Team Effort Makes Santa-tracking Program Work
By Air Force Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh
North American Aerospace Defense Command
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Dec. 27, 2013 The North American Aerospace Defense Command annually tracks Santa Claus around the world from his home at the North Pole. The event is enjoyed by millions of children worldwide every Dec. 24 and 25.
Volunteers monitor phones and computers while tracking Santa Claus at the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Dec. 24. More than 1,200 volunteers from across the base and community join to cover shifts spanning the 23 hours of annual tracking hosted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, dating back to pre-NORAD 1955. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In order to bring smiles and hope to those children, young and old, it takes a vast crew of Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard members, international military partners, and civilian volunteers to make it happen.
The process of organizing the behind-the-scenes activities of the NORAD Santa Tracks Santa program formally begins in the spring.
"I started prepping for this day in May," said Stacey Knott, from NORAD and U.S. Northern Command public affairs and NORAD Tracks Santa project manager. "We begin early, focusing on the main program areas to include the website, map, social media and logistics for the phone center, and are always trying to improve from the year prior. This year we completely revamped the website, technically and graphically."
According to Knott, the website and overall tracking of Santa would not be what it is without the help and support of the program’s many contributors and partners, who donate items like laptops and snacks for the event’s more than 1,200 volunteers.
"We have more than 50 contributors from corporations, the military, and government agencies helping," said Knott who likened the event to a full-scale military operation or exercise.
"It is immense and takes a lot of planning and organizing to pull this off," she said.
Knott said coordinating for the event is initially a part-time job as she works other public affairs issues at the base. She ramps up to a full-time position managing NORAD Tracks Santa issues around August, when work days go longer -- into the 10- to 12-hour range -- and it doesn't stop until the afternoon of Dec. 24.
"We at NORAD are very protective of this program and try hard to make sure it's pure family fun," Knott said. “Working with our partners, it's easy to see that they have as much at stake with this and feel as much ownership of the program as we do, so we all put our hearts into it."
Other staff members spend many hours preparing for the event as well, to include the media operations staff, led by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis.
"Media seem to understand what we're doing here, but we still need their help to get the word out to the world, letting kids know that we are listening to them and [we’re] as excited as they are for the season," Lewis said. "Honestly, just being part of this renews our old souls and hearts into the spirit of the season."
Lewis said he lost track of how many worldwide media agencies he and the Santa staff spoke with on Christmas Eve, but said it was in the hundreds. The calls ranged anywhere from quick, "Where is Santa?" questions up to long, in-depth interviews, he said.
"It's amazing to see how this is an event with such a global reach," Lewis said, noting that he spoke to media agencies in Canada and England.
After months of planning, the work doesn't stop for Knott and Lewis when the clock hits 4 a.m. on Dec. 24.
"Once we start tracking Santa, there is still a lot of work to do. We have to monitor a ton of small problems, to include any phone issues that arise, but we also have to track the more than 1,200 volunteers, manage media interviews and be able to troubleshoot any problem you could think of," said Knott, who's been a part of the program since 2009.
The key for the success of NORAD Tracks Santa is the buy-in from senior leadership, according to Knott.
The support of Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., NORAD and U.S. Northcom commander, and other senior leadership is critical, she said. “It's wonderful to see them get almost as excited as some of the children calling in," Knott added. "This just wouldn't be possible without their support and the support of our contributors and volunteers."
After the event and an after-action report, Knott and the team are able to take a deep breath before starting back over again next May.
"It's truly a large concept to grasp on the amount of work going into this, leading up to it, the communications needs, then to see it all come to fruition on the day is amazing," Lewis said. "It's an awesome responsibility on us, passed down from generation to generation of trackers. It's a lot of work, but at the end of the day, you feel good about what you've done and that's apparent by the number of volunteers who return year after year."