, ensuring that they seal tightly in a manner that eliminates the transfer of air from outside to the inside of your home. (This is a good investment because it will better insulate your house and lower your heating and cooling bills.) Also install weather stripping on the door(s) to the safe room, even if it only leads to another room. You can also add weather stripping on your external doors elsewhere in the house -- it won't hurt and will probably help.

If you have an older house or older windows, caulk the windows to prevent any drafts or leakage. Also caulk any other locations where air might penetrate your house, such as holes where cable and phone wires enter the room.

Set up the HEPA filter and plug it in. (HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particle Arresting and removes 99.97 percent of all particles 0.3 microns or larger and is recommended in the Wall Street Journal as a way to remove Anthrax bacteria and other harmful substance from the air. If you buy a unit such as the Austin Air filter that Captain Dave recommends, it will also remove volatile organic compounds and chemicals from the air.) You will benefit from the advantages of an air purifier whether or not there is a chemical or biological emergency.

Store the following items in a box or two in the safe room:

  • Bottled water, juice, sports drinks or other beverages
  • Food that can be stored for a long time yet requires little or no preparation, such as peanut butter and crackers, peanuts or mixed nuts, energy bars, candy bars, pretzels, pudding packs individual servings of applesauce, etc.
  • A portable radio with fresh batteries
  • A flashlight with fresh batteries
  • Extra batteries for each
  • A deck of cards, a few books and games or activities to keep you busy.
  • Any basic toiletries or medicines you may need.
  • A fan, as it may become warm in a confined space, and you must shut off the air conditioning to prevent it from bring outside air into the safe room.

Once you have everything in place and installed, you can rest a bit easier until such time you feel a chemical or biological emergency is imminent. If you have established your bedroom as the safe room, you will have a high degree of safety with the HEPA filter on and the doors and windows sealed, even if there is an attack while you are asleep.

How do you know when to go to your safe room?

While there may be a broadcast alert, either through an all-news TV or radio station, or some official notification of an attack or emergency -- such as sirens -- your senses are also important. Use your five senses as well as your common sense to determine when you should retreat to a safe room.

Some dangerous chemicals will cause you to experience a burning or itching in the eyes, nose and throat. Others, such as chlorine or ammonia, will have a distinctive smell. Also be aware of explosions or other sounds that could represent some type of munitions. All are cues to retreat to the safe room. Visual cues for a biological attack might include a low-flying crop duster in parts where there are no crops or a truck with a large plume of white spray fanning out behind it.

Decontamination

If you are exposed during an attack -- outside the house, in your car or otherwise feel you may have been contaminated -- your best bet is to immediately return home and park outside your house. Remove all your clothing and personal items and put everything in a plastic garbage bag, sealing it shut for later decontamination. Then retreat from your car to your garage, leaving the car outside so it does not contaminate your house. Many garages have a hose and drain on the floor. If yours does, take advantage of this to hose yourself off with water. Wash thoroughly two or three times with antibacterial soap and let the suds stay on you for at least one minute prior to rinsing. Wash your hair very well, too. If you do not have a hose in the garage, hose yourself off outside. (If you are terribly shy, leave on your underwear.)

Then use clean towels to dry off prior to entering the house. Rub yourself vigorously and then leave the towels in the garage. Enter your house as the day you were born, with nothing on, including shoes and jewelry. Do not bring your purse, wallet, gun or other items unless they have been thoroughly decontaminated with Lysol, bleach or another disinfectant. Once you are inside, retreat to the safe room and again shower in the bathroom, using a strong soap.

In Event of an Attack

If you expect an imminent attack or believe there is a danger from biological or chemical attack, you should:

  1. Immediately close all windows and doors

  2. Turn off all heating or air conditioning

  3. Put on your gas mask

  4. Gather all residents of the home, including pets, and retreat to the safe room

  5. Turn on the HEPA filter

  6. If you have not already done so, cover the windows in your safe room with plastic (preferably clear so that you can see out and light can get in), taping the plastic all around with duct tape or another strong tape. (Some systems made to insulate windows allow you to heat the plastic with a hair dry to cause it to tighten up and look better. Captain Dave has not tested this system and notes that the important issue is integrity of the seal, not appearances.)
  7. Apply additional tape over the cracks around windows and the door to prevent any air transfer. Take a bath towel, moisten it, fold or roll it and place it against the crack under the door.

  8. Also cover with plastic, taped securely in place all air conditioning/heater vents (don't forget the bathroom fan) and any other hole, void, crack or crevice where outside air might enter the room.

  9. Fill the tub and sink bowl with water, putting the stopper in place.

  10. Take a deep breath -- you are now as safe from biological or chemical attack as you can be without spending thousands of dollars.


How do you know when it is safe to leave the room?

Your best bet is to wait for some kind of official notification, such as an all-clear siren or broadcast.

With chemicals, the danger usually dissipates in a number of hours. Weather conditions play a role in how quickly the chemicals are diluted to a residual level that is no longer dangerous. Wind, for example, will cause the chemicals to blow away. Usually, you can leave the safe room after a number of hours from the incident, assuming there are not continued attacks or leaks (in the case of an industrial emergency).

With a biological threat, the danger can last much longer. Anthrax and other bacteria and viruses may break down after exposure to sunlight, but weaponized anthrax is a bit of a question mark. Plus, there may be residual amounts remaining at ground level which could be stirred up when you walk through it. If you are certain that Anthrax or another biological hazard has been spread in your neighborhood, we suggest that you stay in your safe room as long as you can comfortably do so without running out of oxygen, water or food. Even then, utilize caution when leaving the house and consider getting a test or possible antibiotic treatment.

WARNING: You must always keep in mind the amount of oxygen in the room. If the room is completely sealed, you will be consuming oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. Dying from a lack of oxygen is not a positive outcome, especially when the chemical or biological threat may not have actually materialized or the danger may have passed. If you notice your breath becoming shallow or rapid, or you experience any other symptoms that may reflect oxygen deprivation, you should immediately don your gas mask and open a door to another part of the house to let in some fresh air. This is where a HEPA filter can have a great benefit. It not only removes 99.97 percent of all harmful particles greater than 0.3 microns, some models create a "clean air pocket" near the exit area of the filter.

Final Note and Disclaimer

Please note that no form of protection can be considered complete when dealing with chemical and biological agents, in part because real-world experience is severely limited or out of date. Your best protection is avoidance. The safe room process and other procedures described above represent what we believe to be the best alternative than the general population can achieve other than leaving the target area prior to an incident. However, this is only one method of protection, and it is not warranted or guaranteed by Captain Dave. You must assume responsibility for your own safety and well being.


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