By Stan Ashbee
Southern Alberta Newspapers — Coaldale
Preparations are going really well, according to Marco Chouinard from NORAD Tracks Santa for this year’s annual NORAD Tracks Santa worldwide event, which tracks the whereabouts of the jolly old elf throughout Christmas Eve.
“We’ve already started prepping the op centre we are going to use — the NORAD Tracks Santa Operation Centre. We’re making connections with all our volunteers. Like last year, we’re probably going to have over 1,500 volunteers who will make this wonderful thing possible on Dec. 24,” he noted.
Last year stat-wise, Chouinard confirmed, NORAD Tracks Santa had over 140,000 calls during the 23 hours the op centre was in operation. Also the op centre received and answered over 2,800 e-mails and the official website had 22 million unique visits and the website is available in eight languages.
“Our free mobile apps, either on android or iPhone or Windows phone, had over four million downloads of the games and the apps. On social media, we have over 1.6 million fans and on YouTube we have millions of views. It’s doing pretty good,” he said.
NORAD Tracks Santa got its start on Dec. 24, 1955 when a call was made to the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Centre, located in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“It’s the red phone that rang, but it wasn’t the president or the general that called this top secret phone, it was a young child from downtown. Initially, the colonel who was the team supervisor that evening, he thought it was a joke. He asked to speak to the kid’s parents. He quickly realized the local department store had run an ad and it was a misprint in the phone number and it was giving the secret phone number. What he did, is rather than hang up on the kids calling that evening, he advised his entire crew any time a child called and asked where Santa was, they would look up at the radar scope and provide the child the position of Santa. That’s how the tradition began. It was rolled over into NORAD when NORAD was formed in 1958,” he explained.
There’s usually one person who starts the leg work for the annual operation in June, Chouinard said, and then a little later on in the summer and fall another person from the section gets going on the annual festive project.
“When we hit September and October the media section gets involved with prepping the press release we send and as soon as that is out we start receiving all kinds of requests for phone interviews and radio and TV people booking live interviews for Dec. 24. The other thing that is very interesting is early in September, people start calling up about volunteering — ‘When can I volunteer?’ ‘When is the list out, when we can volunteer to be one of the lucky people to answer the phones that evening or doing any of the op centre?’”
People are really excited about volunteering and they even come as a family to volunteer.
“It’s kind of a family event and tradition. They come help track Santa,” he added.
Last year marked Chouinard’s first year in the operations centre and he said the feeling on Christmas Eve was amazing.
“The whole centre is buzzing with people on the phones. The phones are ringing off the hooks and we’re doing interviews. It’s almost magical,” he said.
As for any advice for southern Alberta children this Christmas Eve, Chouinard said, make sure to leave out the usual cookies and milk for the big guy, but if kids would like to leave something out for the reindeer, he said they love carrots.
“The kids have to be in bed by 9 p.m. — because usually Santa shows up between 9 p.m. and midnight, but it’s good to go to bed early. Otherwise, he has to bypass the house and has to come back.”
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