'Alexa, Where's Santa?' NORAD Gets Ready for Modernized Christmas Eve Mission

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Gazing up at the starlit sky isn't the only way kids these days may get a glimpse of Santa and his nine reindeer as they travel around the world on their present-delivery mission this Christmas Eve.

For years, kids have been able to log onto Noradsanta.org to see exactly where Santa is on the journey. And for the last two years, they have even had the option to ask Amazon's Alexa virtual home assistant for real-time Santa updates.

But the ease of knowing where everyone's favorite jolly ol' man in the red suit doesn't come without the help from hundreds of airmen and volunteers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, more commonly known as NORAD.

"It connects our military with our society," said Navy Vice Adm. Michael Dumont, deputy commander, U.S. Northern Command, and vice commander for the U.S. element at NORAD at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.

Related: Santa Gearing Up to Travel at Speed of Starlight with NORAD's Help

"We're on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, including Christmas and Christmas Eve," Dumont said in a recent video interview describing the importance of Santa's flight and the NORAD mission.

There's also assistance from additional Air Force units.

"We've established communication with Santa, call sign 'Big Red,'" said Col. Scott Charlton, of Tyndall Air Force Base's 1st Air Force, the designated air component for the U.S. Northern Command, in a recent video. "We're ready to track the delivery of your toys and gifts."

Dumont said that only Santa knows his official route. "But we know how to track him," he said.

As Santa departs the North Pole, he's tracked via radar -- spanning the Arctic from Alaska through Canada, known as the North Warning System -- and by satellites with infrared sensors.

Those infrared sensors are especially good at "tracking Rudolph's red nose," said Maj. Darren Reck at Tyndall. At times over the U.S., Santa may be escorted by fighter jets for extra security, added Maj. James Powell, also at Tyndall.

"It shows the extent we go to protect North America," Dumont said.

About 140,000 people called into NORAD's hotline last year to check up on Santa's whereabouts, said Dumont.

"We have people who speak a variety of languages who are working the phones here at our headquarters and we also have volunteers ... who are helping field those calls," he said.

Kids call asking about their toys, or even to pass along a message to Santa that their siblings shouldn't be on the nice list, he said.

Dumont said the military's role is just for tracking. But the tradition itself was born out of an amusing phone call.

It was when a Sears, Roebuck and Company store near Peterson in Colorado advertised a direct number for Santa Claus more than 60 years ago, giving children the chance to say hello or wish him well on his journey.

"Hey, Kiddies!" the ad began, next to a headshot of Santa, according to the Air Force. "Call me direct. ... Just dial ..."

But the number was incorrectly printed, and instead, it went directly to the commander in chief's operations hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), predecessor of NORAD.

Col. Harry Shoup, the commander at the time as well as duty officer on station, thought it was a joke. It was 1955, during the Cold War, and only top brass at the Pentagon had the number, Shoup's children recalled in an interview with NPR.

It was the 'red phone' that rang, which "meant bad news," Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, told the Washington Post last year.

He soon realized as more calls came in -- including one from a local radio station -- that he couldn't simply hang up. So he played along. He received letters for years afterward thanking him for being a good sport about the mistake. Shoup died in 2009.

Today the tradition lives on with nearly 1,500 military and civilian volunteers manning the phones from Christmas Eve well into the early hours of Christmas Day as children and their families call 1-877-HI-NORAD (which also has a Skype option).

They serve two-hour shifts and provide updates on social media and by telephone in as many as eight languages, the Air Force has said.

The VIPs who have volunteered to help take calls include President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump; former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama; and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Viewers can call, search the website, and now interact virtually with Alexa and Google Home.

For those with an Amazon device, enable the NORAD Tracks Santa app and say, "Alexa, ask NORAD Tracks Santa, where's Santa?" according to website Mentalfloss.com. For Google, simply say "Hey Google, where's Santa?" the website said.

"They can also search for us [on] Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube ... all of those are live now, as is OnStar," Dumont said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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