Meet Lieutenant Sean Carter. He is a public-affairs officer who runs the NORAD Tracks Santa program. For the past 67 years, one of the Department of Defense's largest outreach events has been to track Santa from the minute he leaves the North Pole to the minute he returns.
Dec. 20, 2022
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Lieutenant Sean Carter, a 32-year-old public-affairs officer for NORAD in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about running the NORAD Tracks Santa program. It has been edited for length and clarity.
- Lieutenant Sean Carter is a public-affairs officer who runs the NORAD Tracks Santa program.
- The tradition started by accident in 1955, and now an average of 1,500 volunteers help every year.
- Carter works year-round to prepare for Christmas Eve so people around the world know where Santa is.
I'm a public-affairs officer for North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and US North communications. I'm also the NORAD Tracks Santa program manager. When the holiday season starts, I have a deputy who comes on for a few months to specifically help run the program, but we're the only two people dedicated to it.
When I'm not organizing the program, my main duty is liaising between NORAD and the public. I handle press releases, attend community events, and manage all aspects of communication. Before taking over as the NORAD Tracks Santa program manager, I briefly worked in public affairs at Space Base Delta 1 — a Space Force unit responsible for installations all around the globe. Prior to that, I was a Korean linguist for eight years.
NORAD has other events, but for the past 67 years, one of the Department of Defense's largest outreach events has been NORAD Tracks Santa. From the minute Santa leaves the North Pole to the minute Santa returns, we have awareness of his location.
We take calls from anywhere in the world, and the amount of people who call in is truly mind-boggling. Last year we had 54,000 calls, which was actually low for us. In our busiest years, we get well over 150,000 calls.
The program originated in 1955, when a local newspaper misprinted an advertisement where children could call and speak to Santa Claus
That misprint led a young girl to call Continental Air Defence, and she got through to a commander on duty. In realizing that he was speaking with a child, he quickly adjusted and directed the others on staff to do the same if they got any more calls. He took out a map and did the best he could with the technology he had to plot Santa's course.
In 1958, NORAD was established and picked it up from there. Over time, we've continuously improved the technology, and now we have a website where people can track Santa. However, we try to maintain the tradition by having a call center as well so kids can call on December 24 and ask where Santa is.
Every month we have some form of preparation going on, even in January
At the beginning of the year, we normally send out thank-you letters to the volunteers and contributors, or companies who help us with the program. In February, we plan out the prestages of what the year is going to look like. March and April are not as busy, but we're still planning — we get in touch with our contributors to make sure that the systems and infrastructure are in place for the program in December.
About two weeks out, we have a communications check. It's a lot of logistics. I told my boss the other day that it's like trying to put a puzzle together, but every time you look away the pieces are moving. But there's no question that the magic is well worth it.
Many individuals volunteer their time and do it out of sheer goodness. In addition to answering calls, we have volunteers who answer questions on social media. Other volunteers escort our media partners into the call center and help facilitate engagements with our Santa Trackers. Others will be making sure our IT support is locked down tight. Perhaps the most important job is making sure the coffee is fresh — no task is too small, and all of our volunteers are equally important.
About a week out we'll start decorating, and some of our volunteers come out to turn the NORAD Tracks Santa operations center into a holiday wonderland.
We don't normally endorse contributors, but they really make the magic happen
As military members, we have to ensure we don't provide implied endorsement to any single, one entity, and there's also no payment system in place.
The website is hosted by Microsoft. Verizon sets up the call line for us, and it owns the phone number that calls come in on. Verizon also helps us if callers aren't able to get an in-person answer to where Santa is. Every 15 minutes, we have a Verizon voice-answering machine that will tell the callers where Santa is and encourage them to track Santa on the website or to call back.
Amazon Web Services helped us set up the virtual-calling options so the volunteers can take calls from their homes. We've got people all around the country that volunteer — they don't have to be local here to the Springs to receive those calls.
We have 1,500 volunteers on average each year to man phone lines
They're typically American and Canadian service members, civilian employees, and some members of the local community who respond to the incredible call load.
My deputy ensures that every volunteer knows their time slot and when to log in and out. We have a map on screen so everybody can look and see where Santa is in real-time. We get an accurate sight map of his location through NORAD's combined assets of interceptor aircraft, dynamic-radar networks, and early-detection satellites. Typically, his route changes a bit each year, depending on the weather, but he visits everywhere.
There's a very special phone call every year that's answered by the president that actually started with Michelle Obama in 2009. It was her idea to take a couple of calls, and it's grown since then. We don't preselect — whoever is on the line when the president is available may get the chance to speak with the president or the first lady.
A few years ago a young girl called, and she didn't ask about presents. She wanted to know where Santa was currently to know whether or not he would be able to find her mom, who was recently deployed overseas and was not going to make it home this year for the first time. That one definitely pulled a few heartstrings. It was an incredible honor to assure her that no matter where her mom was, Santa would be able to find her.
It's a big operation, but I have zero concern about the technology falling through
The same technology that will be there to warn us of missiles or incursions by land or sea — that's the technology tracking Santa. Those technologies are fail-safe.
Our main goal is to spread goodwill and cheer. If we can contribute just a little bit of magic, then we succeeded. At the same time, we want to reassure you all that we're on watch 24/7 for everyone's safety in Canada and America.
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