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Review: Breitling Emergency

A lot of watches boast being technical, highly competent, useful even. A chronograph with tenth of a second accuracy, for example, or a tourbillon countering the effects of gravity. These claims seem, superficially at least, to be sound—but no one ever really need have any reason to test them. No one ever commits their lives to trusting them. Not so with the Breitling Emergency—a watch that means you need never drink your own urine again. Bear Grylls must hate it.

Exploration is a dangerous old business. Fraught with the danger of unknown terrain, weather, civilisations and indeed, the sanity of the explorers themselves, it comes as no surprise that humans have only been doing it for the last 500 years.

When the Ottoman Empire seized Constantinople in the mid-15th century, trade routes through Europe were blocked. This forced the hands of the Mediterranean nations to seek provision elsewhere, discover new routes to their pre-intended destinations. First India, then the Caribbean and of course America. The world shrank.

But exploration become about more than just trade; the challenge of adventure, the draw of discovery, the thrill of the hunt led expeditions into some of the most inhospitable places on Earth—just to say it could be done. The Artic and Antarctic, Everest, the Mariana Trench—seemingly led by a death wish, soft, vulnerable humans conditioned for temperate climates and a nice, comfortable bed, deigned themselves fit for the task—and proved that indeed they were.

Technology, however, has not only made the world a smaller place, but can also provide an additional safety line for the explorers of today. Quite literally, the ropes used for keeping explorers safe adopt the same aramid fibre technology in the parachute chords that lowered the Opportunity rover to the surface of Mars.

Breitling was founded by Léon Breitling in 1884, St-Imier, Switzerland

Breitling was founded by Léon Breitling in 1884, St-Imier, Switzerland

But what about when it all goes wrong? Enter the PLB, or Personal Locator Beacon. This is a serious piece of kit that can and does save lives. Lost at sea, crashed in the mountains, stuck down a hole—a personal locator beacon may be the only thing standing between you and—I can barely say it—drinking your own urine. This is what Bear Grylls wants. It must be stopped.

In 1988, a NATO officer asked of Breitling if it were possible to combine a PLB and a watch, a wearable format that can always be relied upon, not easily lost and always at arm’s reach when the situation requires it. Breitling obliged, combining a 121.5 Mhz beacon into the case of a digital pilot’s watch. It wasn’t the first time an aviation official had approached Breitling to make a dedicated watch for pilots: the Navitimer also came to be after such a request.

The watch was only available to professionals, however. That is, until 6 years later, when Grylls joined the SAS, and trained not just in unarmed combat in hostile conditions, but also survival. Breitling sensed a chill in the air, and the Emergency, redeveloped with twin beacons, was released to the general public just a year later.

It’s easy to call it a gimmick, but no less than twenty lives have been spared at the hands of this device. From stranded hunter Mark Spencer who was rescued from hypothermia in Alaska, to Quentin Smith who dared to pilot his helicopter across the treacherous Drake Passage from the tip of South America to Antarctica and was dashed into the sea, both men were let down by their dedicated PLBs—Spencer’s pinpointed him some four miles away, whilst Smith’s sank to the bottom of the ocean—and saved by their Breitling Emergencys.

The Breitling Emergency was first introduced in 1995

The Breitling Emergency was first introduced in 1995

It’s a powerful tool. Pull out the antennae with no good cause and not only will you find a search and rescue helicopter buzzing your rooftop, but also a hefty bill for wasting everybody’s time. There’s a reason Breitling asks you to sign a waiver when you buy one. This is not a toy.

But the original had its limitations. The 121.5 MHz signal is best monitored by line of sight, being pretty low powered, so although local air traffic control may pick it up, if you really are in the middle of nowhere, you could be—well, screwed. This isn’t a fault of the Emergency—in fact, in 2009, Cospas-Sarsat, the satellite organisation tasked with monitoring distress signals, discontinued support of this lesser technology in 2009 under advice from the United Nations. The new frequency? 406 MHz.

This more powerful signal can be easily tracked by the satellite system, allowing pinpoint accuracy and tracking anywhere in the world. It took Breitling four years to update the Emergency to the new frequency—and not just because the technology at the time was too big to fit in a watch by a considerable amount, but because nothing like this had ever been built—or officially approved by the regulatory bodies—before.

In 2013, the Calibre 76-equipped Emergency II was finally announced, boasting not just a miniaturised 406 MHz transmitter, but still retaining the 121.5 MHz output as well, you know—just in case. As per the original, it is equipped with an ana-digi display that offers not just the time, but day and date, countdown timer, 1/100th of a second chronograph, second time zone and alarm, all packed into the 51mm, 50m water-resistant titanium case. The SuperQuartz regulator is Chronometer certified to an accuracy of around 20 secs—per year. A bi-directional compass scale also offers would-be explorers an opportunity to save face and rescue themselves first.

The Breitling Emergency has a built in 406 MHz transmitter

The Breitling Emergency has a built in 406 MHz transmitter

But the prize of this international coverage does not come without cost. A more powerful 406 MHz frequency requires more power from the watch itself—specifically 3.2 W versus the 30 mW of the previous model—and is unable to last the two-to-three years of the watch’s main power supply. The solution? A charging cradle used every two months to brim the PLB back to full charge. The cradle also checks the transmitter to make sure it’s working as it should. This means the watch can broadcast for 18-24 hours depending on temperature.

Because there had never been such a powerful portable device of its type before, it took a further two years to get the new Emergency approved by the FCC, eventually needing a special waiver for dual-band, wrist-worn rechargeable devices in order to sell it.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time, because that same year, Bear Grylls, taking part in a coast guard training exercise—and unbeknownst to the crew—left his eleven-year-old son to be rescued from a rock in the middle of the sea, a rock small enough to, well, throw a rock from one end to the other. It was clear that Grylls was training a new generation to get the, er, taste of survival—and Breitling was having none of it.

The Emergency has not and never will be the most beautiful watch, nor is it—at over 2cm thick—the easiest to wear with black tie, but by goodness if it stops Bear Grylls getting his way, then that’s mission accomplished. Emergency averted.

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