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Fred Fuller Oil expected to be back to normal Friday, but phones are out again today

January 09. 2014 10:09AM

HUDSON - Fred Fuller Oil & Propane Co. fully expected to be back to normal operations by Friday, but that was until its telephone system crashed again Thursday morning, according to company attorney Simon Leeming of Preti Flaherty in Concord.

The phone system was fixed late Wednesday afternoon but Thursday morning, the telephone system crashed again, according to Leeming.

"It's unbelievable," he said.

Leeming said company officials expected the system to be up and running smoothly by Friday, but that was before the telephone system went down again this morning.

The head of the state's Consumer Protection Bureau, Senior Assistant Attorney General James T. Boffetti , also said Wednesday he expected the company's phone problems were solved.

Both Fairpoint Communications and NEC, the provider of the system, are working together to try to resolve the problems, according to Leeming.

He said while Fairpoint keeps saying the problem has nothing to do with them, "they are out there all the time" working on the system, Leeming said, who added that another six or seven issues surfaced Thursday morning and that it has something to do with a corrupted database and problems with the hardware and software.

"It's been a significant problem, a system-wide problem," Leeming said.

Both Fairpoint and NEC, however, are working "diligently" to fix it, according to Leeming.

New Hampshire home heating oil dealers are not running into supply problems and are helping frustrated Fred Fuller Oil & Propane Co. customers fill their tanks, according to Robert Sculley, , executive director of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire.

"There is not a supply shortage," said Sculley. "This is not an industry-wide problem in New Hampshire and New England. This is a company-specific problem."

Bofetti also said Wednesday, "This does seem to be confined to a delivery problem with Fred Fuller Oil."

Fred Fuller Oil, one of the state's largest heating fuel delivery companies with main offices in Hudson, got backlogged on deliveries last week at a time when the region plunged into arctic cold snap, Boffetti said. Fuller promised to be caught up with all deliveries by week's end, Boffetti said.

Sprague Oil of Newington and company owner Fred Fuller told state officials Wednesday that the oil company has been buying "significant" daily amounts of home heating oil, totally about 500,000 gallons since Monday, Boffetti said. Fuller's trucks also have been delivering oil late into the night to get through the backlog of customers, Boffetti said.

"I do not have any indication that he is in serious financial trouble," Boffetti added.

"I haven't audited his books. I don't know if he has a cash flow problem or not ... He has yet to provide me with proof of his pre-buy liabilities and his futures contracts," Boffetti said.

But Boffetti noted that the vast majority of Fred Fuller customers who have gone without oil are those who either pay as they go or are on a budget plan. Just a small fraction of those affected have pre-buy contracts, he said.

The oil company, in a statement issued Wednesday night, said it fell behind on deliveries due to a combination of extreme weather conditions, a huge uptake in oil and propane demand and an overload and temporary crash of their company-wide phone system.

"We apologize to our customers who have been affected," the company said. "This is the first such crisis we have experienced in our 45-year history, and we have called this unfortunate combination of weather, demand and technology the perfect storm. We are taking all steps necessary to catch up on deliveries and maintain the standard of service and customer relations we have always proudly held. We have added personnel, added hours, added equipment and have been working with our phone service suppliers to rectify the situation... We will continue to do all we can."

The breakdown in the telephone system has made it impossible for customers to place orders for oil since last week. This prompted Gov. Maggie Hassan to set up a hotline at 6 p.m. Tuesday specifically for Fred Fuller customers in imminent danger of running out of oil.

Nearly 650 consumers flooded the hotline with calls by 2 p.m. Wednesday, the governor's spokesman said. The vast majority had less than 1/8 of a tank of oil left — the rest had less than a quarter of a tank of oil or run out of oil completely, spokesman Marc Goldberg wrote in a statement. The hotline number is 227-0002.

State officials staffing the hotline first make sure consumers are safe, then work with Fred Fuller to get drivers and technicians out to customers, Goldberg said.

"The health and safety of individuals who are running dangerously low on heating oil due to delivery issues with Fred Fuller Oil Co. remains Gov. Hassan's primary concern," Goldberg wrote. He said the hotline will remain open until "we are confident that response times are sufficient to ensure the health and safety of customers."

Fuller also said the company is working with Homeland Security to provide a back-up cellphone coverage plan for its office staff, which will be put into place should landlines crash again.

Goldberg said the situation "highlights the need for strengthened consumer protections for heating oil customers, especially those on pre-buy (contracts)."

Meanwhile, other dealers are pitching in to help those needing oil, Sculley said.

Mary Olsen, officer manager at Shattuck Oil Co., said the Pepperell, Mass., company has added 40 to 50 Fred Fuller customers from New Hampshire since last Thursday, including filling an elderly Nashua woman's tank Tuesday.

"We just delivered to an 80-year-old woman who hasn't had heat for two days," Olsen said. "She was a Fuller customer. She had no oil."

Sculley said there are about 200 oil dealers in New Hampshire and Fred Fuller serves tens of thousands of Granite State customers. "If he's not the biggest, he's one of the biggest," Sculley said.

Matthew Ciardelli, co-owner of Ciardelli Fuel Company in Milford, said his staff has been fielding several hundred calls a day from Fred Fuller Oil customers since Friday.

"We've helped out several hundred customers who aren't our regular customers," Ciardelli said, adding that his staff has worked up to 14-hour days to meet the additional demand.

On Friday night when temperatures plunged well below freezing, Ciardelli said neighbors of a 98-year-old Amherst woman dropped in his office worried the woman would run out of oil because they were unable to contact Fred Fuller Oil, her regular company.

"She was 98. She could barely use the phone. Her neighbors stopped by our office," he said. Ciardelli said he took a truck home and delivered oil to the woman as well as his neighbor, another Fuller customer who was on empty.

Ciardelli said his company was able to offer a helping hand because — anticipating the cold streak coming into the region — they got caught up on deliveries to all their customers by last week.

About 58 percent of New Hampshire homes use oil for heating, according to Meredith Hatfield, director of the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

She said the state's hotline set up to handle the Fred Fuller situation "is both triaging people in an emergency situation" and talking to people who want to file complaints with the state's Consumer Protection Bureau.

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