Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yes, NORAD, there is a Santa Claus

Picture if you will just how dangerous things were. It was 1955. The Korean War had gone into armistice just two years earlier, but the threat of Communist aggression was seen everywhere. Senator Joseph McCarthy was seeing the Red Menace in places - such as the entertainment world and industry - that struck to the heart of our identity as Americans and the United States stood on high alert, anticipating the real possibility of Soviet bombers showing up on radar, ready to unleash unimaginable destruction on the heartland of the United States.

The infamous ad with the misprinted number
Now, imagine one of the worst-timed misprints ever in the history of advertising. The local Sears and Roebuck department store in Colorado Springs invited children to call a special number to speak with Santa Claus. Instead of ringing at the 'North Pole', the phone rang on the secret action line at CONAD headquarters - the Continental Air Defense Command.

Radar technicians, not sure what to do, turned to duty officer Colonel Harry Shoup for guidance. Realizing he was in a unique position, he initially asked an Airman to play the role of the jolly old elf. Later, he authorized the phone operators to give the children who called a current status report on the location of Santa's famous sleigh.

Canadian air defense technicians monitoring Santa's location on radar
From those humble beginnings, CONAD, later replaced by NORAD - the North American Aerospace Defense Command, continued the tradition. Today, Colonel Shoup's small token of kindness has become an internet sensation at the official NORAD Tracks Santa website.

Just how popular? NORAD reported that on Christmas Eve of 2013, nearly 20 million unique visitors came to the website, and 1,200 volunteers answered just shy of 120,000 calls, with similarly high numbers on Twitter and Facebook.

Volunteers getting into the spirit of the holiday at the NORAD operations center
So, why write about this for the PIO Chronicles? Just imagine if CONAD contacted the local Sears and Roebuck demanding the ad be pulled, changed their secure phone number and pretended this had never happened. Think of the millions of children - and their families - that would have never had the opportunity to enjoy this unique opportunity. Think of the good will and community outreach that has occurred through the years, putting a human face on the service that helps ensure our safety.

And, yes, think of the joy it brings the people who have one of the toughest jobs on a daily basis.

I will be taking some time off from the PIO Chronicles to enjoy the holidays with my family and friends. Until I see you again in 2015, I wish each of you nothing but health, happiness and just a little spark of that holiday magic.

And, for my colleagues who do have to work over the holidays, I wish you comfort, safety and good will.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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