PINELLAS COUNTY - The day-to-day mission of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, is to "deter, detect and defend." However, for the past 50 years, it has undertaken an additional task - keeping an eye on Santa Claus.
According to information on www.noradsanta.org, NORAD's mission of tracking Santa came about when an advertisement for a store in Colorado Springs included a wrong phone number for Santa's hotline.
The phone number in the ad connected children calling Santa to the CONRAD Commander-in-Chief's operations hotline.
According to the Web site, "The director of operations, Col. Harry Shoup, received the first 'Santa' call on Christmas Eve 1955. Realizing what had happened, Col. Shoup had his staff check radar data to see if there was any indication of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Indeed there were signs of Santa and children who called were given an update on Santa's position. Thus, the tradition was born."
In 1958, Canada and the United States formed a partnership to protect the airspace of Alaska, Canada and the contiguous 48 United States. And, the partnership agreed to continue the annual mission of tracking Santa's journey.
NORAD takes the mission seriously, as is explained on its Santa tracking Web site. Four high-tech systems are used to track Santa and his reindeers, including radar, satellites, Santa Cams and jet fighters. Volunteers from Canada and the United States answer the phones on Christmas Eve, taking calls from children wanting to know when Santa will be coming to their house.
On Christmas Eve, NORAD checks its radar all through the night watching for any sign that Santa has left the North Pole. As soon as radar shows that Santa's sleigh has taken off, satellites with infrared sensors are put into use. NORAD has discovered that Rudolph's nose gives off an infrared signature, making it easy to track the jolly ole elf.
In 1998, NORAD added a third system to its Santa tracking tools - the Santa Cam. According to its Web site, NORAD only uses the "ultra-cool high-tech high-speed digital cameras" once a year, on Christmas Eve.
"We turn the cameras on about one hour before Santa enters a country then switch them off after we capture images of him and the reindeer," the Web site explains.
NORAD also sends its jet fighters out on Christmas Eve, taking off from Newfoundland; the pilots intercept and welcome Santa to North America. Canadian pilots take the first shift, flying out from locations throughout that northernmost country, to escort Santa as he makes his rounds. When Santa crosses the border, United States pilots take over the escort duty.
NORAD created its Santa tracking Web site in 1998, and it has grown in popularity each year. Last year, the site received millions of visits, and more are expected in 2004.
Visitors to the Web site will find information on preparing to view the Santa Cam, newly declassified pictures of Santa, stories about Santa, Christmas music, including songs by honorary Santa Tracker Ringo Starr and the USAF Academy Band, the USAF Band of Mid-America and the Royal Canadian Artillery Band, Christmas wallpaper and more, including a new feature, tracking the days left until Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, NORAD will post a map of the world showing many of the places Santa visits. The map will be updated throughout the evening. When a location is clicked, a Santa Cam will come up allowing visitors to see a part of Santa's journey.
NORAD also works as a go-between, sending messages from children to Santa Clause. Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions about Santa tracking can be e-mailed to Trackingsanta@noradsanta.com. At 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 24, the Santa tracker hotline will open, and children can call toll free (877) Hi-NORAD to find out when to expect Santa in their neighborhood.