Charleston County residents can now use their cell phones to send a text message to 9-1-1 dispatch in emergencies when they are unable to make a phone call. A good rule of thumb is “Call if you can, text if you can’t,” according to a press release from Charleston County.

Consolidated Dispatch Director Jim Lake announced the launch of Text-to-9-1-1 in a press conference today, saying, “Our ability to now receive text messages will provide another means of communication to the public during an emergency.”

The press release included the following information about the new program:

• If text is not available, you will receive a message letting you know the service is not available in your area.

• A text or data plan is required to place a Text-to-9-1-1.

• As with all text messages, texts to 9-1-1 may take longer to receive, may get out of order or may not be received at all.

• If you do not receive a text response from 9-1-1, try to contact 9-1-1 by making a voice call.

• Photos and videos cannot be texted to 9-1-1 at this time.

• Text-to-9-1-1 cannot include more than one person. Do not send your emergency text simultaneously to anyone else.

• Voice calls to 9-1-1 are still the best and fastest way to contact 9-1-1.

• Translation services are limited.

• The Text-to-9-1-1 service is not available everywhere in South Carolina and the U.S.

The county also sent the following instructions for texting 9-1-1:

• In the first message, send the location and type of emergency.

• Text in simple words; send a short text message without abbreviations or slang.

• Be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions from the 9-1-1 call taker.

• Don’t abuse 9-1-1. The Text to 9-1-1 service is only for emergencies.

• Don’t text and drive.

• Call 9-1-1 to save a life, stop a crime, or report a fire.

While SMS text-messaging has been around for about 20 years, 9-1-1 call centers have only recently adopted the technology. In August 2014, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a new rule requiring all wireless carriers to support text-to-9-1-1 by the end of the year. Mignon Clyburn, a South Carolina native and commissioner at the FCC, wrote at the time of the rule’s adoption that the technology would enable people with hearing and speech disabilities to more effectively access emergency services.

“The ability to send messages, photos, and video clips, as well as other innovations in broadband technologies, can improve 9-1-1 communications for all Americans,” Clyburn said at the time. “Text messaging plays a vital role in protecting life and property when making a voice call is either dangerous or impossible due to transmission problems.”