Contact center technology helps children track Santa Claus' sleigh

NORAD continues Christmas Eve tradition by offering children a toll-free number to learn Santa Claus' whereabouts.

It started by accident in 1955. Sears and Roebuck had advertised its hotline to track the whereabouts of Santa Claus, but a newspaper printed the wrong telephone number. Calls were instead routed to the military installation that monitored U.S. aerospace.

Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, the supervisor of the former Continental Air Defense Command (CADC) on that Christmas Eve, couldn't believe a little girl had called to ask if he was Santa. Typically, only the secretary of defense, or even the president, used that line.

The phone kept ringing, and soon, Shoup instructed his staff to check the radar for Santa and inform every child who called where in the world the big fella was.

Fifty-seven years later, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), CADC's successor, still tracks St. Nick for children. Last year, more than 100,000 kids from around the world called the toll-free Santa Hotline.

This Christmas Eve, NORAD expects not only more calls but all sorts of communications from tech savvy children. So NORAD will once again use contact center technology for just one day so that believers in Santa Claus can get a sense of when he'll reach their neighborhoods.

Rita Hahn, the communication chief of infrastructure for the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, will readily admit that NORAD doesn't know exactly where Santa's sleigh will go, only where he's been.

"We track him," Hahn said. "If he has a set schedule, I'm sure it's classified."

NORAD, which is based at Peterson, doesn't need contact center technology for customer service. The U.S.-Canadian military organization works on a classified basis as it protects the skies of North America.

But once a year, it wants to continue extending the good will that Shoup showed to the little girl and other children five decades ago.

Each November, NORAD establishes a Santa command center in a spare room on the base. It takes about a week to install the contact center technology and some more time to test it, Hahn said.

NORAD will use Avaya Aura to run its toll-free hotline, 1-877-HI-NORAD. The system will connect children (and maybe some adults) to volunteers answering calls and emails.

NORAD will use other technology to reach kids: It has a Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube platform dedicated to tracking Santa's progress. It also offers iOS, Android and Windows Phone apps for Santa watching.

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The hunt for the man in red made news this month when NORAD announced it had ended its five-year partnership with Google Maps. This year, maps by Cesium and Microsoft Bing will pinpoint jolly St. Nick. Google will offer Santa-tracking tools separate from NORAD.

More than 1,200 people volunteer to answer calls and communications from children all over the world during a 24-hour stretch starting 4 a.m. MST on Christmas Eve and ending just after 3 a.m. Christmas Day. Shifts last about two hours, and as many as 140 volunteers will work at once, according to Air Force Senior Airman Jacob Morgan, who handles media relations for the 21st Space Wing.

The first calls start coming in from Australia. It's only early morning in Colorado but approaching nighttime in the Land Down Under. The most calls come from children in the U.S., Hahn said. Around late afternoon to early evening on the East Coast, call volume increases greatly and continues for several hours, she said. The second highest number of calls comes from Canada.

NORAD has come to expect anything from the mouth of babes.

"There are a lot of questions," Hahn said. "'When is he coming? Will he bring a specific toy?' Some kids are funny. Some will say, 'My little sister wasn't good.' "

This was first published in December 2012

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