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HOME, SAFE HOME IN TODAY'S UNCERTAIN WORLD, REAL-LIFE PANIC ROOMS ARE MORE COMMON THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

Byline: Elizabeth Snead Correspondent

THEY'RE HIDING in upscale homes around the world: London, Paris and Tokyo, even Moscow. Rumor is they've started hanging out in posh New York brownstones and Malibu's mega-mansions and now they're moving mainstream.

Don't be alarmed. They're just safe rooms, much like the one featured in David Fincher's new thriller ``Panic Room,'' tops at the box office its first week out.

These high-tech home protection security designs are no longer the pricey secret property of rich and powerful politicians, corporate CEOs and international celebrities. There are no firm figures available on the increase in safe-room installations. But to hear some home-security experts talk, safe rooms are becoming so darn affordable, they're moving into middle-class suburbs and are now being installed in average $250,000 single-family homes.

Why, there may already be a safe room in a new or renovated home right on your block.

``You've probably already been in homes that have safe rooms around Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Malibu, but you just didn't know it,'' says Al Corbi, founder/president of The Designer, which configures high-tech office, apartment and home security systems.

And that's precisely the way it should be. According to ``Panic Room'' adviser Gavin de Becker, whose top-secret company caters to an in-the-limelight clientele, panic rooms must be kept a secret or their purpose is defeated.

``Audiences may be surprised to learn that safe rooms, panic rooms and entry-resistant doors are very, very common,'' Becker says. ``Many public figures have them in their homes to make the likelihood of encountering an intruder just about zero. The film is very accurate in terms of the technology that is in many homes in the United States, although it's not something that is widely spoken about or widely focused on by the general public.''

In truth, safe rooms are not new at all. Medieval castles had protective moats, drawbridges and secret chambers called keeps. The pyramids had secret passageways to hidden tombs and treasure. Even prehistoric man made use of caves' hidden tunnels and holes. In Fincher's ``Panic Room,'' Foster and her teen-age daughter seek refuge from a trio of robbers in a 30-year-old panic room built in on the upper floor of their spacious just-purchased New York brownstone. The old-fashioned bank-vault-like panic room is constructed of heavy concrete and steel-reinforced walls with a massive solid-steel door, impervious to grenades, bullets, rockets and flame throwers.

Inside, the trapped duo watches the criminals' activities on the large bank of TV monitors that reveal each room from wall-mounted cameras. Foster even speaks to the intruders via a one-way intercom. The room also features a phone, food, water and basic medical supplies. But Foster's rudimentary panic room is a far cry from what's now being built even in medium-priced homes.

``The safe room in the film is very accurate in terms of the technology that was available 30 years ago,'' says Corbi, who was head designer of secret secure installations for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., from 1971 until retirement in 1998. Corbi, who now divides his time between California and Maryland, designs security systems for corporate offices, apartments, mansions and high-end yachts around the world.

So what's new? Everything from the nuts to the bolts. Take the bank of TV monitors in the film version. ``That's old hat,'' Corbi says. ``Now we have one monitor with a split screen so you can see all the rooms in the house at once.''

And those oh-so-obvious cameras mounted in all the brownstone's rooms? ``You can't see the tiny cameras now. They're completely hidden. If you can't find them, you can't destroy them.''

Good point. And the protective materials needed to construct a room impervious to entry are now vastly superior to old-fashioned brick, steel, mesh and mortar.

``In the film, the walls are heavy, solid concrete reinforced by steel mesh,'' Corbi explains. That's expensive and difficult to do, especially in a home that's already built. Now we use very lightweight Kevlar that can still stop armor-piercing bullets and grenades but can be put on the top floors of homes with no need for added support.''

Even the concept of a single panic room has been expanded. After all, what good is a safe room if you can't get into it in time?

``In the film, you see the robbers first walking around the house looking at the people in their beds,'' says Corbi. ``Well, if they can see you, they can get to you and kill you. That's why I design what I call 'safe cores' in all my homes. The idea behind the safe core is that even if the bad guys break in, you're still safe inside the core. It gives you time to wake everyone up, gather your loved ones in the safe room and wait safely for the police to arrive.''

One of Corbi's recently designed homes, a five-level 10,000-square-foot Hollywood Hills abode, features pretty plush niceties such as a silent elevator, an exercise room, a vast wine cellar, an enormous home theater, an infinity pool, even a helicopter pad fit for a military landing. But the entire fourth floor - the floor with all the bedrooms and connected baths - is a high-tech completely secure safe zone.

``If the bad guys do break in - and there's no house that someone can't break into if they really want to - they still can't get into the bedrooms. They can be in the hallway. They can be upstairs or downstairs, but they can't get inside those bedrooms, thanks to Kevlar-reinforced walls, ceilings and floors, and the solid-steel doors.''

As for the bedroom windows, steel grates slide down at night ... as if anyone could get up there: ``They'd have to be Spider-Man to scale the 40-foot-high, smooth walls,'' says Corbi.

As a backup, there is a smaller safe room inside the safe-zone master bedroom with a TV monitor, intercom, microwave oven, refrigerator, emergency power generator, the house's power controls, as well as something Foster's character would have appreciated: a protected phone line. ``To cut the phone, they would have to get inside the safe core,'' says Corbi, who also put a toilet inside the smaller safe room, just in case you're scared - well, you know.

How much does it cost to install a safe room or safe zone in your house? Not as much as you think. ``If people living in high-rise apartments with thick concrete walls and floors did nothing but put in one of these steel doors, $6,000 max, including labor, right away they'd have a safe core.''

De Becker concurs, adding that ``the public may not be aware, but when the last prime minister of Iran was attacked in Paris, two police officers were shot outside his apartment. But the intruders were unable to get into the apartment because of an entry-resistant door. Having a door that intruders cannot go through is the most practical possession you could ever have.''

High-tech safe rooms are affordable now for the same reasons big-screen TVs and super-speed computers are. ``The technology is so much less expensive than it used to be,'' Corbi says. ``I have put in security systems for a million dollars, but you can spend around five grand for something as inexpensive as a safe room or 15 grand for a moderately expensive safe core.''

Seems safe rooms can be defensive or incredibly offensive. Defenders of castles during sieges used to drop molten lead on attackers. Today's ``Dirty Harry'' safe rooms can include an entire ballistic system in the ceiling or a high-voltage floor to zap the bad guys. If you were living in Europe, all of the above would be completely legal, even commonplace.

Despite all the publicity panic rooms are now getting, real-life owners of such secure measures are staying mum. Designers sign confidentiality agreements and rarely tell contractors about them, and homeowners don't include safe-room features in a cocktail party show-around.

And you won't get it out of the contractor. Corbi won't even give hints. In fact, when asked about how many safe rooms he's done in his lifetime, Corbi is a clam. ``I really couldn't say,'' Corbi says, with a smile. He's not kidding. If he spilled those beans, there wouldn't be a safe room safe enough for him.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Al Corbi, a consultant who designs safe rooms, stands inside one of his fortresses in a Los Angeles home. Opposite, Corbi stands in the doorway of the safe core of the home.

(3) Corbi holds a piece of the bulletproof material that reinforces the walls of the safe room, which could withstand an attack from armor-piercing weapons.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 3, 2002
Words:1448
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