Residential Security: Safe-Havens, Fire Plans and Emergency Drills

7 MINS READMar 9, 2006 | 22:16 GMT
Editor's Note: This is the third in a three-part series on residential security. Of the five rings of protection in residential security, the innermost ring is the safe-haven, or "panic room." It is the place to which residents can retreat if a potentially violent intruder successfully penetrates the outer security rings and gains entry into the residence. Safe-havens are small, windowless rooms such as sufficiently sized and unobstructed closets or purpose-built rooms designed and installed by professionals. In most cases, using these rooms is preferable to attempting to run from the residence in the event of a break-in, as running could expose the residents to the intruders. Not all residential security plans require a safe-haven, although if the decision to create or install one is part of the broader security assessment, it should become an integral part of the plan. Every home, however, should have a fire/evacuation plan. The safe-haven should be centrally located on the sleeping floor, the part of the residence where bedrooms are located. If there is more than one sleeping floor or area, each one should have its own safe-haven. The pathways from the sleeping quarters to the safe-haven should be easy to maneuver and free from obstructions — and they must not cross the paths likely to be used by the intruders. Safe-havens usually are rated based on the time it would take an intruder equipped with hand tools such as sledge hammers and crowbars to break into them. Thus there are 10-minute safe-havens, two-hour safe-havens, etc. This rating is reflected in the design and materials used in constructing the haven. The level of protection required should be based on the overall security assessment, and as a rule should at minimum protect residents for twice the known and tested average response time of security responders. In its design phase, attention should also be given to the safe-haven's air supply. The safe-haven also can be equipped with a firearm for defense, although the decision to maintain firearms for self-defense in the home is personal and specific to each family, and depends on the capabilities of family members who might use them. In the hands of a well-trained person who has the will — not everyone does — to use deadly force in an emergency, a firearm can be an effective deterrent to violent intruders. Whatever the decision, firearms must be well maintained mechanically, able to be deployed quickly under high-stress conditions and carefully secured inside the safe-haven. A firearm in the hands of an untrained person is more dangerous to him or her than it is to the attacker. As part of their attack, intruders could cut telephone and power lines. Thus, it is best to have two communication options in the safe-haven in case one system is unavailable or nonfunctioning. A regular hard-line phone supplemented by a combination cell phone/radio on a battery charger would work in this case. A panic alarm whose signal is different from those of other alarms in the house also should be part of the safe-haven's equipment, in order to let first responders and security personnel know that the family has gone to the safe-haven. A stand-alone backup power source is advisable in case the primary power source is cut. The safe-haven should also be stocked with materials and supplies that the residents might need during an assault and subsequent siege. This includes first-aid supplies as well as medications residents might need immediately. In specific cases, the safe-haven might include an inhaler for an asthma sufferer, a defibrillator for an elderly family member or insulin and sugar sources for diabetics. Auxiliary light sources such as flashlights or battery-powered lanterns will be needed if all sources of power have been interrupted. In addition, drinking water, an emergency food supply such as energy bars, and provision for toilet functions should be included in the event of a prolonged siege. Like any security precautions, a safe-haven is useless without a plan, and a plan is useless unless it is practiced. A typical plan might go as follows: When an unauthorized intrusion is detected, family members move immediately toward the safe-haven. As they move, the nearest available panic alarm is activated. Once the family goes into the safe-haven and secures the door, the safe-haven's alarm is activated. Then a head count is taken to ensure that everyone in the household is present. In the case of separate safe-havens, the head count can be completed by phone. During the emergency, a line of communication is established with security personnel and first responders who are briefed on the situation. It is essential that this line be kept open. The family stays inside the safe-haven until the all-clear is given by security responders. This plan should be practiced by all family members in conjunction with security personnel, if employed. Each member should know the plan and their part in it so they will know what to do in the event of an emergency. Because fire or other environmental dangers, such as gas leaks, smoke and dangerous fumes, are far more common than invasion by hostile intruders, a fire/evacuation plan should be included in every residential security plan. It is advisable to cooperate with firefighting professionals in formulating fire/evacuation plans. In many cases, experts from the local fire company are available to provide on-site advice and surveys, and some have formal training programs established, as do some home insurance carriers. In the United States, a good fire plan will at minimum adhere to standards established by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which provides codes for fire detection equipment. In homes with valuable art collections, some insurance carriers may impose requirements over and above those of the NFPA. A good fire plan includes frequent, regular maintenance of detection equipment and fire extinguishers, and all adult family members should be trained in the use of extinguishers. Because kitchen fires are perhaps more common than any other kind in modern houses, consider equipping kitchens with automatic extinguishing systems employing Argonite or FM-200. If the residence contains any appliance that could produce carbon monoxide (CO), CO detectors should be installed. Obviously, these fire and smoke alarm systems should have audible tones that are easily distinguishable from intrusion alarms. Heat detectors are available for areas in the home where smoke detectors might produce false alarms. In general, the best plan in case of fire is to evacuate the premises and leave fighting it to the professionals. A family fire plan should, at a minimum, include several evacuation options, and a single "rally point" well away from the building, where a head count can be conducted. When formulating the evacuation plan, provision must be made for family members who have mobility problems. One or two commercially available folding escape ladders can be kept on the upper floors within easy reach of established escape routes, such as windows or balconies, in order to facilitate escape. In addition, every family member should have a commercially available smoke hood stored in or near his or her sleeping quarters. The fire plan, like the security plan, must be practiced by residents and any security personnel employed. Each family member should know where to go and what to do in case of a fire. In particular, because of the physical considerations involved, the use of ladders and smoke hoods must be practiced. When formulating an emergency action plan, it should be kept in mind that the more complex a plan is, the more likely it will fail. Plans must be simple, not only because children often must participate, but because sudden stress impairs memory and thought processes for people of all ages.

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