Veteran firefighter comes up with device to help comrades

Every day, firefighters across the world storm blindly into burning buildings to save lives of people — often without even being able to see their own hand in front of their face.

For 20-year firefighter veteran Captain Jeff Dykes of the Eau Claire Fire Department, this is an experience he knows all too well.

“You don’t have to do our job very long to realize that when you go inside these houses or structures, you don’t know what the floor plan is,” Dykes said, “and you can very quickly become disoriented.”

Determined to find a solution, Dykes started Northern Star Fire in 2015, which he runs with his wife in Eau Claire. Its flagship product is an electronic eight-directional compass for firefighters.The company was profiled as part of a business series written by UW-Madison students.

This device, appropriately named the Northern Star, adheres to firefighters’ face masks to help them navigate in zero-visibility conditions and regain orientation through four different-colored LED lights that illuminate during their entire time fighting a fire.

“Not a single (firefighter) has a directional guidance system in their mask as we speak. Northern Star is the only alternative for what would seemingly be a very simple technology,” Dykes said.

The compass contains a magnetometer, like the one in your smartphone, which reads the earth’s magnetic field and points you in a desired direction.

Unlike your smartphone compass, however, Northern Star’s magnetometer is much more accurate and better at “filtering out” man-made interferences, Dykes pointed out.

Each Northern Star compass will also include two rechargeable, lithium batteries with a lifespan of seven to eight hours per battery, Dykes said.

“It’s important to stay in service at all times. You can’t just call ‘Uncle’ and say I’m not going to be a firefighter for the next hour,” he said. “(So) that battery should never wear out putting out a single fire.”

Northern Star’s already promising reliability has grabbed the attention of fire chiefs across the country, and some unexpected potential buyers as well.

“We have gotten interest from scuba divers, because they become disoriented beneath the water,” he said, adding he’s also been contacted by NASA, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army. “We didn’t go into it anticipating all those secondary markets, but they’re finding us so we’re excited for the future.”

The original goal of Northern Star Fire, however, is to make firefighters safer.

That means making the Northern Star affordable and accessible to fire chiefs for their department, or to firefighters for themselves.

“The goal is…to put the price at a spot where a single firefighter can go buy it for himself, or a mother can buy it for her son or a wife can buy it for her husband, and not try to gouge the market and really exploit that.”

Dykes said he owes his financial ability to do this to the nearly $100,000 in grant money he has received, especially after winning the 2017 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

As a firefighter who says he “didn’t know the first thing about business” before starting Northern Star Fire, Dykes thanks his networks of advisors who have helped him move up a different kind of ladder.

“If you have an idea, there’s a path forward without selling your house…There’s a way to do it with minimum risk on the back of grant recipients, so if you do fall flat on your face you’re not digging yourself in a big hole.”

Dykes presented during the Tech Council Investor Networks’ track at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium. He plans to use any money raised from investors to start hiring employees and aggressively market the Northern Star.

–Riley Steinbrenner
Steinbrenner is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.