Engineering U.S. preparedness

Jan 16, 2009

Dennis R. Schrader '76, former deputy administrator of the National Preparedness Directorate for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the government is actively improving the federal management of disasters and offered other comments during a recent visit to Kettering.

The rust stains of Hurricane Katrina are permanently engrained on the concrete slabs of sidewalk in New Orleans’ 4th Ward.

History is instructive. Exhaustive analyses on FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina continue as the organization seeks to better understand how to prepare for unimaginable disasters of historic proportions. New professionals have joined FEMA, new systems have undergone implementation and enhanced partnerships with civil service, military and law enforcement agencies are now the norm.

Appointed by President Bush in 2007, Dennis R. Schrader ’76 was the deputy administrator of the National Preparedness Directorate (NPD), a component of FEMA established in April 2007 to oversee the coordination and development of capabilities and tools necessary to prepare for all hazards, including terrorism. Before this, he spent 16 years at the University of Maryland Medical Center as director of Operations, vice president of Facilities Management and Development, and vice president of Project Planning and Development.

His work at the center included development of medical preparedness plans for mass casualty incidents. In addition, during his leadership at the center, he received public credit for transforming the organization into its current status as a prominent, nationally recognized institution.

Recently, Schrader spoke to almost 100 faculty, staff and students at Kettering University about his work with the NPD and opportunities currently available in this sector at the federal and state levels. Most importantly, he offered analysis of FEMA’s attempt to improve performance and its capability of responding effectively to an array of disasters.

“Since the Katrina event and with the support of Congress, FEMA has doubled staff size to 4,000 today,” he said. “In the 15 months that I’ve served the NPD, we have improved our ability to communicate more effectively, provide logistical resources and respond more efficiently overall,” he added.

Schrader is certainly a realist, perhaps a result of serving on active duty in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps for seven years prior to his appointment to the University of Maryland Medical Center. During his talk to the Kettering community, he explained that FEMA and associated agencies have made significant strides in improving their ability to respond and manage crises, but that these organizations still have some work to do.

On the surface, some may view his work at the NPD as unrelated to his engineering background. But Schrader said that the opposite is true.

“We really engineer processes and oversee the development of tools to insure our national preparedness,” he explained. “The goal, especially since 9/11 and Katrina, is to make preparedness a part of our culture. Everyone and everything—business, industry, society, culture—has a stake in being prepared, so finding the right way to manage and develop processes to ensure that preparedness demands an engineering mindset, one geared toward the creation of efficient, fluid processes,” he added. The national vision of the NPD, Schrader said, is to establish “a nation prepared with coordinated capabilities to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from all hazards in a way that balances risk with resources.”

During his talk to Kettering students—which the Student Alumni Council (SAC) hosted—Schrader also discussed the numerous career paths available through Homeland Security for engineering, mathematics and business majors. Some of these positions exist in the intelligence fields, military, transportation and health care sectors among others. In addition, he described a number of systems in place at FEMA and the NPD to ensure that both organizations respond effectively to emergency situations within U.S. borders.

Some of these include a program managed by the DHS Science and Technology where U.S. universities partner with FEMA and agencies like the NPD for training and research purposes. Although Kettering is currently not a partner in this university program, Schrader believes the institution could be competitive.

Ultimately, the future success of FEMA and the NPD depends on the ability of both organizations to take on the next challenge: large scale recovery from emergency situations. And although Katrina was a failure, Schrader believes that with the current systems in place along with the development of other systems, FEMA can begin to push to make large scale recovery more effective. “There will be a great many engineering jobs available in FEMA due to this challenge,” he said.

When the new administration takes its place in the White House, Schrader said he’ll take his leave and consider his next career move with his wife Sandra and daughter Whitney at their home in Maryland.  

To learn more about Kettering’s Student Alumni Council, visit or call Deb Schnettler, director of On Campus Programs and Events, at 810-762-9746, or via email at

Written by Gary J. Erwin