It’s all in the list—the wish list.
Launched November 25, the NORAD Tracks Santa web site received thousands of e-mails in just its first few days online. Some included questions from eager Santa seekers, but others contained that all-important list.
Master Sergeant John Tomassi, Santa Tracking Operations Co-director, says NORAD simply was not in a position to answer those because they were addressed to the jolly old elf himself. So new this year, kids will find two e-mail addresses on the site—one for NORAD and the other for Saint Nick.
By early December, Official Santa Mail, the company ensuring the wish lists reach Santa, processed 2 500 e-mails—95 percent of which came from the NORAD site. Of course, says MSgt Tomassi, NORAD will also be tracking Santa’s trip around the world, relying on four high tech systems.
First, there is the North Warning System—a radar system with 47 installations strung across Canada’s North and Alaska—which NORAD checks very closely every Christmas Eve for any action around the North Pole.
Then, the moment they have confirmation of a takeoff, the satellite system kicks in. Complete with infrared sensors normally used to detect a missile launch, they easily pick up the heat from Rudolph’s nose.
For a closer ID, SantaCams—high-speed digital cameras pre-positioned around the world—snap both video and still images, which are immediately downloaded to the site.
Finally, for a visual ID, which must be made once Santa enters North American airspace, CF-18s are scrambled from 4 Wing Cold Lake and 3 Wing Bagotville. While Santa’s sleigh has been clocked faster than the fighters, Santa actually slows down so the pilots can escort him.
MSgt Tomassi says NORAD has also added some new features this year. They have translated the site into German, making all the information available in six languages. Plus, they have added a Santa Tracking Toolbox, where children can prepare for the big day.
And a big day it is. In 2004, the Santa Tracking Operations Centre answered nearly 55 000 phone calls on Christmas Eve. This year, more than 500 volunteers—most of them US and Canadian military personnel and their families—will report for telephone-answering duty on Christmas Eve even earlier to accommodate calls from Australia and New Zealand. That’s all in addition to a whopping 912 million hits to the Web site from 181 countries.
This year they’re aiming even higher. “I wouldn’t even be surprised,” says MSgt Tomassi, “if we topped the billion mark.”
The Santa Tracking tradition has a rich and ironic history. In 1955, the local Sears Roebuck Store in Colorado Springs, Colo., ran an advertisement with a “Santa Hotline”. It even urged kids to dial the right number. But the line was perhaps a little “hotter” than they might have liked, as it actually connected to the “Operations Hotline” at Continental Air Defence Command (NORAD’s predecessor).
Colonel Harry Shoup, the senior officer on duty, took the first call and quickly realized the mix-up. He advised his personnel to look very closely on their radar screens and sure enough, a faint blip revealed a sleigh and tiny reindeer.
And even amid the chaos in the Operations Centre Christmas Eve, MSgt Tomassi usually gets to answer a few calls himself. “Some parents,” he says, “ask if we can tell their kids to go to bed.” Others put the NORAD trackers on speakerphone, so they can talk to the young and the young at heart about Santa’s exact location.
MSgt Tomassi says all this would not be possible without the support of volunteers and the some 30 companies and agencies that support them. One such company, Analytical Graphics, Inc., actually shuts down its operations for an entire two weeks so they can dedicate their staff to the site.
“It’s wonderful,” says MSgt Tomassi, “to see companies putting in so much effort for no return.”
To visit the NORAD Tracks Santa site, click on www.noradsanta.org
or to call for Santa’s exact location on Christmas Eve, dial 1-877-Hi-NORAD.