By The American Forces Press Service ~
The North American Aerospace Defense Command has stood sentry for more than a half century, defending the United States and Canada against attack. But in the coming days, the command here will move into full throttle to conduct its most celebrated mission: tracking Santa Claus on his yuletide journey.
In a YouTube video posted on the NORAD website, Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, places a call to the North Pole to describe the “NORAD Tracks Santa” mission to the big man himself.
Jacoby assures Saint Nick that he and Canadian Air Force Lt. Gen. J. A. J. Parent, the NORAD deputy commander, “want to make sure you have everything you need to deliver gifts to all the good boys and girls.”
“We at NORAD are ready to make sure that you are tracked and safe when traveling around the world and when you enter North American airspace,” Jacoby said. “From the time you leave the North Pole until the time you get back, we are going to keep an eye on you to make sure you are safe.”
Parent explained how NORAD will rally its detection and monitoring capabilities to track Santa’s worldwide journey. Arctic experts will monitor ice floes and shipping lanes near the North Pole, and weather teams will stay on top of weather patterns to help his navigation. Tracing the infrared signature from Rudolph’s nose, satellite operators will follow the sleigh’s flight. Radars stretching across Canada and Alaska and on Aegis cruisers at sea will signal when Santa leaves the North Pole and approaches North America.
“We are going to make sure you get to every house. Don’t worry about the journey,” Jacoby tells Santa. Evoking the NORAD and Northcom motto, he adds, “We’ve got the watch.”
Based on past years’ response, the public will be captivated.
During December 2011, the NORAD Tracks Santa website registered 18.9 million visitors from 220 countries and territories. More than 1 million Facebook followers became “fans” of NORAD Tracks Santa. On Dec. 24 alone, volunteers took 102,000 phone calls and responded to 8,000 emails, reporting on Santa’s whereabouts.
Not bad for a program started on a lark in 1955 when a local newspaper ad misprinted the phone number for children to call Santa.
Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, a father himself, was on duty when the calls started coming in to what was then the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center. Rather than turning the children away, Shoup played along, offering assurance that Santa was on track to make his scheduled deliveries.
The tradition continued, even as the command merged with its Canadian counterpart in 1958 to form NORAD, and has enthralled the young — and the young at heart — around the globe ever since.
Technology and social media have expanded the program’s reach exponentially, offering updates on Santa’s whereabouts by phone, online and through mobile apps.
The website offers reports in eight languages and volunteer translators at the call center take calls in several languages.
This year, Marisa Novobilski, lead coordinator, is expecting the highest participation ever. “In the past few years, the growth has been amazing,” she said. “We want to take that to the next level, reaching even more people.”
She credited the army of volunteers that makes it possible — so many that she finds herself having to turn many away — and 52 different companies and organizations that contribute technology and know-how to support the project.
“The outpouring is immense,” Novobilski said. “It’s unbelievable, the way people contact us to ask what they can do to help.”
Early indications show 2012 will be a banner year. The NORAD Tracks Santa website has already registered almost 2.1 million visitors since it launched Dec. 1. The Facebook page has registered more than 1 million “likes,” and the new NORAD Tracks Santa apps have been downloaded by more than 1.6 million users. The project also has almost 95,500 Twitter followers.
With Santa still at the North Pole, visitors are discovering a plethora of other treats, from holiday music by military bands to activities and games in addition to information about the NORAD mission.
But beginning at 6 a.m. EST on Christmas Eve, NORAD Tracks Santa will move into high gear. The first of about 1,200 volunteers from the base and community will begin cramming into the Leadership Development Center on Peterson Air Force Base, which will temporarily be transformed into the NORAD Tracks Santa operations center. The center expanded into a third room last year, with 30 additional phones and computers added to the effort.
Armed with telephones and laptops, volunteers will pull shifts through the night, answering phone calls and emails from children around the world as they check on Santa’s globe-circling sleigh ride. They’ll send Tweets reporting Santa’s location and upload images gathered by webcams to the website to pinpoint the sleigh’s location.
Some of the callers and web visitors, Novobilski knows, will be young military children, wanting to make sure that Santa will pay a visit to their deployed parents. “You get a lot of heartbreaking calls,” she said. “But we tell them that Santa visits everyone who believes.”
Novobilski said she’s been overwhelmed by the program’s impact, and how it has made NORAD a household name among people who might never have heard of the command or its mission when it’s not tracking Santa.
“This is a goodwill program that reaches so many people across the globe,” she said. “You are educating people about our missions and you are having fun while doing it. At the end of the day, everyone is smiling. So as busy as everybody is, and as crazy as things can get, we all know that this is making a difference.”