January 09. 2014 11:54PM

More phone woes at Fuller; company expects to catch up today

New Hampshire Union Leader

Telephone problems continued to bedevil Fred Fuller Oil & Propane Co. Thursday, but the company's lawyer said the company still hopes to be caught up with deliveries and return to normal operations sometime today. (See related stories.) T

he company telephone system, which Fuller Oil has blamed for much of its problems, was fixed late Wednesday afternoon, but then crashed Thursday morning, said Simon Leeming, the lawyer who represents the company. By early Thursday afternoon, the company's telephone system was "functioning but not at full capacity," he said.

The Hudson-based Fuller Oil, one of the state's largest heating fuel companies, saw its deliveries fall behind last week, the same time an Arctic cold snap hit the state. The company has blamed the backlog on the weather, high demand and its telephone system.

When it appeared that timely deliveries were not being made, the state stepped in.

Since Tuesday, a state hotline — 227-0002 — has been taking calls from Fuller Oil customers with dry or nearly dry oil tanks. As of 3 p.m. Thursday, the hotline had received 1,350 calls, according to the office of Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Operators take as much information as possible, and then contact Fuller Oil through a cell phone, said Perry Plummer, New Hampshire director of emergency management and homeland security, which is overseeing the call center.

Nine operators man the phones during the day, four at night, Plummer said. Overnight Wednesday, close to 100 customers were in danger of running out of fuel, Plummer said.

"They're frustrated, there's no question," Plummer said.

Leeming said the company should be caught up with deliveries by today, but he could not pinpoint a time.

Meanwhile, the state's consumer protection chief has warned Fuller Oil it will have to address consumer issues likely to arise from the delivery problems. Those include property damage attributed to frozen pipes, and penalty provisions in pre-buy contracts that discourage oil purchases from competitors.

"We've already talked to Fred Fuller about it. He recognizes that issue is going to come at him at some point," said James Boffetti, a senior assistant attorney general and head of the state's Consumer Protection Bureau.

Fuller Oil pre-buy contracts call for a breach if a customer purchases oil from a competitor. But Boffetti said a breach isn't likely, as long as the customer tried to contact Fuller Oil. "They ought to at least make that call," he said.

On Thursday afternoon, Leeming wouldn't entertain questions about contract provisions and liability. He said Fuller Oil just wanted to update its deliveries.

"I'm not able to address these. I'm not going to make a blanket statement," he said.

A Union Leader reporter's check of the company telephone system found spotty results.

Of five calls made Thursday afternoon, two were answered. Another three weren't answered after at least 10 rings.

The hotline was quickly answered. Plummer stressed that emergency management took over the task to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Fuller Oil customers. He said operators only work with callers who are running out of oil, and prioritize the calls for Fuller Oil.

If people's homes are cold, the operator can arrange for a visit from local emergency response officials or a night in a shelter. No one had been sheltered as of Thursday afternoon.

Twenty to 30 customers had run out of oil Wednesday night, while 100 were in danger of running out, he said.

The phones were staffed by homeland security personnel with extra help from the Department of Health and Human Services, Plummer said.

On Thursday morning, Leeming blamed phone problems on a corrupted database and problems with the hardware and software.