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News | Dec. 24, 2013

Behind the scenes: Tracking an Icon

By Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs

NORAD's annual event of tracking Santa Claus from his home at the North pole is an event enjoyed by millions of children worldwide every year, but in order to bring the smiles and hope to those children, young and old, it takes an Army (Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and vast crew of civilians) to make it happen.

The process of organizing the 'behind the scenes' of NORAD's Santa tracking formally begins in May, but many of the staff working on the event consider the next year's event begins the day after the 23 hours of tracking as they think about what they could have done and plan to do the next year.

"I started prepping for this day in May," said Stacey Knott, NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs and NORAD Tracks Santa Project Manager. "We begin early on the main areas to he program to include the web site, map, social media and phone center and are always trying to improve from the year prior. This year we completely revamped the website, technically and graphically."

According to Ms. Knott, the website and overall tracking of Santa would not be what it is without the help and support of the many contributors and partners who donate everything from time to the laptops trackers use to internet support.

"We have more than 50 contributors from corporations, the military, and government agencies helping," said Ms. 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."

Ms. Knott said that starting in May, coordinating for the event is a part-time job as she works other public affairs issues, but it ramps up to a full-time position around August when work days go longer into the 10-12 hour range and doesn't stop until after the event.
"We at NORAD are very protective of this program and try hard to make sure it's pure family fun," said Ms. Knott who added, 'Working with our partners, it's easy to see that they have as much at stake with this as well and have 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 Lt Cdr. 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 as excited as they are for the season," said Lt. Cdr. Lewis. "Honestly, just being part of this renews our old souls and hearts into the spirit of the season."

LCDR Lewis said they usually lose track of how many worldwide media agencies they do interviews with or take call from on the day, but it's in the hundreds, ranging anywhere from quick, "Where is Santa?" questions up to long, in-depth interviews.

"It's amazing to see how this is an event with such a global reach," he said, adding that he had already spoken to media agencies in Canada and London just after starting the day.

After months of planning leading up to the day, the work doesn't stop when the clock hits 4 am on December 23.

"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 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 Ms. Knott, who's been a part of the magic since 2009.

The key for the success of NORAD Tracks Santa is the buy in from senior leadership according to Ms. Knott.

"The support of Gen. (Charles) Jacoby, NORAD and USNORTHCOM commander, and other senior leadership is great and it's wonderful to see them get almost as excited as some of the children calling in," she said. "This just wouldn't be possible without their support and the support of our contributors and volunteers."

After the event and an after-action write up, Ms. Knott and the team are able to take a deep breath before starting back over again the 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," said LCDR Lewis. "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."