How NORAD Tracks Santa's Travels

An innovative Avaya call center management tool helps NORAD field inquiries about Santa's location on Christmas Eve.

In 1955, there was a misprint in a local newspaper advertisement for a phone number to call Santa Claus. A young Colorado Springs girl dialed the number to find out where Santa was on his yearly journey.

Little did she know she mistakenly called the Continental Air Defense Command, the forerunner of today's North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Only two people — the base commander and President Eisenhower — had the phone number, according to NORAD spokesman John Cornelio.

In 1955, there was a misprint in a local newspaper advertisement for a phone number to call Santa Claus. A young Colorado Springs girl dialed the number to find out where Santa was on his yearly journey.

Little did she know she mistakenly called the Continental Air Defense Command, the forerunner of today's North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Only two people — the base commander and President Eisenhower — had the phone number, according to NORAD spokesman John Cornelio.

Col. Harry Shoup, the officer answering the phone, at first thought it was a prank. But once he was convinced it was an innocent child calling, he decided against barking out that she had reached a wrong number. Instead, Col. Shoup told the girl that the command was tracking Santa, and he gave the child a location. The colonel repeated this information several times that night as other calls came in as a result of the misprint.

From such humble beginnings grew a program that today draws nearly 75,000 calls and requires more than 12,000 volunteers each year, Cornelio says. Volunteers answer all of those calls in a 25-hour period, from 2 a.m. Mountain Standard Time (local time for NORAD at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.) on Dec. 24 to 3 a.m. on Dec. 25.

Ho! Ho! Alert

It's a daunting task made possible by the good will of the volunteers and by telecommunications technology designed to handle the large call volume. The Aura Communication Manager, part of the Avaya Aura unified communications suite, has been a central part of the supporting technology since 2006. NORAD and Peterson Air Force Base use the system throughout the year and add the "NORAD Tracks Santa" hotline (1-877-HI-NORAD) for the single special calling day.

The Aura Communication Manager supports numerous NORAD switches that can handle the heavy call load and maintain high customer service. Call routing features are designed to reduce networking costs through effective use of IP trunking over WAN or LAN links.

The system automatically takes calls as they come in to the hotline and distributes them to available volunteers manning Avaya digital phones. If a call comes in when all volunteers are busy, Aura Communication Manager places the call on hold with a special Christmas music track. Once a volunteer becomes available, the Aura application automatically connects the waiting caller. To handle as many requests as possible, calls are kept short, with volunteers telling callers where Santa is and the time he will likely reach the caller's house.

Before being installed at the base, the Aura software and hardware powering the hotline had to be tested and certified by the Defense Department Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC) to ensure security and reliability for all base and NORAD needs, many of them considered mission-critical.

With so many callers, the performance of the system is mission-critical to the annual good-will effort as well, Cornelio says. "The reliability of the equipment is very important to us."

Aura Communication Manager works well for the program because of its scalability, says Steve Derr, vice president of sales and engineering for Avaya Government Solutions. "The solution itself can scale up to 30,000 users at any single time. It supports world-class communications capabilities, including instant messaging sessions, voice and video to the desktop and Meet Me Conferencing."

The system connects all phones and other equipment via Internet Protocol, with the capability of deploying different features at individual locations. Peterson Air Force Base and NORAD use digital phones, but Communication Manager also supports hybrid environments in which analog and digital technologies exist side by side.

The Communication Manager is at the heart of the Avaya Aura suite, and on one special day every year, it is at the heart of a very important communications system for children around the world who call the NORAD Santa hotline.

"For 25 hours, we run what I believe is the largest standup call center in the world," Cornelio says. Without the Aura Communication Manager, it wouldn't be possible. "This is an important good-will program for us."

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Dec 22 2010