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Hotline for Fred Fuller Oil customers set up

The state established an emergency hotline last night for customers of the Fred Fuller Oil and Propane Co. who have not received scheduled heating oil deliveries and are in danger of running out.

“I am very concerned about the news reports around delivery problems with Fred Fuller Oil Co., especially given the current cold temperatures and the potential health and safety risks to citizens,” Gov. Maggie Hassan said in a statement announcing the hotline. “Fred Fuller is a private business, and the state has little legal authority to regulate its delivery practices. However, we do have a responsibility to act to protect the health and safety of our citizens.”

Fuller customers who have not been able to reach the company and who are about to run out can call 227-0002. The line will be answered around the clock. The statement said operators will try to work through Fred Fuller to arrange for a delivery, or connect them to other options.

Hassan’s announcement came late in a day in which signs appeared that Fuller had begun digging itself out of a backlog of overdue deliveries. Still, questions swirled around why the state’s largest heating oil supplier, in business for nearly five decades, fell so far behind in the first place.

Company officials reiterated what they have said in recent days, that the problem was the result of a bizarre confluence of events – unusually severe weather, crushing demand and an unforeseen technical malfunction that downed the company’s phone system late last week.

“A perfect storm,” said Simon Leeming, the company’s attorney.

Leeming said the recent cold snap had pushed demand to historic highs, and that given Fuller’s size – the company doesn’t disclose how many customers it serves, but competitors estimated tens of thousands – it had faced unique challenges in meeting it.

Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti, who heads the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau, said he has had dozens of conversations with company officials and has been assured that the problem is neither financial nor supply-related. An added hurdle, they told him, was a shortage of certified delivery drivers.

“You can’t just put anyone in a truck hauling oil,” Boffetti said. “They need training.”

Boffetti said the company had begun filling late orders; trucks were on the road until midnight Monday, he was told, and some customers notified him that their tanks had been filled. Still, he said his office was pressing for a more detailed account of the shortage and a concrete plan as to how the company planned to catch up, particularly with its pre-buy customers who invested months in advance for fuel this winter.

Asked how the company had weathered demand spikes in the past without similar delays, Boffetti said, “I don’t have an answer for that.” He noted, however, that company officials were cooperating and had agreed to meet in person with his team as early as today.

Boffetti and Leeming each said officials at FairPoint Communications, the company’s telephone service provider, told them there had been a disruption in the company’s phone system Thursday and Friday, but that it was an equipment malfunction and had nothing to do with the service itself.

The backlog – and the publicity surrounding it – has sent Fuller customers scrambling to fill their tanks. Leeming said even residents with half-full tanks are ordering deliveries, which has only compounded the original demand issue. In her statement, Hassan noted that a half tank of heating oil can last up to a month, and a quarter tank up to 12 days, depending on the weather and thermostat settings.

Local competitors say they are fielding calls from customers looking to switch suppliers.

John Rymes of Rymes Propane and Oil said his company is acquiring close to a hundred Fuller customers per day.

“It’s going to be some long nights for sure, but we love it,” he said. “This is what we do.”

Tom Prescott, president of Johnny Prescott & Son Oil Co., said his company fielded about 40 calls from Fuller customers yesterday morning alone.

Prescott and Rymes said that Fuller’s problems were not indicative of a larger oil shortage.

“There is not a shortage of oil – if you’ve got the money to pay for it,” Prescott said. He noted that Fred Fuller was subject to tax liens by the Internal Revenue Service in 2012 for $2.8 million in unpaid income taxes.

“He always sells oil for less, and a lot of us in the business wondered how he could do that year after year,” Prescott said. “But usually the guys who offer the lowest are the ones who have trouble making a profit in the end.”

Prescott said he first suspected weeks ago that Fuller was having trouble meeting demand, based on reports from his own drivers that Fuller wasn’t delivering to some customers, and in other cases was delivering but only partially filling tanks.

Asked to respond, Leeming defended Fuller, warning that competitors are apt to say whatever is in their self-interest.

Beyond civil action, there is no real protection for pre-buy customers if a company is unable to make promised deliveries, Boffetti said. Suppliers can take the money from those contracts and spend it on immediate expenses. Boffetti said he and state officials have pressed for enhanced protections – for example, by requiring companies to place pre-buy money in an escrow account – but the issue has proven divisive, with industry representatives insisting that the process allows companies to stay afloat.

“This is a problem for the industry and the consumers that use it,” Boffetti said. “Because I don’t think they realize how at-risk their money is.”

In her statement, Hassan said customers with non-emergency complaints can file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Bureau. Complaints can be filed online through the attorney general’s website at doj.nh.gov/consumer/complaints/index.htm. Consumers can also request a complaint form by calling the consumer hotline at 1-888-468-4454.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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