Lt. Col. Michael Humphreys, the North American Aerospace Command official who helps track Santa for kids young and old took a few minutes out of his schedule to answer a few questions on the important role NORAD plays around Christmas each year.
How does NORAD track Santa Claus?
NORAD Track Santa – the website is www.noradsanta.org – is a program that’s been around for a long time. It’s a program that we here at NORAD have been doing since 1955. We’re best capable to do this, you know, because of our systems and our ability to watch everything in that air that comes into the vicinity of North America. And we kind of kick those systems up into overdrive during Christmas to be able to watch for Santa Claus around the world. We have Santa Cams that are spread throughout different major cities throughout the world and we are able to see him when he comes into the area. Plus, we’ve got light imagery that picks up heat signatures, so we’re able to zoom in on Rudolph’s nose (he’s the red-nosed reindeer, in case you forgot). We’re can see them from when they leave the North Pole and then we track their journey around the globe and then of course we use our own radar system here in North America to be able to track him once he enters into the North American continent.
When did the program begin?
The program basically started due to an accidental phone call. What happened was the local newspaper at the time, it was the Colorado Spring Gazette-Telegraph, had published an ad by the local Sears store where they had put a phone number in the advertisement allowing kids to call in and talk to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve as he made his trip around the globe. Well, unfortunately, well, fortunately in this case, one digit was transposed in that number; and instead of going to the Sears number that had been set up to receive phone calls from children, it actually went to the Continental Air Defense Command (before it was known as NORAD) here in Colorado Springs where Col. (Harry) Schoup, who was the Air Force person on duty that night, answered the phone. It was actually the hotline that was supposed to come from the president and he expected that this was a rather important call because this phone doesn’t normally ring. He answered the phone call, and it was a little girl asking if he was Santa Claus.
So naturally he thought it was a joke at first, but once he realized what had happened, he kicked his staff up into gear and said, ‘We’re gonna answer these phone calls tonight and by-gosh we’re gonna tell them where Santa Claus is!’
Our technology ought to be able to pick up Santa Claus and start telling children as they called that night and it has grown to this day. Since then it has grown to multi-millions of families and children around the globe follow Santa Claus based off of our website that we have up every year, our Facebook and other social media site that we use, as well as our phone number where children can call and talk to a real-live person who has a map right there in front of them. And they can see where Santa Claus is, and that person is going to tell them, by looking at the map, in real time, where Santa Claus is at any given time on Christmas Eve.
When do the calls start coming in?
We start at about 3 a.m. Christmas Eve day, which is about the time that Santa leaves the North Pole, and work for about 25 hours straight, until very early Christmas morning, because Santa makes his last stop in Hawaii which would be early Christmas morning our time.
This past year we had more than 80,000 phone calls, as many or more emails, nearly ¾ of a million followers on Facebook, nearly 2 million hits on our websites, so it’s a very, very popular program that all started based off of a misprinted phone number.
Who are NORAD’s helpers?
We have about 1,500 volunteers who come out here and help us answer phone calls and emails. Usually they are military or their families. Anybody that is stationed or works with NORAD. It’s all on a volunteer basis. It is pretty much a year-round program in which the planning for the next year begins almost as soon as the day after Christmas. We have one person here in our office for the public affairs of NORAD who spends part of her job planning the next year’s NORAD Tracks Santa. And then as we get closer we have a lot of corporate volunteers who do come on board. We work very closely with Google, OnStar, and Booz Allen Hamilton in the past, and a lot of other different corporations that volunteer their technology and their people and things to be able to help set that up. We have any additional 1,000 truck lines that come in from a Verizon phone company that provides service here because obviously we get a lot of extra phone calls coming into that phone number so we have to have the phones and the truck lines to be able to handle it.
The military and family members who work at NORAD or Northcom or at Peterson Air Force Base or Fort Carson here at Colorado Springs will come in and help to answer phone calls or emails on that day. We even have translators. We typically work in five different languages standing by when we get calls from Japan or China or a lot of the European countries. We try to accommodate everyone; all the believers.
The ask us to volunteer about eight hours of our time, but most of us end up doing more because it is very fun. It’s very festive. And it’s not just putting someone in a cubicle to sit there and answer phones. We’ve got hot chocolate and coffee and cookies and decorations everywhere and Christmas music playing in the background. Everyone really gets into the sprit; come in wearing their Santa hats. It’s really fun. You just get a chance to talk to kids around the world wanting to know where Santa is, tell a little bit about yourself and what you’re doing, and it’s just a really wholesome fun thing to do.
Are they trained?
We do have a training program for the Santa volunteers, absolutely. Besides getting all the information in advance on the facts about Santa, his sleigh, the reindeer and his gifts, we have to educate them on how the system works. We have to educate them how the Santa Cams in major cities work, how the satellite imagery and radars work. We have to teach them how Santa is able to fly and hit all the houses around the world, what the reindeer like to eat; all those things. Then we also have a briefing during shift changes, which happen every few hours. We want everyone on the same sheet of music, providing the same information to everybody, but we want it to be interactive. We’ve had people who encounter real inquisitive folks and they end up being on the phone for quite a while. We encourage people to open up to conversations like that.
Do you have any celebrity Santa Trackers?
We typically have celebrity Santa trackers every year. This past year we actually had Michele Obama took a lot of phone calls for us from where her and her family were vacationing in Hawaii. We set up a transfer line right here in Colorado Springs, and we had a computer set up with her in Hawaii. So we’d get a phone call from a child in here, and we would ask to speak with their parents, and we’d say, ‘Well we have a very special Santa tracker here, would you be interested in having your child talk to the first lady?’ And of course they loved to do that.
When does NORAD start getting busy with Santa tracking?
Our busiest forms of communication are through our Facebook, and we’ve already started to get a lot of traffic on Facebook; numbers are starting to climb. I’ve done it for two years now, and the first year we reached half a million followers on Facebook. This past year we went over ¾ of a million, and I’m confident that we’ll probably reach over a million in followers this year.
Kids of all ages, from old enough to type on a computer all the way up to 100 years old, are following us. And we get a lot of questions and queries and comments from folks all around the globe every year. So we’ve already started with that a little bit.
Typically we really start ramping things up after Thanksgiving, and then the actual website, www.noradsanta.org it goes live on Thursday.
So NORAD is a lot like Santa himself, working year-round and then going big for one day?
Absolutely. That day we are very busy tracking Santa, yes, but we are busy 365 days a year doing our mission of aerospace warning and aerospace control and maritime warning for North America as well.
What kind of questions and comments do you get?
The biggest comment we get from parents is that our NORAD Tracks Santa has been their tool for years to get their children to go to sleep. They put the computer screen up and they’ll be following Santa’s track across the globe, and when he gets to be close to their hometown they’ll say, ‘Ok kids, you have to get to bed because you know if you’re not in bed with Santa comes, he’s not gonna stop!’ So then the kids run right off to sleep.
Do you ever get any non-believers?
We get some grumps and some humbugs from time to time. We just try to be professional and try to convince them that they don’t have to like it, they don’t have to agree with it, and they don’t have to believe in it, but this is something we enjoy doing. The positive feedback that we get from everyone—the families, children—will definitely usurp anybody’s negative or grumpy comments.
What has been some of your most memorable phone calls during Track Santa?
Well, one of our biggest fans is a person out of Manchester, England who has just been a really big supporter of us. He’s a special needs person, and he’s a huge follower of Santa Claus and he follows us all year long. He’s been a big fan. He’s told us that one of these years he’s going to come over and help us answer phones, and we of course invited him to come over any year he wants.
This past year we also received a kind of heart-wrenching phone call from a child who had called and made a comment about how the only thing they wanted for Christmas was for their mother or grandmother to be cured from cancer. So we get some pretty emotional emails from children as well asking us to talk to Santa for them. It’s very emotional, but at the same time, you get all the calls from all these kids who are just so excited. They don’t believe it, you know. They don’t actually believe they’re going to talk to a real person on the phone. I’ve actually had adult “kids” call and they’re like: ‘Oh my gosh, is this real?’ They totally expected just to get an answering machine. But no, we make it a point that somebody is going to answer the phone and be able to tell them where Santa is.
What is the future of Santa Tracker?
The program does grow every year. We do get additional corporate sponsors that will come in. For example, the OnStar Program, which started last year. OnStar came on board and wanted to participate. So, if you had an OnStar vehicle, on Christmas Eve you could push the OnStar button and get an update directly from NORAD on where Santa Claus was. So that was a program that was started last year and we’re carrying it on this year.
So we typically try to grow; add some more phone lines, or add new games or fun facts to the website. When it is activated on December 1, you’ll be able to see new games, etc. It’s essentially an Advent calendar: You see the North Pole on December 1, and then it builds up all the way to December 24 when Santa takes his trip. You can see the village and each one of the buildings has a different game associated with it that will only open up on the specific day. So everyday there’s a new game. So they get to count down on the website to Christmas Eve.
We try to keep it very fresh and new. But people just never stop thanking us for doing that.
Starting at midnight on Christmas Eve, visitors can watch Santa as he prepares for his flight. At 4 a.m., trackers can call and talk to a live phone operator about Santa’s whereabouts by calling the toll-free number 877-446-6723 or by e-mailing email@example.com. Santa Cams will also stream videos of Santa as he makes stops around the world.