Summer intern investigates untapped potential of wearable devices for stress management in emergency responders

Julian Barnes

In the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, computer science student Julian Barnes investigated how emergency responders could benefit from wearable monitoring devices.

Every day, millions of Americans use smart phone calorie counters, pedometers, heart rate monitors in their watches or other wearable fitness trackers to inspire movement and healthy eating goals. Emergency responders may soon be able to use these same types of devices to monitor and combat the stress-related impacts of their day-to-day jobs.

Julian Barnes, a recent participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Program at DHS’ headquarters in Washington, D.C., spent his summer investigating the largely untapped potential of wearable monitoring devices as tools to help first responders prepare for inevitable distress calls.

“The first responder is in the unique position of being exposed to high stress situations on a regular basis,” said Barnes, who is pursuing a degree in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Monitoring the physiological status of the responder can have positive implications during and after the mission. 

The DHS HS-STEM Program provides students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S.

Barnes conducted research for the Next Generation First Responder Apex Program within the DHS Science and Technology Directorate First Responders Group (FRG), which is in charge of engaging with the emergency preparedness and response community. Barnes’ specific task was to analyze how wearable physiological sensors are used in health, sports, and personal fitness and to provide his findings to the FRG, which is looking for ways to leverage the devices in its own industry.

Under the mentorship of John Merrill, director for the FRG’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, Barnes spent his days conducting internet research, attending meetings, and interacting with high-level government officials. 

From this research, Barnes discovered high market potential for the devices, which could be employed to indicate stress levels and record biometric data, among other capabilities. Monitoring emergency responders’ stress levels in real time could help responders take a proactive approach to stress management.

“Most, if not all, first responders experience some kind of traumatic event during their career,” said Barnes. “It might not always lead to PTSD, but the symptoms could be well hidden and go untreated. By applying wearable devices to monitor sudden increases in stress, those who need treatment can be referred to a therapist.”

Barnes also had the opportunity to attend the annual Defense One Technology Summit held by the Department of Defense. During the summit, Barnes learned from Rajesh Naik, Ph.D., of the Air Force Research Laboratory that 70 percent of the wearable sensors in the market today do not give reliable results—a factor that sheds light onto the importance of his summer research.

“It really made me think about how we quickly put faith in new technology before vetting the results,” said Barnes. “When a government agency uses a new technology, it is held to a different standard than it is for the general public. The devices have to be reliable, secure, and useful for an investment to be made in them. By investigating the shortcomings of the devices used in the private sphere, DHS can know what improvements need to be made before they can utilize them.”

During the course of the summer, Barnes gained critical thinking and communication skills along with exclusive insight into daily life at a high-profile federal agency.

“Everyone at DHS seemed to be enjoying what they do because they are working on cutting-edge projects and know the importance of their job,” said Barnes. “The DHS HS STEM Program gave me new appreciation for what is happening not only at DHS but at agencies and labs across the nation. Because of my experience in the program, I now believe any of these facilities would be fun and exciting places to work.”

Barnes plans on leveraging his internship experience to be more competitive when applying for other federal research positions, including ones at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he envisions merging his skills in computer science with his interest in foreign relations.

Ultimately, he wants to obtain a career that benefits society on a global scale, and he believes his experience in the DHS HS-STEM Program will help him get there. 

“I would recommend interning in the DHS HS-STEM Program if you are at all curious about federal employment. You should make sure to select a project that interests you, so you can stay fully engaged,” said Barnes. “This was, overall, a very rewarding and enlightening experience.”

The HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.