The Supply Cache

© 1998 Kelly Andersson
Contributing Editor
WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER Magazine

Jim and Diane Felix launched The Supply Cache eight years ago, with the goal of creating a "one-stop-shopping" source for firefighters. Because both partners are experienced firefighters, they concentrate on what wildland firefighters carry and use. Unlike other fire supply outfits, the Supply Cache doesn't mess around with pumps, hoses, or fittings -- they focus on the gear that firefighters need. Their line of clothing, line packs, helmets, and gloves keys on safety and quality for the firefighter on the line.

"We're firefighters catering to firefighters," says Jim. "And we try to stock items that are hard to find. We also have parts and accessories to add on to or repair gear such as helmets and headlamps. We try out the products we carry, and we stock what we've already found to be reliable gear at a good value." They've used five different line packs in the field, and a half dozen different headlamps; the products carried by the Supply Cache have been selected for their top quality. "We usually pass on other products if they're too similar to what we already carry," he says. "Our field testing allows us to provide feedback on each product. Customers look for different features and different price points, so we try to provide a good selection of both."

The Supply Cache staff are regularly in touch with the manufacturers of the gear they carry, and they work with their suppliers on making improvements or getting custom-made items. "We work especially closely with the Pack Shack," says Jim. "They provide custom fits and colors and fast turn-around time. We've produced custom radio harnesses for some customers."

Two products in particular have been upgraded with input from the Supply Cache to the manufacturers. Bullard was producing a quality high-end wildfire helmet, but Jim thought they needed to improve the chinstrap. "Although I was not involved with any design, I consistently hammered on my Bullard rep to get this done," says Jim. "Not only did Bullard create a substantially better chinstrap, they then began to include it as the standard strap at no additional cost. The second item we've had an influence on is the PGI brush coats and liners. When the NFPA standard came out, clothing became substantially more expensive. We thought customers needed to have access at a lower price point." They persuaded PGI to continue manufacturing the less expensive model for about a year, giving customers a chance to buy it at a lower price. The red flannel liners were discontinued last year, but the Supply Cache sells 80 or 90 percent of its coats with liners. "I convinced PGI to continue manufacturing them for us and our customers," says Jim. "As far as I know, we are the only distributor stocking the liners."

The Supply Cache used to manufacture some of their own products because they weren't available elsewhere. "The Pack Shack took over our last item, the radio strap, so we could get out of manufacturing," says Jim. "We began manufacturing because of customer demand. Our business actually started when a friend of ours, Drew Davis, asked Diane to sew two radio harnesses for him. She made them and he took them to a SAR conference at Joshua Tree. Our phone began ringing for orders before he returned from that trip."

The Supply Cache catalog, which comes out every year in January or February, is usually followed by a brochure on new products late in the summer. The company website at www.firecache.com features monthly specials not available through the catalog, and includes additional manufacturers' information not found in the catalog.

The company stocks line packs and other accessories in a variety of styles and colors, along with helmets, goggles, radio harnesses, and fire shelters. They carry a line of brush coats, headlamps, flashlights, and a small library of books and training materials. They've even got an alternative to MREs -- Coyote Camp Fire Line Chow.

"Coyote Camp Food is a joint venture with Mike Harte, another local firefighter," explains Jim. "When our Larimer County crew ran out of C-rations several years ago, we switched to MREs like everyone else. There was such an uproar from all the firefighters, because MREs were so bad, that the county created and packaged their own C-rations. Mike, who already owned and operated a foods manufacturing company, took the idea and expanded on it. Last season was our first year, and despite the slow fire season, we did better than expected. We provided over 300 meals for the Colorado Wildfire Academy last year and again this year. For 1998 we have greatly increased the variety, and lowered the price. We sell to the Forest Service, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and to many other agencies. The response has been good, and we have responded to customer suggestions quickly."

"Our biggest push for customer service is having things in stock as much as possible so that we can ship immediately," says Diane. "That's something we're constantly working on. We schedule regular shipments from pack manufacturers by giving them pre-season orders in February and March for the whole season; they can schedule their work and we can count on receiving stock on specific dates. Then if we do happen to run short, we can tell the customer pretty well when we'll have the item to ship to them."

Though the business is small and family-owned, it's grown from its beginnings in 1990 when they had one part-time person -- Diane -- shipping out five or six packages per day, to a thriving little operation that now does five times the volume and keeps three or four people hopping. Another reason for the company's success is the support and feedback that Jim and Diane have received from firefighters. "We have some regular customers who order frequently," says Jim, "and we've received many letters from customers. Our phone rings pretty constantly with questions about products, orders, and suggestions. Our return rate is extremely low for a mail order company -- less than one half a percent -- and we receive catalog requests and product inquiries over e-mail four or five times a day. Some of the most valuable contact we get is at shows and conferences; it's there that we get to put people's names with faces, and they get a chance to meet us."

"We do our best to provide good gear at a good price," he adds. "And we focus on customer service. Probably the toughest thing to do is fill large orders in the middle of fire season as fast as our customers want them. Last year we had a pack order large enough that I had to get part of it drop-shipped from the manufacturer and part from us. We've also had to fill orders for 200 or 300 water bottles at a shot." Because the Supply Cache is a small family business, and because both the family and business have grown lately, balancing priorities can sometimes be tricky. "Our hectic days are often our most fun days," says Jim. "If we ship 40 packages in a day and have filled a lot of back orders from a big incoming shipment, it can really be fun. It is really rewarding to be able to tell customers that we have the items in stock and that they'll go out tomorrow. Tough days are the days, at least once a week, that one of us volunteers at our son Justin's school and the other must juggle our new baby Jenica, the business, and other errands such as the post office, faxes, office supplies, and groceries."

"Balancing priorities is a constant challenge," says Diane. "We couldn't do it without our employee, Christine! Between the three of us, if we're all here, we can generally get to the phone to answer it. If I'm here alone, though, and the baby is crying, the calls go to voice mail until I can get to them. Justin knows he needs to be quiet while we're on the phone, but Jenica hasn't quite leaned that yet. For the most part, Jim takes on the business priorities and I schedule the doctor appointments, carpools, and birthday parties. We eat out a lot -- most people work all day and can't wait to get home at night. We work at home all day, so by evening we're ready to get out to see some different scenery. When Jim goes on fire calls, we just don't do anything other than the necessities, and again, we rely on Christine. We also have wonderful friends who seem to, very conveniently, want Justin to come to play at the times when I most need the help. Having the business at home certainly has its pros and cons, but the biggest plus is that we've always been able to be home with the kids, even if we're not 100 percent available to them. They get to have Mom and Dad around all the time, and can see us and talk to us whenever they want. We can read to them anytime during the day and stop to play or kiss an ‘owie' whenever it's needed."

Jim's introduction to fire was 14 years ago, when he began fighting fire with the Larimer County Yellow Jackets in Fort Collins, Colorado. The Yellow Jackets began in the early ‘70s, and now count as resources three Type VI engines, a Type III engine, three Suburbans for crew transport, and other support vehicles. The Sheriff's Department division of emergency services manages wildfire, search and rescue, dive rescue, and natural disaster response. The division, staffed by two full-time officers, also hires two full time technicians and a seasonal fire cache manager. "The crew is an on-call crew," explains Jim, "and the call list some years runs to 100 people or more. Emergency services puts on a week-long 130/190 class to qualify basic firefighters every spring. Folks usually hang around for two or three seasons, then graduate from Colorado State University and find a real job or move on to other agencies. Eight or twelve of us are around all year, every year, year after year. The interregional crew, which is now interagency, has not missed a year without a dispatch since its start. I got hooked up with the crew 14 years ago; I was bored with my usual summer routine between college, so my sister invited me out for a summer here. My brother-in-law had just been hired as the fire cache manager in his second season of fire fighting. My first fire was a local fire about 50 acres; it was called in from Poudre Canyon, so we responded there. The reporting party pointed us south, so we started hiking towards the smoke. We hiked all the way to the next major canyon; everyone else got to helicopter in and out of the fire, but lucky us -- we got to hike both ways."

"One of my favorite local fires was in 1986, a multi-fire three- or four-day stretch. I hit four different fires in three days, and got several helicopter rides in three different helicopters. My last fire I actually got snowed on -- the first time I dug line while it was snowing. The ironic part was it was on a piece of land that Diane and I had almost bought a few months before!"

Jim's also worked as fire cache manager for Larimer County. "The fire cache has really grown in the past ten years," he says. "When I was manager, it was two garage bays, and we built and maintained our own trucks and equipment. I painted trucks, plumbed trucks, did mechanical and body work, and sometimes went out on fires. The cache is in a fairly new facility now, with one huge bay -- two wide and four deep -- with five offices, a training room, a dispatch radio room, kitchen and storeroom and lots more. It also houses equipment for the dive rescue team, search and rescue team, and our mobile communications van. I worked one season as fire cache manger, but have spent a lot of time before and since volunteering there. The highlight of the job is doing initial attack on fires and being IC on fires. The low point was always being held back to take care of equipment while everyone else went out -- typical firefighter attitude, huh?"

Jim also put in four years with a local volunteer fire department. "That was a lot of fun and very educational," he says. "I did entry on a few burning structures, real time and in training, and that was a major adrenaline rush. On one fire, a burning mobile home, another firefighter and I did entry and had to search through the smoke, plowing through kids' rooms of toys and junk for anyone trapped. I remember having to pick up dolls and other items and hold them right in front of my mask to be sure it was not a child. The only thing we found was a litter of puppies that didn't make it."

There was one incident -- a vehicle accident -- that made him realize he didn't want to be a paramedic. A compact car had slid out, on an ice-covered road, in front of an oncoming pickup. "After working ten minutes on extrication as we removed the female driver, a small child fell out from under the dashboard. We didn't even know the child was there. In the back seat was a perfectly good carseat, but the mother had chosen not to use it, and both victims died at the scene. When you could help a victim, it was a wonderful feeling. But the let-down of being powerless to help other victims was pretty tough."

Jim's currently red-carded as a crew boss, and is still active in fire suppression and training for Larimer County. Back in 1987, he was helping teach the basic wildland firefighting course for the Yellow Jackets when Diane walked into his life. "Jim was the instructor with the sense of humor," Diane remembers. "The others took themselves too seriously. I was there at the encouragement of a friend, one of the other instructors. I wasn't entirely convinced that being there was a good idea, so I wasn't a terribly serious student. Little did I know how the week would impact the rest of my life!"

During the course, Jim was explaining the disease -- you know, the Fire Addiction -- the malaise that takes over your life and your mind and your heart and makes otherwise sane people want to go out and breathe smoke and eat dirt and chase down fire. It had bitten him three years before, and he was telling the students how they might find themselves obsessed with stuff like lightning and fuel moisture and RH and situation reports.

"I did understand immediately what Jim meant when he described the sickness," says Diane. "I'd been on Alpine Search and Rescue for a while already, and rescue folks suffer from the same ailment. I was living in Denver, so I wasn't sure how many fires I'd even get out on. After training I'd come up to Fort Collins occasionally to hang out at the fire cache in the hopes of being there and available when the call came in. Hanging out at the cache, though, meant you had to do whatever chores the cache manager, Jim, decided to hand out that day -- including installing seatbelts in a 5/4, filling water bottles and checking packs and washing engines. The first fire I went on was the North Fire -- we watched the lightning strike that started the fire from the door of the fire cache. I'd been up since very early that morning -- I'd been called out on a rescue at Horsetooth Reservoir in the early hours of the morning when a boat crashed into one of the dams. Initial attack on the fire, though, was pretty exciting, and the adrenalin kept me going, but I remember being a bit uncomfortable going into the black to rest. Jim was on that fire too, and we worked mop-up together the second day with Jim's roommate and another friend."

In the fall of 1987, Diane went back home to Denver and took a job at a small backpacking shop. Over Labor Day weekend she was in downtown Denver listening to music when the crew was called out to a project fire in Oregon. They needed one more firefighter. "The crew boss was a friend of mine," says Diane. "He was also a friend of these musicians I'd gone to hear, and figuring I might be there, called me at the Buckhorn to see if I'd go on the fire. I ran home and gathered my gear and met the crew at Jeffco Airport for the trip to Oregon. We were an initial attack crew on what later became known as the Silver Complex. We were there for two weeks, went home for two or three days, and then returned for another three weeks of duty."

Diane remembers the nastiest fire she was on -- the Number Six Fire in Livermore. "We had a lousy crew boss who insisted we break several of the basic rules. We ended up with three of us flown off the mountaintop with smoke inhalation. Probably the most interesting fire I was on was Battlement Mesa near Rifle, Colorado; there's lots of oil shale in the area, and we were trying to put out burning rocks on that one."

For the next four years Diane worked on the Yellow Jackets crew, and spent two years with Alpine Search and Rescue in Evergreen, Colorado. "I joined the team shortly after a big avalanche in Breckenridge claimed several lives," she says. "It was all over the news, and I just wished there was something I could do to help. My first response was to another avalanche on Shrine Pass near Vail."

Diane, the president of The Supply Cache, Inc., puts to good advantage her 12 years of retail experience with Eddie Bauer and other backpacking stores. She's the drive behind the company's focus on customer service, and her degree in Clothing, Textiles, and Design offers the company a solid grounding in a quality product line. "My focus here came from working for Eddie Bauer for so long," she says. "There, the customer is always right, even when they're wrong. We don't necessarily subscribe to that notion here, but if someone has a reasonable request we do our very best to help them out. Most manufacturers have a guarantee against manufacturing defects, and most sewn products I can repair myself. That saves the time and expense of shipping it back to a manufacturer, and then we can get the product back in the hands of the customer more quickly."

Jim's fire background and Diane's retail experience converged with the difficulty of finding good fire line gear -- and a small business was born. They started it under the auspices of a friend's corporation, and in 1990 put out a one-page brochure that listed ten products. Early in 1991, though, it was becoming obvious that they'd underestimated the demand. They launched The Supply Cache, Inc., producing their first catalog in June of 1991. Since then, encouragement from customers and a steady growth have proven that the business fills a real niche in the wildland fire community.

Though it's sometimes a challenge, Jim and Diane appreciate the benefits of running a family operation from their home. Their son Justin will be old enough to fight fires in the summer of 2009; until then he is content to help pack boxes, try on helmets, and climb on fire trucks.

Justin, who's in kindergarten, doesn't necessarily understand why mommy and daddy can't play with him all day long. "We try to explain to him that most kids only get to see their parents and play with them in the evenings and on weekends," says Diane. "Hopefully they'll both eventually come to appreciate that. Jim helps a bunch -- we have regular planning sessions to make sure everything is covered. We both volunteer at Justin's school regularly, and Jim plays referee for Justin's soccer team and most often now is the one who gets him to practices." Justin also takes Taekwondo classes. He's a green belt and will test in June for his purple belt. He's been in several tournaments and has won several trophies. "We all take karate," says Diane. "I'm a purple belt, testing for blue in June, and Jim is camouflage-testing for green in June. We all love it, and it's nice to have an activity we can do as a family."

"Justin's always had a fairly long attention span and has been able to play by himself and keep himself occupied when we need him to," she adds. "He's always wanted to help pack boxes and help out. I can remember sitting him up on the counter at the post office and letting him lick stamps when he was two or three. I'm sure folks thought I was awful, but he begged to help. He'd answer the phone if we'd let him, but I'm not sure customers would appreciate that. He came to us with a worried look on his face one day about a year ago and said, ‘Dad, what if I don't want to be a firefighter when I grow up? Who will run the business?' His current professional goals include being a karate instructor and a trainer of killer whales at Sea World."

The newest member of the Supply Cache family was born in February. Jenica will be eligible for fire duty in the summer of 2016.

TOP-O-THE-LINE STUFF FROM THE SUPPLY CACHE

Ranger Field Equipment's new Cougar Pack: This new pack is the response to customer demands for pack design. "The Lynx pack was rapidly becoming one of the best-selling packs we carried," says Jim. "However, many people were concerned about the placement and accessibility of the shelter. This is a lower lumbar pack, which helps keep weight on your legs even when you're bent over digging line. The size of the fusee pouches and water bottle pouches is also bigger. If you're a fan of the lower lumbar style pack, Ranger's comfort, workmanship, and sewing are second to none."

New H.L. Bouton goggles: These goggles were designed in response to customer demand for more contemporary styling. "I met a firefighter last year who had a pair of motorcycle goggles that were very similar to these," says Jim. "The peripheral vision is comparable to others, and the advantage is that they are smaller goggles that don't cover your whole face. The fold-in-half feature is very durable, and the frames are sort of a combo of plastic and rubber."


NOTE: This story is © 1997 Kelly Andersson and may not be reproduced or distributed without written permission. For information on reprint rights email Kelly Andersson.