During a training exercise in a garage, then-Altoona fire Chief Jesse James had his mask blacked out as he attempted to navigate through obstacles.
“This training was as close as possible to being in a smoke-filled environment,” James said. “I couldn’t see, and when I got to the end, I was breathing heavy and my (low-air) alarm (on my self-contained breathing apparatus) was going off. I was panicking.”
But James, Altoona’s police chief, is hopeful firefighters in his former department don’t find themselves feeling the same panic, thanks to a donation of 30 specialty compasses designed to direct firefighters through unfamiliar and dangerous burning buildings.
“If I had that device back then, it would have guided me to where I needed to go,” James said Tuesday, one day after tweeting about the donation of 20 compasses by Northwestern Bank and another 10 compasses by a private citizen.
The donation makes the Altoona Fire Department the first department in the United States that is fully covered by the directional guidance systems, which were designed by Eau Claire fire Capt. Jeff Dykes, founder of Northern Star Fire.
The compasses, the company’s flagship product known as the Northern Star, are the size of a quarter and fit inside a firefighter’s face piece. Powered by a rechargeable lithium battery, they are heat resistant, shockproof and waterproof.
“We’re very excited to have these donated by an area business and private donor,” Altoona fire Chief Mark Renderman said. “This donation allows us to outfit all of our staff.”
A firefighter for more than 20 years, Renderman said “it’s easy for firefighters to get disoriented (in a burning building) when they can’t see. These will definitely help.”
Dykes, who joined the Eau Claire Fire Department in 1999, developed the lighted compass from his own experiences battling blazes. In 2014, he won the Idea Challenge sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. There, he met Gerald Jacobson, president of Northwestern Bank.
A year later when Dykes needed funding, he talked with Jacobson about a loan.
“He said, ‘I don’t think you need a loan,’ “ Dykes recalled. “ ‘I think you need a really big line of credit, and, absolutely, I’m behind you all the way.’ “
Dykes got his line of credit, and Jacobson told him that as soon as he was in production to give him a call so he could place an order for the Altoona Fire Department. (Chippewa Falls-based Northwestern Bank has a location in Altoona.)
“Nothing would have happened without Northwestern Bank,” Dykes said. “That’s a guarantee. They are very supportive of small businesses and entrepreneurs.”
Northern Star Fire has been shipping out the compasses for less than a month, and Dykes has gotten a lot of inquiries about the product.
“It’s a simple concept, but it’s a great idea,” said Eau Claire fire Deputy Chief Jon Schultz, confirming his department is considering the compasses.
The Northern Star retails for $129.99 each, according to the company website.
As a firefighter, “it’s important for me to get myself out of a fire,” Dykes said. “I want to come home, and I want to see my wife and kids again.
“When I know which way I’m heading inside of a fire, then I can search faster. When I can search faster, I can save the lives of the people I’m searching for.”
When James was training to become a firefighter, Dykes was one of his instructors.
“I am so proud of J.D., his (efforts) to pursue this,” James said. “For sure, this is going to be a lifesaving tool for our firefighters.”
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