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January 21. 2014 7:27PM

Fred Fuller: phones caused chaos, the media caused panic

A faulty telephone system was responsible for the "utter chaos" that developed earlier this month at Fred Fuller Oil & Propane, the company owner said in a six-paragraph statement that seeks to explain missed deliveries and the need to activate a state hotline.

The statement also said news media coverage caused panic among customers.

The Fuller Oil statement comes as the state plunges into its second cold snap of the month. Temperatures on Tuesday barely reached the teens, and low temperatures tonight are expected to hit 0 degrees.

Just days after the New Year, similar temperatures hit the state, and Fuller Oil problems deepened.

"As many of you are aware by now on Thursday, January 2, 2014, our two-year-old, hi-tech telephone system completely shut down causing our customers the inability to reach us during a very busy time," the statement begins.

"We worked on New Year's Day in an attempt to keep up with the high demand but when the telephone failed, it became utter chaos," the statement reads. "Finally, after over ten days the new system I had demanded on January 3rd was finally installed."

However, the state's top consumer protection chief — who oversaw the state's response to the crisis — said he can't draw the same conclusion as Fuller. Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti said a broken phone system doesn't explain why customers on pre-buy and automatic delivery did not receive their oil.

"I don't think that answers a question about why there was a failure in his delivery system," said Boffetti, who heads the state Bureau of Consumer Protection and Antitrust. "The question is, why didn't he act quicker to find a way for his customers to get in touch with him?"

From Jan. 7 to 12, the state manned an emergency telephone line to relay orders from customers to Fuller Oil, one of the biggest dealers of home heating oil in the state. More than 1,850 people called the hot line, according to previous reports. A few had run out of oil, and more than 100 were in danger of running out of oil during the cold snap. Whether Fuller Oil will have to pay for the hot line is under review, said Marc Goldberg, a spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Boffetti said Fuller Oil definitely experienced problems with its telephone system, but he doesn't believe that's the only reason for the problems. Fuller, he said, had previously said a company decision to make deliveries of under 100 gallons — the industry norm — caused a backlog of deliveries.

Boffetti said he is still waiting for Fuller Oil to deliver company documents to show compliance with the state law governing pre-buy contracts. Boffetti said he will issue a subpoena if necessary.

In its statement, Fuller thanked the attorney general and state homeland security officials for "their help and understanding when they set up an emergency hot line." He also thanked his workers and customers.

mhayward@unionleader.com



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