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Noises in the Night
An Incremental Approach to Home Security

By Dan Young <dyoung@irvine.com>

The Problem

Pick up just about any book on home defense and it will recommend against personally investigating suspicious noises in the night. Then in the same breath it may (or may not) go on to talk about the methods of "house-clearing"--moving from room to room looking for a possible intruder and making sure the house is safe.

From a tactical perspective, the books are right. House-clearing is a dangerous occupation. Nearly all the advantages lie with the intruder, especially if the homeowner is searching with a flashlight. There may be more than one intruder, they may be armed, and they may have homicidal intentions. Most "hot" burglaries (burglaries committed while resident is home) do not result in injury to the resident, but the crime may escalate to murder if the criminal is put under fight-or-flight pressure. The homeowner has no way of knowing what the intentions of a housebreaker are, or how highly motivated he/she might be to commit injury. And, as stated before, the homeowner is highly at risk while searching. It is an intrinsically dangerous activity.

On the other hand, after hearing something in the night, you need to know whether your house is secure, for reasons of safety as well as peace of mind. You cannot reasonably remain in a state of alert indefinitely. Checking out a noise enables you to get the anxiety out of your system and, if you are safe, to go back to sleep comfortably. And if there is an intruder in the house, you need to know about it. In the United States most burglars prefer to break in while the homeowner is away--so if an intruder knowingly breaks into an occupied home, it may signal more than a simple property crime. Forewarned is forearmed, and knowledge that someone else is in your house will strongly determine your tactical response.

If you live in a household with family, children, roomates, or pets, the situation is further complicated. You will be hearing more noises as a matter of course and will have to make assessments about which ones are ignorable and which ones might signal an actual threat. If you begin searching the house with a gun, you may find yourself pointing it at a loved one. If the noise was minor, you may feel relatively safe just having a look around without a ready weapon, but in that case ask yourself--why are you looking in the first place? If you do find an intruder, what is your course of action?


If you're reading this, you are probably already familiar with the concept of a safe room. A safe room is a room in the house, most commonly the bedroom, where the residents can take cover, watch all entrances, and call the police. If you keep a gun for defense, it should be available in this room. In response to an intruder you barricade yourself and take cover. This is the safest recourse you have in responding to a noise in the night: self-protection. You are safely away from entrances, and you will have a clear view of anyone coming at you.

Between these two responses of bunkering up to call the police (high level of alarm), and leaving your safe room to investigate (low level of alarm), there are some intermediary options. I write this to suggest two options in particular: an interior light system, and a trained family dog. These two preparations, in conjunction, will greatly improve your capabilities to respond to noise-in-the-night situations while minimizing risk to you.

Think of the home in terms of lines of defense. Barricading and calling the police is your strongest interior line of defense, your best option when you know you are at risk. But in the case of a noise that may-or-may-not be a threat, having some intermediary lines of defense will enable you to respond effectively and safely while still retaining all your tactical advantages.

Commonsense Security

This document is about saving life, not property, but some common-sense security precautions can lower your risk of a break-in, or give you more warning if one does occur.
  • Take the Nashville Police Department burglary quiz.
  • Secure doors and windows. Develop a "doors & windows" routine before going to bed. If you want to leave certain windows open for ventilation, install bars over them.
  • Have adequate exterior lighting. Be especially aware of shadowed areas near doors and windows where a burglar can work without being seen.
  • Belong to a neighborhood watch, and display the decal.
  • A burglar alarm may help alert you to an entry attempt. Nothing is foolproof, but any advance warning will be an advantage.

Light Systems

An interior light system is the first, most practical step toward developing a plan for responding to noises. I recommend a system of 500w quartz-halogen floodlights that illuminate the yard and every room but the safe room, activated by a remote-control button. The advantage of a remote control is that you can have redundant buttons in different parts of the house.

A system that can brightly illuminate the house and grounds in response to a possible threat serves three functions:

  1. Alerts any family member that might be making the noise. Family members should know to call out in response to the alarm lights (i.e. "It's just me, honey..!") This greatly reduces the problem of mistaken identity.
  2. Warns an intruder that he/she has been detected, and that you are prepared to deal with them. 500w quartz-halogen floods are an extremely unfriendly, harsh white light. There is no mistaking their message. At the same time, it doesn't give away your position or armament. It leaves the intruder the opportunity to escape, which solves your problem without the danger of a confrontation. Not all housebreakers may be so weakly motivated, but you will at least know that anyone who stays means you harm.
  3. Places the defender at a tactical advantage, since anyone entering the safe room will be illuminated from behind. If the homeowner does decide to leave the safe room and clear the house, he/she won't suffer the disadvantages of searching with a flashlight, telegraphing your presence and narrowing your field of vision. The searcher should of course bring a flashlight anyway in case a light is shot out.

There are many home lighting systems available, but the most inexpensive and portable are probably Radio Shack's (or Home Depot's) X-10 modular kits. X-10 is a very versatile device control system, easy to plug in and use, and since it does not require altering the wiring on your home, it is easily modified and portable. All the components for a single-button light system (including three 500W lights) can be bought for under $100.

For more information consult:

[The X-10 FAQ]     
[Smarthome X-10 Q&A]     
[Automation Index]     
[Home Controls Inc.]
[Worthington Distribution]
[Home Automation Product Guide]

Dog Training

A well-trained dog makes an excellent second line of defense--not in an attack capacity, but as a threat alert. Dogs are territorial and protective, and if trained to notify the homeowner when an intruder enters, will do so very effectively.

A dog is particularly useful to the firearm owner who hears a noise in the night and is unsure if it signals an intruder. Think of a dog as both a perimeter alarm and a radar map. Instead of leaving your safe room to investigate the noise, send the dog.

Almost any dog can be trained to do a house status-check. After hitting the lights and waiting for a response, give the dog the searching command--i.e. "go check!" The dog should be trained to run along the circumference of the house and return to the safe room. If the dog comes back happy, you are pretty much guaranteed that the house is secure. If the dog encounters an intruder he/she should be trained to bark and keep distance rather than attack.

The dog can also be trained to "inquire" at each family member's bedroom door rather than actually enter each room. This allows family members privacy while still enabling the dog to complete the check.

A dog who sleeps indoors might not be most people's idea of a watchdog, but actually, an indoor dog is more useful in threat-detection than an outdoor one since they will be harder for an intruder to silence effectively. For an outdoor watchdog to be effective, he/she will need extensive training not to "alarm" at non-threats, but any dog can be trained to alarm at a domestic intruder -- they do so almost instinctively.

I personally prefer dogs be trained not to engage an intruder--I'd rather the dog sound the alarm and retreat. If the dog alarms or fails to return, stay bunkered up and call the police.

For more information on dog training check out these sites:

[Dog Training Library]     
[Volhard Aptitude Exam]     
[Canine Search and Rescue]
[Working Dogs Booklist]

Safe Room

The purpose of the safe room is to secure every defensive advantage possible while waiting for the police to arrive. If the intruder does break into the safe room, you are facing an immediate, lethal threat, and you want all possible advantages in defending yourself.

Critical to this effort are your defensive armament, light source, and communications. What you choose in these capacities is up to you, but they should be capable of functioning under a variety of conditions, including loss of power and a cut telephone line. This usually means a firearm, high-power flashlight, and a cellular phone. A speakerphone will allow you to keep hands free while talking to the police, but unfortunately I have not yet seen a speakerphone / cellphone combination.

Security: install a solid-core door equipped with a door jammer or some similar instant lock. If you have bars on the window, make sure they have a release mechanism to allow you to get out in the event of a fire.

Cover: find the place in the room where you would be most protected from shots fired at you from the points of entry. Consider windows as well as doors. You want distance from entry points to give you time to react, and cover, meaning that your body is behind a solid object. This "safe spot" is where you will move to in the event of a break-in. All the equipment mentioned here should be in easy arm's reach of this one point.

Armament: a gun (either shotgun or handgun) is your most effective option-- failing that, pepper spray (capstun), in a large rather than the portable size. Pepper foam will be the best at not blowing back at you. Distance weapons are preferred to contact weapons (knives, clubs, kubotans) unless you are highly trained in their use.

Your gun will need to be loaded. The logistics of safely keeping a gun in the house is beyond the scope of this document, but in general a loaded gun should never be out of your possession unless it is inside a gun safe. Consider getting a mini gun vault -- open it when you come home and shut it when you leave. Otherwise, load the gun on entering the house and unload it when leaving.

Light: I have already mentioned an interior lighting system. The "panic button" should illuminate every room except your safe room so an intruder entering will be silhouetted and you will have the advantage of concealment. You'll also want some flashlights, in case electricity has been cut off or the lights have been destroyed. Sure-fire, Scorpian, or Mag-Light are among the preferred brands.

Communications: a cellular phone is preferred, but failing that, a speakerphone with 911 on a one-touch button painted with red fingernail polish is a good alternative.

When speaking to the police, tell them where you live, what you are worried about, and that you are armed. Stay on the line until help arrives. 911 calls are recorded, and can be used in court to help document your behavior, either to exonerate you from a charge or to help convict the intruder.

When help arrives: keep a spare house key attached to a chemical light stick. When police arrive, activate the light and throw it out the window. Some people will attach a map showing the safe room location, or small photos of all family members. If it is possible to exit from the window and police have secured the outside of the house, ask whether you can come out the window while the police secure the remainder of the house.

Since this document is specifically about noises in the night, there are many contingencies not covered. But I will say that the "safe spot" principle can be applied to other places in the house, in case you are away from your safe room when you hear something suspicious.

You may think that your safe room is your last line of defense -- but it isn't. Your own body is the final line. If you choose ahead of time not to allow yourself to be assaulted, raped, or killed, even if your safe room fails you will have determination and recourses. Thinking ahead, making decisions, and supplying yourself with the skills and equipment to capably defend yourself will make the difference.

Securing Family Members

The safe room philosophy becomes more complicated when family members sleep in different parts of the house. If your family is spread across several rooms, you will need to adapt a plan to make sure that everyone is afforded protection while still minimizing risk to you and your loved ones.

A popular standby has been to find a point in the house where you can see all bedroom doorways, and to make that the safe spot, watching the hallway with a gun. I do not recommend this approach since children looking out of doorways might be mistaken for a threat, and if you do have to shoot a legitimate assailant, any misses might travel through walls to endanger your family. The defender has less protection and has to cover a wider area than he/she would in a safe room.

Instead, I recommend a multiple-safe-room philosophy and a well-rehearsed plan to implement it. For instance, if there is a small child in another room, the master bedroom would be equipped as above, but after activating the lights and securing a weapon, you would move to the child's room. That room would have its own safety system of locks, distance from entry points, cover, lights, communications, and the house keys -- all available at this point. Anything that you would not be comfortable with storing in a child's room (like guns), would be kept in the master bedroom and would travel with you.

If there are two children's rooms, each parent takes responsibility for one, and they should be connected with battery-powered intercoms. If there are more bedrooms (or just one parent), you will need to get the oldest child and move together to the youngest's room. Under no circumstances, when alarm lights are lit, should children investigate the noise or move to the safe room by themselves. They should wait for mom or dad to come get them.

When children are old enough to act in their own defense, they can have their own safe room, with a "panic button" light control, 911 phone, their own escape route (the same route they's use for fires) and an intercom. Should their door be breached, a child's priority should not be defense, but escape while calling for help. You should should have a designated rendevous point outside the home, exactly as for fires. The intercom will keep you apprised of the child's status, and if he/she is under threat, then you will be finally forced to leave the safe room to confront the threat.

Obviously this process is not something to be initiated for every noise you hear. When an intruder response means waking and mobilizing the entire house, it's even more critical that you have supplemental systems in place to determine if you do, in fact, have a threat. That's one service that a well-trained dog can provide.

A dog can also be helpful in safely moving from room to room if trained to do so. The process of moving to secure the family is essentially the room-clearing that I mentioned at the beginning of this page -- dangerous. A dog that can be commanded to go to a room of the house (i.e. "go to Jane's room") will walk well in front of you, and act as an advance alarm should someone be between you and the room you are heading for.

Using the times you talk about fire safety to also talk about break-in safety can help give the child a feeling of security rather than fear. You want them to know the plan, but be able to live without anxiety about it. Learn it and then don't worry about it.

Armed Confrontation

This entire document, up to this point, has been about how to avoid a confrontation with someone who has broken into your house. Any alternatives that dissuade the housebreaker without endangering the homeowner are the ones we want to pursue. But if you are holed up in the safest place in the house, door bolted shut, and alarm lights on, anyone who persists in breaking down your last defenses means you harm. At this point, you will be better served by stopping the threat than leaving the safe room. Anyone that determined will pursue you, and you will have lost many of your advantages. The safe room is your best fighting ground.

There are many books on this aspect of defense, and I don't hope to reproduce their advice here. Get training. I only include a few of the points I feel are most general and most important.

Know the laws. If someone is unlawfully threatening you in your own house and you are in fear of grave bodily harm, you are probably in the clear to prevent them with lethal force. But know your laws. Understand under exactly what circumstances lethal force may be used, because the circumstances you will find yourself in may not be the ones you anticipated.

No challenge is necessary. If you have advance warning that the assailants are going to come through your door, you may want to shout out that you are armed. But if the threat is immediate, don't talk. You have no obligation to warn someone off once your door has been breached. To do so severely impairs your reaction capability, and within the confines of a room, seconds are critical.

"Get out of here!" Your goal is to stay safe, period. If circumstances are such that an assailant does surrender, don't start a conversation, and don't effect an arrest. As tempting as it may be to do a "Miami Vice" on them, any time spent in the presence of a home invader is extremely dangerous. Minimize it. The only thing you want to say is "Get out of here." Stay behind cover and stay armed. When the police arrive, be the best witness you can be.

If you shoot, shoot until the threat is over. Television has given the public a broad misconception of how effective firearms are at stopping assault. It is quite possible for an attack to continue after the attacker has been shot. If you are forced to use a lethal force, any amount of force is legal. Hit quickly and repeatedly. Keep firing until the threat is over.


If there has been a shooting, you need to immediately report it to 911, if you can do so without risk to yourself. Regardless of the condition of the assailant, don't approach. The safe room philosophy still applies, and he/she is still a potential threat.

You will probably be charged with a crime until the district attorney has had time to review the case. Anything you say will be considered evidence, and unfortunately, during the time immediately following a stressful event you are at your most unreliable. Under stress, the chronlogy of events becomes confused, time and numbers are distorted, and you may misremember important details. You may even falsely report facts, which will damage your credibility.

For this reason, say as little as possible immediately after the shooting. Wait for police and your lawyer to sort out the facts. You will want to tell the story immediately to vindicate yourself, but the story you tell may be inaccurate. Let the facts speak for themselves. Tell your story to your lawyer, not the police.

On the 911 line simply say, "There has been a shooting," and ask for an ambulance.

When police arrive, give them any information they might need to pursue suspects still at large. In regards to the shooting say only:

  1. "I am the one who called you." Identify yourself as the person on the phone.
  2. "I have done nothing wrong." This statement is a spontaneous declaration of innocence and will be admitted by the court.
  3. "I will cooperate fully, but I need my lawyer first."

Cooperate with officers on the scene and allow yourself to be taken into custody. Every gunowner should carry a lawyer's number in his or her wallet. Call your attorney from the station. He or she can notify other people for you.

Have a Plan

Personal safety depends far more on you than on the equipment you have. Many people have guns or pepper spray "for self-defense," but have no realistic idea how they might be employed. Many people buy a burglar alarm but don't know what they'd do if it went off. Far too many people expose themselves unnecessarily to danger by pursuing armed confrontations rather than using their intelligence and resources to devise solutions.

I realize, though, that my suggestions have involved some equipment and a good deal of preparation. More important than anything in this document is your own plan -- the plan that works with where you are now, and what you have now. Not the plan for where you wish you were and what you optimally would have. I hope this document has helped provoke your own ideas for responding to noises in the night. But whatever you decide to do, decide and do it. Have a plan.

I'm interested in your comments. Drop me a line at dyoung@irvine.com.

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