Santa tracker volunteers answer 80,000 calls each year

December 23, 2011

Callers tend to have two questions for operators who pick up the phones at NORAD each Christmas Eve. The first, said chief of media relations at NORAD John Cornelio, is “Where is he right now?”

That’s easy enough for the operators to answer, since they’re in the heart of NORAD’s operations center, which uses four systems to track Santa around the world during his annual flight.

The second question is a bit tougher to answer. “The second question is always asked a little sheepishly,” Cornelio said. “And that’s, ‘When’s he gonna be at my house?’ ”

While operators know the exact location of Santa, his reindeer and sleigh, they also know that the jolly old elf doesn’t ever visit homes where the children are awake.

“We know from years past that he’ll be there between 9 to midnight. Santa will make his way to their house, but only after they go to bed,” he said.

NORAD and its predecessor CONAD have been tracking Santa since 1955, when a misprinted ad for a Sears Santa hotline sent callers to the air defense center instead. Cornelio has been a Christmas Eve volunteer for about seven years, and said that it’s the highlight of his holiday season.

“It really made my holiday,” he said. “I have young kids and it has really, honestly shown them the spirit of Christmas.”

Each year, 1.200 people from NORAD, as well as their family members, local leaders and community volunteers, take two-hour shifts on Christmas Eve to answer the crush of Christmas calls and e-mails. About 120-140 people are on shift at a time. Kids as young as 13 are allowed to operate the phones.

Last year, he said, the center took in 80,000 calls from around the world, and saw tens of millions of hits to the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site.

The center gets plenty of hang-up calls, too, from kids who seem surprised to be speaking to a real person on the other end of the line.

“It’s funny,” Cornelio said. “Especially today, where you call and are expected to press 1 for this and press 2 for that, when people call in and realize they’re talking to a real-life military person ... well, kids will put the phone back down because they think, ‘Oh my gosh, I actually got somebody!’ ”

Those kids often call back immediately, though they sometimes need coaxing from their parents to talk to the operators. The hotline is also a great tool for parents trying to get their excited kids to sleep, he said. “Sometimes the parent will say, ‘See? NORAD’s telling you — you need to go to bed!’ ”

Calls have to be brief, since the phones are constantly ringing from the time the switchboard opens at 4 a.m. in Colorado, and don’t stop until the event’s over.

NORAD never has trouble finding volunteers for the service. In fact, Cornelio said, they often have more trouble getting people to leave their seats.

“You get people saying, ‘Aw, couldn’t I stay a couple more hours?’ ” he said. “It’s a family tradition here as well.”

You can call NORAD for the latest news of Santa’s flight from 6 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 24 to 5 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 25. Call 877-HI-NORAD (877-446-6723) toll-free or try 719-556-5211 from Colorado Springs or overseas.

You can also use Google Maps and Google Earth, which will be tracking Santa in real time starting at 2 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 24.

Related stories:

Christmas forecasts at Capital Weather Gang

NEW GOOGLE FUN: Send a personalized ‘Santa’ video

When will Santa be here? Check the radar.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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