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Frequently Asked Questions: Tornado/Hurricane Safe Rooms

Below are frequently asked questions regarding FEMA residential and community safe rooms guidance. This information may be helpful for those in tornado and hurricane prone areas.

If you need additional information, please contact the FEMA Safe Room Helpline by email at saferoom@fema.dhs.gov or by calling 866-927-2104.

Please find additional frequently asked questions regarding wind mitigation at the Building Science FAQs page.

Q1. What is a safe room? What are the design requirements for a FEMA safe room?

A1. A safe room is a hardened structure specifically designed to meet FEMA criteria and provide life-safety protection in extreme wind events, including tornadoes and hurricanes. To be considered a FEMA safe room, the structure must be designed and constructed to the guidelines specified in FEMA P-361 – to which the drawings in FEMA P-320 were designed. A design professional can be consulted to verify that the safe room meets or exceeds the guidelines found in FEMA P-361. Additionally, all applicable Federal, State, and local codes must be followed. When questions arise pertaining to the differences between FEMA P-361 and conflicting codes or standards, the most conservative criteria should apply.

Q2. What is the difference between a residential safe room and a community safe room?

A2. A residential safe room serves occupants of dwelling units and has an occupant load of 16 persons or fewer. A community safe room is any safe room not defined as a residential safe room. The safe room design drawings presented in FEMA P-320 may also be applied to community safe rooms if additional detailing and considerations are made to accommodate the unique requirements of community safe rooms (see Section 4.2.1 of FEMA P-320 for more information).

Q3. Should I have a safe room?

A3. Chapter 2 of FEMA P-320 provides information to help homeowners determine whether their home needs a safe room. Building owners should ask themselves several questions when considering whether to install a safe room:

  • What is my risk of tornadoes and/or hurricanes?
  • What existing refuge options do I have if a tornado or hurricane occurs in my location?
  • What level of safety am I comfortable with?
  • How feasible is it to construct a safe room and what are the costs?

Section 2.5 of FEMA P-320 includes guidance to help building owners determine the level of risk posed by these extreme events and can help people decide whether to install a safe room.

Q4. My house has a basement. Do I need a safe room?

A4. Some strong tornadoes have resulted in loss of floor framing, collapse of basement walls and death and injuries to individuals taking refuge in a basement. The acceptable level of protection is an individual decision. A basement may be the safest place to seek shelter in a home without a safe room, but the basement will not provide the same level of protection as a safe room unless it has been designed and constructed in accordance with the criteria in FEMA P-361.

A basement is a good location to install or build a safe room, but access for handicapped or physically challenged individuals may be limited. The flood risk of your location may also help determine whether your basement is an appropriate place for a safe room. If your house or neighborhood is prone to flooding, the basement may not be suitable for taking refuge.

Q5. Do any local jurisdictions require safe rooms?

A5. Local jurisdictions generally do not require residential safe rooms or storm shelters. However, some communities have offered incentives (such as reduced property taxes) for owners who wish to build a safe room or storm shelter for their home. Some state and local governments have engaged in grant programs with the federal government to partially subsidize the construction of both residential and community safe rooms.

The 2015 and 2018 International Building Code® (IBC®) require the construction of storm shelters to be included when K-12 schools and first responder facilities are constructed in areas where the storm shelter design wind speed for tornadoes is 250 mph. These storm shelters must be compliant with the 2014 edition of the International Code Council’s (ICC) Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters, also known as the ICC 500. The ICC 500 standard presents design criteria for tornado and hurricane storm shelters that are similar to safe rooms constructed to FEMA P-361 criteria, although slightly less conservative.

The ICC 500 standard and the criteria provided in FEMA P-361 can be adopted by local jurisdictions as minimum design criteria for safe rooms or storm shelters. The 2009, 2012, 2015, and 2018 editions of the IBC® and International Residential Code® (IRC®) have incorporated the ICC 500. As such, any jurisdiction that has adopted these codes (or based its state or local code on these codes) has adopted the ICC 500 as the standard for designing and constructing hurricane and tornado storm shelters. Therefore, when a local jurisdiction has adopted the IBC® from 2009 or later, all storm shelter designs within the jurisdiction must comply with the ICC 500. Builders and homeowners should check with their local jurisdiction to see what requirements have been adopted for their community.

Q6. Where can I find information about obtaining FEMA funding to construct a safe room? Are there any funds available in my area?

A6. For project eligibility and financial assistance questions, please contact your State Hazard Mitigation Officer (SHMO). Your SHMO can tell you what information must be provided for your project to be considered for funding, as well as any applicable federal, state and local design requirements. Your SHMO can also provide you with information on funding sources.

Q7. Does FEMA approve, endorse, or certify any products?

A7. Due to federal regulations, FEMA does not endorse, approve, certify, or recommend any contractors, individuals, firms, or products. Contractors, individuals, or firms shall not claim they or their products are “FEMA approved” or “FEMA certified.” You should work with a registered design professional, such as an architect or engineer, who is familiar with safe rooms to verify that your safe room meets or exceeds current FEMA criteria.

Q8. Does FEMA verify or certify design calculations published by manufacturers for their products?

A8. No. FEMA does not verify or certify design calculations for any product. The registered design professional who signs the certification attests that the product in question meets the requirements specified on the certification. The design professional should be licensed in the state in which the product will be used. All products must be properly installed for their intended use(s) only.

Q9. Can a safe room installation contractor or product supplier be certified by FEMA?

A9. No. FEMA does not endorse, approve, certify or recommend any contractors, individuals, firms or products. Contractors, individuals, or firms shall not claim they or their products are "FEMA approved" or "FEMA certified." Any claims of compliance with FEMA P-361 and ICC 500 criteria should be verified through independent testing or engineering analysis. Producers, contractors, or firms that wish to indicate that their safe room products have been properly designed should notify consumers whether the products meets or exceeds the safe room criteria found in FEMA P-361 and provide supporting documentation such as test certification documents.

Some states maintain their own certification programs. Please contact your state Emergency Management Agency for information on becoming certified by your state to build safe rooms. The contact information for state offices and agencies of emergency management can be found by clicking here. There is no federal certification.

Q10. What is the minimum square footage per person for a tornado community safe room?

A10. For a tornado community safe room, the number of spaces for standing or seated, wheelchair-bound, or bedridden people should be determined based on the expected occupancy of the safe room as calculated by the designer and the applicable authority having jurisdiction. As a minimum, each community safe room should be sized to accommodate at least one wheelchair space for every 200 occupants.

It is also important to note that floor areas within community safe rooms should have an access route in accordance with the International Code Council (ICC)/American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A117.1, Standard on Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities. Table 1 shows the minimum safe room floor area per occupant for tornado community safe rooms.

 Table 1. Occupant Density for Tornado Community Safe Rooms
Tornado Community Safe Room OccupantMinimum Usable Floor Area* per Safe Room Occupant

Standing or Seated

5 square feet

Wheelchair Bound

10 square feet

Bedridden

30 square feet

*See FEMA P-361 for more information on usable safe room floor area.

Q11. What is the minimum square footage per person for a hurricane community safe room?

A11. For a hurricane community safe room, the number of spaces for standing or seated, wheelchair-bound, or bedridden people should be determined based on the expected occupancy of the safe room as calculated by the designer and the applicable authority having jurisdiction. As a minimum, each community safe room should be sized to accommodate at least one wheelchair space for every 200 occupants.

It is also important to note that floor areas within community safe rooms should have an accessible route in accordance with ICC/ANSI A117.1. Table 2 shows the minimum safe room floor area per occupant for hurricane community safe rooms. The minimum usable floor area per safe room occupant is larger for a hurricane community safe room than for a tornado community safe room because occupants require a longer sheltering time for hurricanes.

Table 2. Occupant Density for Hurricane Community Safe Rooms
Hurricane Community Safe Room OccupantMinimum Usable Floor Area* per Safe Room Occupant

Standing or Seated

20 square feet

Wheelchair Bound

20 square feet

Bedridden

40 square feet

*See FEMA P-361 for more information on usable safe room floor area.

Q12. What is the minimum square footage per person for a residential tornado and hurricane safe room?

A12. For residential safe rooms, the usable tornado safe room floor area should be the gross floor area minus the area of sanitary facilities, if any, and should include the protected occupant area between the safe room walls at the height of any fixed seating, if it exists. Table 3 shows the minimum safe room floor area per occupant for residential tornado and hurricane safe rooms.

Table 3. Occupant Density for Residential Tornado and Hurricane Safe Rooms
 Residential Safe Room TypesMinimum Usable Floor Area per Safe Room Occupant
Tornado

One- and Two-Family Dwellings

3 square feet

 

Other Residential

5 square feet

Hurricane

One- and Two-Family Dwellings

7 square feet

 

Other Residential

10 square feet

* See FEMA P-361 for more information on usable safe room floor area.

Q13. What is the cost of installing a safe room in a new home or small business?

A13. Costs for construction vary across the United States. In general, safe rooms installed in existing homes are more expensive than those installed during new construction. The cost of a safe room depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • Size
  • Materials used (CMU, concrete, wood, insulated concrete form [ICF], combination)
  • Location (if internal, within building; if external, above or below ground)
  • Whether the safe room is prefabricated or site-built
  • Number of exterior home walls used in constructing the safe room
  • Type of door used
  • Type of foundation on which the home is built
  • Location within the United States (because of regional variations in labor and material costs)
  • Whether the safe room is built as part of a new home or retrofitted into an existing home
  • Any added amenities (e.g., bathroom fixtures)

Prefabricated safe rooms typically cost less than site-built safe rooms and are available in smaller sizes than the safe room plans provided in FEMA P-320. A small, 10-square-foot, residential, prefabricated safe room may cost as little as $3,000. Larger prefabricated safe rooms (such as those that are 8 feet by 8 feet) typically cost about the same as site-built safe rooms. Installation costs for prefabricated safe rooms may vary depending on the distance that the installer must travel to deliver the safe room and any foundation or geotechnical work that may be required to install the safe room on an adequate foundation.

Designers of safe rooms must be registered design professionals who are certified in the state where the work is being performed. When selecting a designer or contractor for a safe room, it is best to select individuals who have experience with and an understanding of safe room criteria in FEMA P-361.

Q14. Can I install a safe room in an existing home?

A14. Yes, a safe room may be installed during the initial construction of a home or retrofitted afterward. However, building a safe room in an existing home typically costs about 20 percent more on average than building the same safe room in a new home under construction. When installing a safe room in an existing home, the adequacy of the foundation is a primary concern. A vast majority of slab-on-grade foundations in homes are not adequate to transfer the loads from a safe room to the ground, even if they have some level of reinforcement. When constructing or installing a safe room onto an existing slab, the slab should be inspected to determine whether it is sufficient to support the safe room. An architect or engineer should be consulted to ensure that any existing elements of the home (including the foundation) that are used as part of the safe room can provide sufficient protection.

ICC 500 also requires any storm shelter installed on an existing slab using post-installed anchors (i.e., anchors installed in concrete that has already hardened) to be subject to special inspections. This requirement also applies to safe rooms. Helpful information on safe room foundations and anchoring can also be found in the Foundation and Anchoring Criteria for Safe Rooms Fact Sheet on FEMA’s website.

Q15. As a homeowner, can I build the safe room on my own?

A15. A homeowner who builds a safe room should be skilled in building construction. Some pre-fabricated safe rooms require less building construction experience to successfully install, but homeowners should always verify that the safe room is installed properly and on an adequate foundation. In purchasing any safe room, the homeowner should obtain sufficient documentation to determine that the safe room and its installation anchoring requirements meet the FEMA safe room design and protection criteria. Helpful information on safe room foundations and anchoring can also be found in the Foundation and Anchoring Criteria for Safe Rooms Fact Sheet on FEMA’s website.

Q16. Where should the safe room be located?

A16. 

There are several possible locations in or near your home or small business for a safe room. It can be either inside (within the building footprint) or outside (detached or adjacent to the existing building) and above-ground, in-ground, or in a basement. Many people prefer to build within their homes or buildings so they have some level of protection while attempting to access their safe room. For an existing home or small business, this convenience must be balanced with the challenges of retrofitting the building. When determining where to locate a safe room, the building owner must determine what is best for his or her situation. For example, while an interior safe room offers the benefit of being closer to the building occupants, an exterior safe room may be easier to install for an existing building.

For more information on selecting the location of a safe room within your home or small business, see FEMA P-320, Section 3.5.

Q17. Is an in-ground safe room safer than one above ground?

A17. In-ground safe rooms provide inherent protection from windborne debris naturally afforded by the surrounding soil coverage. Above-ground safe rooms are required to be rigorously tested to ensure that they can also provide protection from windborne debris. Therefore, all properly constructed safe rooms offer life-safety protection if they are properly designed and constructed.

Q18. Are there any flood hazard restrictions for the location of a community safe room?

A18. Yes. FEMA provides guidance on the location of community safe rooms in relation to flood hazards. Per FEMA P-361 flood hazards should be considered when designing a community safe room. Flood loads acting on a structure containing a safe room are strongly influenced by the structure’s location relative to the flood source. Community safe rooms should be located outside of the following high-risk flood hazard areas:

  • Flood hazard areas subject to high-velocity wave action (Zone V areas) and Coastal A Zones
  • Floodways

Exceptions can be made to these restrictions in some instances; for more information and additional elevation requirements, see the Flood Hazard Elevation and Siting Criteria for Community Safe Rooms Quick Guide and FEMA P-361.

Q19. Are there any flood hazard restrictions for the location of a residential safe room?

A19. Yes. FEMA provides guidance on the location of residential safe rooms in relation to flood hazards.

Per FEMA P-361, flood hazards should be considered when designing a residential safe room. Flood loads acting on a structure containing a safe room are strongly influenced by the structure’s location relative to the flood source. Tornado or hurricane residential safe rooms should be located outside of the following high-risk flood hazard areas:

  • Flood hazard areas subject to high-velocity wave action (Zone V areas) and Coastal A Zones
  • Floodways
  • Any areas subject to storm surge inundation associated with any modeled hurricane category, including coastal wave effects

More information on these siting restrictions and additional elevation requirements can be found in the Flood Hazard Elevation and Siting Criteria for Residential Safe Rooms Quick Guide and FEMA P-361.

Q20. Besides FEMA guidance, what other codes and standards apply to safe rooms?

A20. 

FEMA P-361 provides the design criteria to be used with common building codes and standards to design a building. This means that the underlying building code (such as the International Building Code® or International Residential Code®) applies and building construction must comply with the many items that are regularly governed by code requirements. Standards such as ASCE 7 also apply but are used in conjunction with the safe room design criteria described in FEMA P-361 to produce a structure capable of resisting loads much higher than those for normal buildings.

In December 2014, the International Code Council® (ICC®), with the support of the National Storm Shelter Association® (NSSA®), released a second edition of the consensus standard titled Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters, also known as the ICC 500. This standard codifies many of the extreme-wind shelter recommendations of FEMA P-320 and P-361. If there are any conflicts between the codes and standards, the most conservative criteria should apply.

A summary of ICC 500 requirements and changes made to the 2014 edition compared to the 2008 edition can be found in Highlights of ICC 500-2014

Q21. What design guidance should be used when questions arise pertaining to criteria or requirements not addressed by FEMA P-320, FEMA P-361, or ICC 500?

A21. When a question requires design guidance not covered in FEMA P-320, FEMA P-361 or ICC 500, the most current International Building Code® (IBC®) and International Residential Code® (IRC®) for one- and two-family dwellings (with references to the most recent versions of American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE] 7, Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures and ASCE 24, Flood Resistant Design and Construction) should be used as the design and construction criteria. When these criteria conflict, the most conservative criteria should apply. Safe rooms constructed in jurisdictions with no applicable codes should be designed and constructed per FEMA P-361 and the provisions of the 2018 or most current edition of the IBC®.

Q22. Where can I download the prescriptive design drawings referenced in FEMA P-320?

A22. FEMA P-320 can be downloaded from the FEMA library website. The download contains both the publication and the design drawings.

Q23. Where can I find additional information and plans for safe room construction?

A23. Additional information is available at the FEMA Safe Room Web site.

Q24. Can I change the prescriptive plans in FEMA P-320 to meet my specific needs?

A24. FEMA P-320 has prescriptive safe room plans for safe rooms sized between 8 feet x 8 feet x 8 feet and 14 feet x 14 feet x 8 feet. However, a safe room can be customized to meet your individual needs. Therefore, a safe room can be sized differently as long as it complies with the guidance in FEMA P-361. When changing any details of the prescriptive plans in FEMA P-320, consult a licensed design professional to verify that the modified plans still meet or exceed the design criteria of FEMA P-361. The design professional should be licensed in the state in which the safe room will be installed. If you are unsure if a safe room or storm shelter product meets the FEMA P-320 or FEMA P-361 criteria, you may contact your local building official or local or state emergency management office.

Q25. Is there a FEMA approval process for the construction of safe rooms?

A25. FEMA does not have an approval process for reviewing or certifying the design or construction of safe rooms. FEMA does not endorse, approve, certify or recommend any contractors, individuals, firms, or products.

Q26. What should I do if I am unsure a safe room or storm shelter product meets criteria?

A26. Vendor claims of compliance with FEMA and ICC criteria should be verified through independent testing or engineering analysis. Producers, contractors or firms that wish to indicate that their safe room products have been properly designed should notify consumers whether the products meet or exceed the safe room criteria found in FEMA P-361 – and be transparent with records such as test certification documents.

If you are unsure if a safe room or storm shelter product meets FEMA P-361 criteria, you may contact your local building official or local or  state emergency management office.

Q27. Are inspections required?

A27. Obtaining proper building permits and inspections is important for all construction. The builder or homeowner should ensure the safe room is built according to the plans in FEMA P-320 or to plans that, through testing and engineering, have been determined to meet the safe room design criteria in FEMA P-361. The level of construction needed for a safe room typically requires a permit from the local building department. Further, to verify compliance with the FEMA or ICC 500 criteria, additional quality control inspections may be needed.

ICC 500 does have provisions for special inspections. ICC 500 requires that anchors post-installed in hardened concrete (e.g., an existing slab) for safe rooms be subject to special inspections to verify the anchor installation, capacity, and foundation adequacy meet the manufacturer’s requirements. 

Q28. Who should I contact to inspect my safe room?

A28. A design professional licensed in the state in which the safe room is installed can be contracted to inspect your safe room. Contact a local building official to determine who can properly inspect your safe room to verify that the safe room design criteria in FEMA P-361 have been met.

Q29. What forces should a residential safe room door be designed to resist?

A29. Residential safe room doors must be designed to resist a minimum wind speed of 250mph and be tested to resist the corresponding missile impacts and wind pressures. This means the doors must be subjected to 15-pound, 2-inch x 4-inch wood boards traveling at 100mph. Tornado residential safe room doors must undergo a static pressure test and hurricane residential safe room doors must undergo both static and cyclical pressure tests. For more detailed information on safe room doors, including test criteria, see FEMA P-361 and ICC 500. Helpful information on safe room doors can also be found in the  Residential Tornado Safe Room Doors Fact Sheet on FEMA’s website.

Q30. Where can I find doors and hardware for my safe room?

A30. Tested door assemblies are typically not available off-the-shelf in most home improvement stores, but can be purchased through commercial building product suppliers or safe room/storm shelter component suppliers. Texas Tech University’s testing facility and Underwriters Laboratories maintain lists of safe room doors (product names and suppliers) that have passed testing.

For more information on testing protocol and a list of safe room products that have passed  testing visit  Texas Tech University.

Download the UL Online Certification Directory. After linking, enter ‘zhla’ in the UL Category field and ‘ICC 500’ in the Keyword field for safe-room-tested products.

Helpful information on safe room doors can also be found in the Residential Tornado Safe Room Doors Fact Sheet on FEMA’s website.

Q31. Should the door of a safe room swing inward or outward?

A31. A common misconception about safe room doors is that they must swing in a particular direction – inward or outward. According to ICC 500, the pressure testing on a door must be conducted away from the door stop, meaning that the door is pressure-tested in the weakest condition regardless of being in-swinging or out-swinging. Additionally, a door must undergo the missile impact resistance testing in the configuration that will be used for installation.

Beyond code requirements, both inward- and outward-swinging doors have benefits. For example, inward-swinging doors are less likely to be blocked by debris, while outward-swinging doors provide more space within the safe room.

In some states or communities, the applicable building code may require that doors swing in a particular direction. For information on code requirements for your jurisdiction, contact a local building official or licensed design professional in your area.

Q32. How should I prepare for the possibility of a safe room door becoming blocked by debris after a tornado event?

A32. An emergency supply kit should be kept within the safe room. Section 4.4 in FEMA P-320 provides guidance on the emergency supply kit including a checklist of suggested items. The kit can include tools to open damaged doors such as a crowbar, jack or spreader.

An important part of any emergency plan for a safe room should include notifying local emergency managers, first responders (local fire stations), and family members or others of the safe room location. This should be done by registering the precise coordinates (latitude and longitude) of the safe room’s entrance with your local officials. (Note that this should be done as soon as the safe room is constructed – not as an extreme wind event approaches). This will allow emergency personnel to find and quickly free you after a storm if your safe room’s exit becomes blocked by debris. 

Q33. Can locking devices be installed on safe room door handles?

A33. According to FEMA P-361, the egress doors of the safe room should be operable from the inside without the use of keys, special knowledge, or effort. Furthermore, model building codes and life-safety codes often include strict requirements for securing doors in public areas (areas with assembly classifications). These codes often require panic bar hardware, single-release mechanisms, or other hardware requirements. For example, the 2015 IBC and the NFPA life-safety codes require panic bar hardware on doors with a lock or latch for assembly and educational occupancies of 50 persons or more. A design professional will need to establish which door hardware is required and which hardware is permitted. In all cases, a detailed operations and maintenance plan should be developed. The operations and maintenance plan should clearly identify who is responsible for unlocking and securing the safe room before and after an event, describe the critical operations plans, and provide backup plans in case the people in charge of those duties are unavailable. More information about operations and maintenance plans can be found in Chapter A4 of FEMA P-361.

REFERENCES/RESOURCES

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)

ASCE 7, Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures. (2010)

ASCE 24, Flood Resistant Design and Construction (2014)

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

FEMA P-320, Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business (2014)

FEMA P-361, Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms (2015)

International Code Council (ICC)

IBC. International Building Code (2015)

IRC. International Residential Code for One- and Two-Family Dwellings (2015)

ICC 500 ICC/National Storm Shelter Association Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters (2014)

Last Updated: 
08/18/2017 - 13:30