Extreme Home Safety: Panic Rooms & Bump Keys
A safe room, also known as a panic room, is a fortified room that is installed in a private residence or business to provide a safe hiding place in the event of an emergency.
- In Mexico, where kidnappings are relatively common, some people use safe rooms as an alternative (or a supplement) to bodyguards.
- In Israel, bullet- and fire-resistant security rooms have been mandated for all new construction since 1992.
- Since the 1980s, every U.S. embassy has had a safe room with bullet-resistant glass.
- Perhaps the largest safe room will belong to the Sultan of Brunei. The planned 100,000-square foot room will be installed beneath his 1,788-room, 2,152,782-square foot residence.
Why are safe rooms used? Reasons include:
- to hide from burglars. The protection of a safe room will afford residents extra time to contact police;
- to hide from would-be kidnappers. Many professional athletes, actors and politicians install safe rooms in their houses;
- protection against natural disasters, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Underground tornado bunkers are common in certain tornado-prone regions of the United States;
- protection against a nuclear attack. While structures near the blast may be incinerated, those far away may be shielded from radioactive fallout. This type of safe room, known as a fallout shelter and typically located outside the home, was more common during the Cold War than it is today; and
- to provide a temporary refuge in the event of a serious disease outbreak.
Safe rooms have become a status symbol in wealthy areas such as Bel Air and Manhattan, where it is believed there are thousands of such rooms. However, it is difficult to estimate the number of safe rooms because many homeowners will not publicize their existence in their own homes. Even real estate agents tend to hide the location of safe rooms, or even the fact that a house contains one, until they know a buyer is serious about purchasing the house.
Safe-room designs vary with budget and intended use. Even a closet can be converted into a rudimentary safe room, although it should have a solid-core door with a deadbolt lock. High-end custom models costing hundreds of thousands of dollars boast thick steel walls, video banks, computers, air-cleaning systems, bulletproof Kevlar®, and protection against bacterial and chemical infiltration. Recommendations for specific design elements are as follows:
- doors: These are one of the most critical components of the safe room design. A bullet-resistant door with internal steel framing can weigh several hundred pounds, yet it must operate smoothly, easily, and without fail in an emergency. The hardware must be selected to provide substantial, secure locking without compromising the smooth operation of the door itself. Most importantly, it must allow the door to be secured quickly, preferably from a single control point. The hardware should not be capable of being overridden or tampered with from the outside.
- floors: Concrete is an adequate material for the floor. In other forms of floor construction, such as wood, it is important to provide supplementary protection suitable to the anticipated type of emergency. As safe room construction often uses heavy materials, it is important to ensure that the floor can support a large load.
- sound insulation: The attackers may try to verbally coerce the occupants to leave the safe room. Effective sound insulation will limit the ability for such unwanted communication. Also, sound insulation will prevent the intruders from hearing phone conversations between the occupant and police.
- walls and ceilings: Wall construction that spans from floor to ceiling is generally preferred because of the structural continuity of the framing. Bricks and blocks, while bullet-resistant, can become dislodged from repeated sledgehammer battering. Steel stud walls, braced with additional reinforcing ties, can be faced with steel sheet or bullet-resistant materials, such as Kevlar®. These, in turn, may be covered with tile, sheetrock or other decorative finishes. Steel and Kevlar® panels are available in large sheet sizes. This helps minimize the number of joints that can be potential weak points of an assembly. It is important to not overlook penetrations that may be made for light fixtures, power points or plumbing pipes. Ductwork that passes through protected walls should also be carefully considered to ensure that the security is not breached or they are not used to transfer poisonous gasses into the safe room.
- cameras and monitors: Concealed cameras located outside the room enable its occupant to secretly monitor the movement and numbers of intruders. Effective camera systems may incorporate one visible camera outside the room so that an intruder disabling the exposed camera may not think to look for hidden cameras.
- generator: A self-contained power system is standard in most high-end safe rooms.
- Items to keep in a safe room:
- bottled water and non-perishable foods: There should be a small provision of bottled water and non-perishable foods (such as trail mix);
- communication devices: Ideally, all three of the following devices should be stored in the safe room;
- a cell phone and charger, which are convenient, but they may not operate through thick safe room walls. The charger will not work if no electrical receptacles are installed, so those are required, too;
- a land-line phone: Since cell phones may not work in a safe room, or because they may lose power, a land-line phone is recommended. It should, however, be on a separate line from the rest of the house so that intruders are less likely to disable it;
- a two-way radio;
- blankets: Occupants might be there for a while;
- first aid kit: Even if occupants make it to the safe room, they may have been injured by the intruder en route. It is unlikely that he will allow the occupants to re-enter the room after they leave it to look for band-aids;
- prescription medication: Small quantities of necessary medications should be stored in the safe room, or else occupants may be forced to surrender their position during a medical emergency. Having a hundred cans of tuna and a flat-screen TV does little good if your only asthma inhaler is left on the kitchen table;
- flashlights: Severe weather can knock out electricity to the house, or intruders may intentionally cut the power;
- sanitation supplies: Safe rooms built on a budget often don’t have a toilet. A bucket can be used as a low-cost alternative;
- weapons: If the intruders manage to enter the safe room, occupants should be prepared to defend themselves. Pepper spray is a common choice, and firearms are certainly no less effective; and
- gas masks, which may become necessary in the event that the intruders force poisonous gas into the safe room. Where an odorless gas might be used, an electronic device may be installed to detect any noxious fumes or poisons.
Most people think that a locked door affords them security, but to anyone who knows how to use a bump key, a door lock is just a minor inconvenience.
Bump keys are keys cut to a special design that will allow them to be used for picking pin-tumbler locks. Pin-tumbler locks are the world’s most popular lock, and these include exterior door entry locks for homes. The process of gaining entry using a bump key is called “bumping,” and it can be very effective.
All the cuts on a bump key are made to the maximum depth, so any key blank can be made into a bump key. Bump keys are manufacturer-specific. A Kwikset® lock requires a bump key made from a Kwikset® key. The same is true for other lock brands. So, a full set of bump keys would include one for each of the major lockset manufacturers.
How Do They Work?
Keys operate by aligning tiny spring-loaded pins inside the lock. Once the pins are correctly aligned, the cylinder will turn and the lock can be operated.
To use a bump key, the “pull-back” method is common. With this method, the key is inserted all the way in, and then pulled back out one notch. While keeping rotational pressure on the key, it is then bumped into the keyway with the heel of the hand or with a device of some sort. The “bumper” needs to bump the key hard enough to jar the pins, but not so much that the lock or key is damaged. Bumping the key causes the pins to jump slightly. Even this slight amount of motion is enough to allow the bump key to turn the cylinder, unlocking the lock.
The success of the bumper depends on practice. Very little skill is required, and the learning curve is short. Success will also vary with the type of lock and quality of the key. Keys made from soft metal won’t last long. Bumping tends to work better on more expensive locks, since the hard, high-quality parts work more smoothly. Bump keys sometimes deform when they’re hit, causing them to jam in the keyway. They can be difficult to remove.
Can I Buy a Bump Key?
Owning or possessing a bump key is not currently illegal, and bump key sets, and videos on how to use them, are available online. To acquire a bump key, all that’s needed is the identification of the manufacturer of the lock.
How Can I Improve My Home’s Security?
At least two companies, Schlage® and Baldwin, make locksets designed to defeat bump keys. But many locks that use a key and the pin-tumbler system are vulnerable to bumping. No standards exist which demonstrate resistance to bumping. The resistance to bumping a deadbolt lockset varies with the manufacturer. Electronic locks that have a key override are also vulnerable.
Bump-proof locks are rare and expensive. Bump-resistant locks are much more common. Some (but not all) lockset manufacturers include bump-resistant features in their newer locks.
Without buying a new, bump-resistant lock, consumers have two options. Usually, for less than $20, a locksmith can replace the original lock pins with “mushroom” pins, sometimes called spool pins, depending on the manufacturer. While these pins will improve the resistance of the lock, they will not make it bump-proof. Medeco® is a company that makes high-end locks. They can provide bump-proof lock cylinders for which a duplicate key is available only through Medeco®-authorized dealers.
Although bump keys have been around for more than 50 years, their existence has become more widely-known with the advent of the Internet. Consumers should be aware of this potential danger to their home’s security. Taking extra safety precautions, such as installing an alarm system, can provide homeowners with enhanced protection of their property.