The Basic FEMA Safe Room Guidelines

Above Ground Safe Room

Above Ground Safe Room

When you’re installing a safe room in your house you want to do everything you can to make sure the work gets done the first time. You are going to be trusting this room to keep you and your family safe in case of an emergency, you don’t want to find out at the last moment that the design was faulty in some way. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, understands this. It’s why they have released guidelines to help people create shelters that provide the proper level of safety.

You need to know the basics of these guidelines, which you can find here, so that you can recognize a proper shelter when you see it. Read on to find out the basic things you need from any safe room built on your property.


There is no one area where all safe rooms need to be placed, some are inside while others are outside, some are above ground with others below ground. To decide which location is best for you it’s important to look at potential risks and what options are practical.

The first thing you need to know is that FEMA explicitly states that the entrance to residential safe rooms need to be no more than 150 feet from “the nearest entrance of the residence.” This is because in the event of a storm or tornado you want to minimize exposure on your way from your home to your safe room. Obviously these regulations don’t apply to safe rooms that can be accessed without leaving your home but it’s still important to think about accessibility. For example, if you are dealing with someone who has trouble climbing ladders or stairs it’s better to build shelters that can simply be walked into.

Another consideration to make is the risk of flooding. Whether your safe room is above or below ground level can be important if flooding occurs. FEMA notes that underground shelters are “unfavorable” with regards to flooding while above-ground shelters are favorable. With that said they also note that above ground shelters are more “likely to be hit or impacted by wind-borne debris.” So if you’re building for a rainy storm above ground is preferable but below ground is better for tornadoes.


While the main thing you want from a safe room is protection from the troubles outside you also want to make sure that the people inside have enough room. Obviously there can be limitations based on the area you’re planning to build the room in and the amount you are willing to pay. But no one wants to be jammed together like sardines during a disaster, especially since this can lead to injuries. So FEMA has some recommendations on size.

The recommended size of your shelter is based on the type of disaster that you’re planning for and the number of people who will be in the shelter. For example, tornadoes rarely last long so if you are planning for a tornado you can go with a shelter that’s “3 square feet of floor area per

person” if you live in a building with one or two families. For buildings with more people, like apartments, FEMA recommends “ at least 5 square feet per person”

While most tornadoes only pose a threat for an hour or two storms can last much longer. If a hurricane could have you locked up for over a day you want to give yourself much more space. For people who are planning for a storm 7 square feet works for one or two family homes while apartments and other large residential structures should provide 10 feet per person.

These guidelines are rough but you shouldn’t go below the minimums. You should also think about anyone who might have special needs, with FEMA recommending that you need 20 square feet for “seated and wheelchair-bound occupants and 40 square feet per occupant for bed-ridden occupants.” Note that this is for community shelters and isn’t necessarily something you have to stick to if you’re building a residential shelter, but it’s still something you need to think about if you are dealing with the safety and well being of anyone who needs to be in a wheelchair or bed.

Proper Doors

If you shop for doors for your home you may find some steel doors that are advertised as storm doors. While additional locks and hinges may provide some extra safety they should not be trusted in life or death situations. That’s why FEMA notes that the door to a safe room needs to be “designed and tested to resist debris impacts and wind pressures,” nothing less is satisfactory. Safety doors are tested by shooting a “15-pound 2-inch × 4-inch wood board traveling at 100 mph” at the door. This is the bare minimum, ideally you want a door that can withstand up to missiles traveling at 500 miles per hour.

As you look at doors try and verify that they have been properly tested. An improperly performed test can lead to poor data that can’t be trusted in a real storm. That’s why you should check to see what agency tested the door and contact “your local building official or AHJ” to see if the testing agency is approved and trustworthy. You don’t want to rely on anything less when a door could save your life.

Making Sure Your Safe Room Is Up To Par

By reading this article you now have a basic idea of what FEMA requires from safe rooms, but it’s important to note that these are just the basics. The information in this article comes from a 71 page document packed with information that you should consult if you need anything clarified.

In the end you you don’t necessarily need to read the whole document, if you’re not building the safe house yourself your main goal should be finding a company that builds safe houses according to these guidelines. Bring up the topic when talking to company representatives, one sign of a trustworthy company is their appreciation for these guidelines and a desire to go above and beyond what’s required of them.

All Rhodes Construction Safe Rooms are 1/4 inch Steel. They Meet and exceed FEMA 320/361 and ICC-500 guidelines. Call (256) 464-3736 or come in to see our line up of storm shelters