It was a daunting task.
Deputies in Texas had been charged with meeting a 911 caller complaining about a break-in who sounded distraught, potentially intoxicated and possibly engaged in the middle of a domestic dispute with a woman whose yells could be heard in the background. But first they had to find him.
“Dispatch was asking him where he was, but he couldn’t give an address,” Wise County Sheriff Lake Akin told InsideEdition.com. “He mumbled and said he was close to an elementary school. The guy gave his first name, which was Andrew, and then he hung up.”
So on Feb. 12 police set out to find an Andrew who lived near a school.
Understandably, they were having some trouble. The caller used a cellphone to dial 911, which can sometimes make pinpointing the location of the call difficult. Unlike a traditional landline, which is connected to a specific address, locations of 911 calls made by cellphones are typically determined by triangulating the nearest cell towers.
Those results are not always exact, forcing emergency responders to play a dangerous game of Marco Polo.
“It’s approximate, at best,” Christy Williams, the director of 911 for the North Central Texas Emergency Communications District (NCT9-1-1), said of the location provided in those instances to InsideEdition.com.
That was the case for Akin’s deputies, who were joined by a highway patrol trooper to canvass the area. They could use all the help they could get. “There were 50 to 75 homes to contact,” Akin said.
But before they had to set out on foot, their search was all but completed for them.
“Our dispatch center was able to deploy that newest technology and it took [the estimation of the call location] down from a 10-block area to maybe, within a few 100 feet area, to search,” Akin said.
Telecommunicator Jessica Anderson said she was able to better pinpoint the caller’s whereabouts using new technology developed by RapidSOS, a company helping bridge a gap in the emergency communications field created with the advent of the cellphone.
RapidSOS works with 911 call centers and carriers to send location data from phones directly to the emergency call centers. Carriers that have signed on to work with RapidSOS include Apple, Google and Android. The data pushed from a cellphone to 911 call center is only available for up to 15 minutes after the person ends the call.
“There’s a significant difference since we’ve gotten it,” Anderson, who has worked as a dispatcher for more than two years, told InsideEdition.com of the technology, which she and others at NCT9-1-1 tested in a pilot program.
“It’s become a vital tool since we got it.”
It was especially important on Feb. 12, as Anderson said she was able to point deputies to a concentrated area to search that they determined was 1.3 miles from where emergency responders were originally sent.
“Especially when you have those high priority calls, it gets really stressful, because you want to do everything possible,” Anderson said. “This makes a huge difference in that.”
Deputies arrived at the more precise location to find Andrew Fabila and Paige Harkings, both 24, outside a barn that had been “crudely fashioned” into living quarters, Akin said. Both appeared to be intoxicated, Fabila had scratches and cuts to his face and one of the barn’s windows was broken, Akin said.
“The deputies and the trooper had conversations with both of them, and they were able to determine, really because of what the male said, that there were children inside,” Akin said.
Though Harkings allegedly refused to allow the police inside the home, they believed the extenuating circumstances dictated they check on the children, Akin said. Inside, they allegedly discovered two children, ages 5 and 4, locked in a dog cage and two more, ages 3 and 1, covered in feces and urine. All four were malnourished, and the food kept in the home was allegedly locked away from their grasp.
“It was just a nasty horrible situation that they were in,” Akin said.
Akin credited the tenacity of his deputies, commitment of dispatchers like Anderson and the advances brought to Wise County by the technology developed by RapidSOS, saying all three “came together to free those children.”
To date, RapidSOS says it has rolled out its technology to cover almost 70 percent of the U.S. Its goal is to cover the entire country by the end of the year, Jeff Robertson, SVP and general manager of public safety at RapidSOS, told InsideEdition.com.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job communicating the issue,” Robertson said of authorities’ success in informing the public of the potential problems associated with using a cellphone to dial 911. “We’re trying to solve that problem.”
He noted that the technology has been particularly helpful in investigating instances of alleged domestic violence.
“In my years in law enforcement, I knew domestic violence was a problem,” said Robertson, who has worked in a sheriff’s department and with municipal police before going into 911 technology. “But we’ve been amazed at how many more domestic violence callers we’ve located. Because locating those callers is extremely difficult. Some call and hang up, or call and you just get background noise.”
The company has also begun working with ridesharing businesses to build in its technology into their apps to provide 911 call centers with another ability to locate a person in need.
“When people call from an Uber, it’s, ‘Hey, I need help,’ ‘Where are you?’ ‘I don’t know, I’m in an Uber.’ ‘What color is the car?’ ‘I don’t know,’ ‘Type?’ ‘I don’t know,’” Robertson said.
RapidSOS announced its partnership with Uber in April and has since rolled out in several major cities the ability to call for help within the app. Robertson said further developments are in the works.
“Our missing is just to get more data to that dispatcher,” he said. “The more detail we can give to the first responder and the 911 operator, the better.”
Harkings and Fabila were both charged with four counts of criminal child endangerment. Harkings remained jailed in Wise County jail, while Fabila has bonded out, online records showed.
Harkings, who is reported to be the mother of all four children, and Fabila, who is reported to be the father of one of the children, were both arrested. The children were taken to Cook Children’s in Fort Worth to be medically evaluated and were placed in the custody of Child Protective Services.
“They’re doing well,” Akin said of the children.
“I can’t say enough about the diligence of both our dispatchers and the officers who were there that day, because they went above the call,” Akin said. “Because of their attention to duty that night, the night of the 12th, was probably the first time, maybe in their entire lives, those kids were well-fed, cared for and comfortable.
“Those kids now have a chance.”