It Takes a Tech-Village to Track Santa on Christmas Eve

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PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.—Depending on which country they’re from, the kids may ask about Father Christmas, Papa Noel, Saint Nick, or Santa Claus.

For those who believe, they all want to know one thing: where in the world is the jolly old man and his sleigh full of gifts on Christmas Eve?

For the 64th time, a wildly popular service run by the U.S. and Canadian militaries is providing real-time updates on Santa’s progress to millions around the globe.

And this year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command is offering even more high-tech ways for children and parents to follow along.

Operation NORAD Tracks Santa has evolved from a misdirected telephone call in 1955 to a trailer parked outside the command’s former lair deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, to NORAD ’s modern-day headquarters at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base.

Along the way, the tens of thousands of telephone calls fielded by NORAD volunteers each year have been augmented by an explosion of technology that lets millions track St. Nick’s journey from the North Pole to the Pacific Islands and Asia, from Europe to the Americas.

This year’s portals include Alexa, OnStar, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and 3-D apps developed for mobile devices by Cesium, a Philadelphia-based IT and defense contractor. The apps integrate geospatial and satellite-positioning technology with high-resolution graphics that display the actual positions of the stars, sun, and our moon and the shadows they cast at any point in Santa’s journey.

Monitors are illuminated in the NORAD Tracks Santa Center at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo. on Dec. 23, 2019. (David Zalubowski/AP)

It takes a village of dozens of tech firms—including Google, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and Bing Maps—to deliver the immersive effect for global Santa trackers, with some 15 million visits to the website last year.

And it takes a village of 1,500 volunteers to field emails and the roughly 140,000 telephone calls to 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723). They staff phone banks equipped with monitors inside a building at Peterson, which offers a view of the snow-capped Pikes Peak to the west.

Volunteers and firms donate food, water, and coffee to those on Santa Watch.

“Hi Santa Trackers! Lots of kids are waiting to ask you about Santa,” a sign reads.

Volunteers are equipped with an Operations Center Playbook that helps ensure each and every caller can go to sleep happy and satisfied on Christmas Eve.

Longtime Santa trackers are familiar with the NORAD-Santa story.

In 1955, Air Force Col. Harry Shoup—the commander on duty one night at NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command—fielded a call from a child who dialed a misprinted telephone number in a newspaper department store ad, thinking she was calling Santa.

A decorated tree stands in the NORAD Tracks Santa Center at Peterson Air Force Base,
A decorated tree stands in the NORAD Tracks Santa Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Dec. 23, 2019. (David Zalubowski/AP)

A fast-thinking Shoup quickly assured his caller that he was. And a tradition was born.

Today, most early calls come from Japan and Europe. The volume soars on Christmas Eve in the United States and Canada, said program manager Preston Schlachter. United Kingdom callers ask about Father Christmas. Those in France generally seek Papa Noel’s whereabouts.

For team members, once “Big Red”—Santa’s code name—is airborne, Schlachter said, “it’s off to the races.”

“I’ve never had a block of time move so quickly,” he said.

By James Anderson

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