Corporate safe rooms: What lies beneath?

Corporate safe rooms -- fortified environments that act as a protective refuge in the event of a home invasion or other threat -- are an increasing necessity for people and organizations of all interests. And, while films and television programs continue to mythologize safe rooms as an indulgence for the super rich or eccentric, actual events tell a different story: safe rooms are and have been an integral part of corporate structures and residences worldwide, an otherwise well-kept secret that immediately captures the public's imagination.

Daily new headlines confirm these threats, and rare but brutal attacks against executives underscore the harsh reality of life in a dangerous world. Far from being a luxury, safe rooms are often seen as essential for businesses across the economic spectrum.

Safe rooms are often the key factor between life and death. In most cases, safe rooms are part of an architect's plans -- and a crucial element for security experts -- when consulting with owners during the critical stages of construction. Throughout this process, one principle is sacred: a safe room is a haven, a place where individuals, families or executives can protect themselves from violence while the authorities answer a call for help.

The lack of a corporate safe room is a potential liability. Consider that the capture or murder of a company's executives would emotionally and financially devastate shareholders, expose insurers to potentially big payouts and leave other businesses in a state of constant worry. Simply said, safe rooms can be one component of your overall executive protection plan.

Corporations do not publicize the existence of safe rooms for obvious reasons: first, executives and their security detail have no desire to broadcast to the enemy (yes, the enemy) the fact these things exist; and secondly, from a purely psychological standpoint, there is no reason to frighten employees and disrupt their day-to-day operations. And yet, events like 9/11 remind us of the security dangers that confront us. In fact, counterterrorism experts repeatedly warn companies that extremist groups seek opportunities to seize executives. For example, picture an otherwise sedate corporate campus -- a multi-acre software company in Silicon Valley or Washington State, the very model of a relaxed work environment, led by a young billionaire and his team of engineers. That same campus, a seemingly calm destination where programmers can play volleyball during their lunch break, and where the CEO parks his car in an ordinary space, definitely contains a highly sophisticated safe room. The real question is not whether the executive has a safe room; the more intriguing question is, what does a corporate safe room look like? What is inside the ultimate safe-space?

More sophisticated safe rooms, like the kind built for celebrities or executives (and there is some overlap concerning the essential features in a safe room for a home versus a corporate building), include: doors, walls, floors and ceilings reinforced with bullet and bomb blast resistant materials, wireless communications, coatings to prevent eavesdropping, surveillance cameras, survival items (first-aid kits, water, packaged food, self-defense tools, backup generator, and even a kitchen and bathroom) as well as a secure air supply in the event of biological or chemical attack.

Some of the fullest-featured underground safe rooms may also contain a secret tunnel that extends a minimum of four blocks, leading to the street. The purpose of this secret exit is two-fold: it makes it easier to coordinate with a security detail that will rescue these executives in an armored vehicle (and drive them to a secure off-site location); and secondly, if a bomb were to detonate in or around the building, there would be noxious fumes, broken glass and the sudden circumstances that characterize life in a war zone, making a safe room and a secured, remote exit an absolute necessity in a serious situation.

A typical corporate safe room is built below a corporate headquarters building

Above: Corporate safe rooms are built in a hardened fashion and typically have business and living space, storage for food, water and other life necessities. Well-designed rooms also feature business tools, communications systems, and even video surveillance solutions. Many of the full-featured designs include an outside air supply, and some even feature secure, "secret" exits in the case of a large-scale incident. Designs are often determined by a corporate risk assessment and by budgets, and the rooms are meantto be used in the event of attempted attacks on corporate executives or overall life-threatening situations at the business location.

These scenarios, replete with explosions, assassinations and mass shootings, now characterize a trip to the office for scores of executives overseas. For example: the London-based Merchant International Group (MIG), a research and corporate intelligence- gathering company, evaluated the dangers to executives by collating the experiences of its clients and workers on the ground. It found Mexico was the place where most encountered problems. Following close behind were Colombia, Iraq, Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire), Angola, the West Bank and Gaza, South Africa, Russia and Tajikistan.

Stuart Poole-Robb of MIG said: "One thing that was very clear was that the dangers facing executives are real and growing worse. Although there are many business people who consider themselves seasoned travelers, our research shows that one in every 10 business trips involves a difficult or potentially dangerous situation -- what we call a heart-stopping incident.”

Additionally, corporate safe rooms have economic benefits for building owners and tenants. These financial advantages are important in an economy where commercial real estate is in a massive slump. According to James Huang of commercial real estate brokerage and investing firm BRC Advisors, safe rooms can make a building more valuable and attract a more diverse array of tenants.

“I represent clients with a lot of international exposure, companies that have satellite offices in cities throughout the United States, Asia, Europe and the Middle East,” Huang said. “Some of these companies handle sensitive information, while also fielding protests from extremists in countries where security is, frankly, a daily problem. I also know that I could more easily rent a building to a large corporation should that property contain a safe room. For many clients a safe room is a priority, a non-negotiable part of a building purchase and/or signing a lease.”

A corporate safe room is an example of common sense and basic intelligence, a way to protect a brand's most valuable assets: its executives. To firms with high-profile executives who have been repeated targets, failure to build a safe room would be willful blindness. The good news is that a safe room -- the proprietary kind designed by security experts who recognize the enormity of this issue -- can help guard against outside threats. As a haven from the unexpected and unforeseen, a corporate safe room may be one of the best investments an executive can make.

About the author: Jordan Frankel is the founder and vice president of Global Security Experts, Inc. ( Headquartered in Atlanta, GSE is a leading designer and manufacturer of corporate and residential security products, as well as consultants for companies throughout the world.