Robert Emmett Schnabel, 61, a retired colonel in the Air Force who became chief of the preparedness division in the old Office of Emergency Preparedness, died of cancer Sept. 5 at the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base hospital in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Col. Schnabel, who was born in New York City, grew up in California and Illinois. He began his military career in the old Army Air Corps during World War II. He was sent to Yale University and commissioned in 1943. He spent the remainder of the war as a communications officer in North Africa and the Middle East.

After the war, he commanded Airways and Air Communications Service squadrons during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949. He graduated from the Air Command and Staff College and was on its faculty as an instructor in electronics and guided missiles. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland. Other assignments included duty with a guided missile wing in Germany and the Air War College. He also was stationed in Washington. He retired from the Air Force in 1969.

Col. Schnabel moved to the Washington area at that time and joined the Office of Emergency Preparedness, now the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in the Executive Office of the President. He was appointed chief of the preparedness division.

In 1975, he retired from the government and became vice president for research for the International Center for Emergency Preparedness. About 1977, he turned to private consulting on how to deal with natural disasters. He was a consultant to the government on the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Carter administration.

In 1980, Col. Schnabel moved from his home in Oxon Hill to North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

His military decorations included the Legion of Merit.

Survivors include his wife, Vivian, of North Myrtle Beach; a daughter, Linda Vogan of San Diego, Calif.; a son, Robert, of College Park, and two grandchildren.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Air Force Aid Society of Myrtle Beach, S.C., or to the Salvation Army.