Taiwanese Fire Fighters taking a picture with their Australian counterparts

In the 28-year-history of the Australian Firefighters Calendar, the men with six packs who feature have become world famous on American talk shows and at international cat expos.

The calendars, which have so far raised more than $3 million for Australian charities, have more recently taken Taiwan by storm.

So how have a bunch of everyday firefighters wielding cute dogs strengthened Australia’s Asian ties, brought promise to the country’s tourism, and popped up in Russia’s underground stations?

Calendar director David Rogers has taken a guess.

“I think it’s the Australian thing,” he said.

What started as a project to raise money for charities has evolved into a major social media empire in recent years.

While firefighters would once be seen selling the calendars at local events and in shopping centres, they are now in high demand for appearances around the world.

Three shirtless Australian firefighters pose with Kathy Lee and Hoda on the set of NBC's Today Show in America.
TV appearances often feature animals, as in for US talk show The Today Show with Kathy Lee and Hoda in 2017.(Supplied: David Rogers)

Mr Rogers said the height of the attention was “really hard to pinpoint”.

“I’m shocked by the amount of articles that are written about us in every country in South America, but that follows through to Asia and Europe as well,” he said.

Special reception in Taiwan

The Taiwanese Government caught on in 2018.

They initially brought two Aussie firefighters in for a travel expo in Taiwan and had the guys offer a free calendar with every Australian tour booked.

A packed hall of Taiwanese media and officials wait for the Australian Firefighters to arrive for a press event.
Taiwanese media and government officials eagerly await the arrival of the Australian firefighters at a press event in Taipei last year.(Supplied: David Rogers)

The firies gave away 10,000 calendars.

“The welcome that we got over there was just unbelievable,” Mr Rogers said.

Any appearance in Taiwan by the Australian firefighters now means major media attention.

“When these guys are in the country, the whole country knows,” Mr Rogers said.

“They will be on nightly news and midday news on 20-odd different TV stations.”

Bikes, boxing, bazookas

In June 2019, six Australians from last year’s calendar were invited to Taipei to feature in a firefighters’ calendar there.

“We didn’t realise they were actually going to put our guys in their calendar, which is a really big deal,” Mr Rogers said.

One of the six lucky enough to make the cut was first-timer Ben Wallace.

An Australian firefighter rides a bike behind a female Taiwanese firefighter for November of the 2020 joint calendar.
All models featured in the calendars are real-life firefighters.(Supplied: David Rogers)

Mr Rogers said Mr Wallace fit the Taiwanese bill: “quite tall and quite big”.

“[The Taiwanese] will look at all the guys and select the guys they think are appropriate for their calendar,” he said.

Unlike the casual shoot he was exposed to on the Gold Coast for the Australian calendar, Mr Wallace said the attention they received in Taipei was next level.

In between hair and makeup sessions, the Australians were fielding questions from their Taiwanese co-stars, mostly younger men — and two women — early into the firefighting service.

Six Australian firefighters pose with 12 Taiwanese firefighters for the launch of their joint calendar in 2019.
Six Australians took part in the joint calendar with their Taiwanese counterparts, both male and female, who were also carefully selected.(Supplied: David Rogers)

Heroes not hunks

While the guys’ physiques play a large part in getting them into the calendar, Mr Rogers said there was more than beefcake in making the cut.

“I talk to them first before we look at them; they’ve got to fit in and have the same sort of beliefs, that’s really important,” Mr Rogers said.

While aware that abs and biceps sell calendars, at the end of the day Mr Rogers said he wanted international audiences to see the men, not the models.

Victorian fiirefighter Ben Wallace poses on the Australian cover and with a Taiwanese firefighter for the joint calendar.
Victorian firefighter Ben Wallace appeared in all six Australian calendars and the Taiwanese calendar in his first year.(Supplied: Australian Firefighters Calendar)

“I want them to be regarded as real-life Australian superheroes and I think once [shirts are off], at the drop of a hat it loses its credibility.”

Not only superheroes, these men have had to bear other responsibilities in the face of their popularity.

“These guys slide into that role of being a firefighter one day and literally a representative for our country the next; it’s a really hard transformation,” Mr Rogers said.

‘Best group of guys you’ll ever meet’

Stardom was never something Mr Wallace expected when he hesitantly entered last year.

The army veteran had only recently received his firefighting registration when a friend suggested going for the calendar.

Ben Wallace and five other servicemen stand next to a tank in Afghanistan.
Ben Wallace was deployed to Afghanistan three times and Iraq once during his 15 years in the Australian Army prior to firefighting.(Supplied: Ben Wallace)

“I immediately said ‘no thanks, not for me’,” Mr Wallace said.

His mate, who had been in the calendar previously, reassured him about the causes it supported and how good the guys were.

“He was 100 per cent right. The guys involved are probably the main reason why I’ll continue to do [the calendar],” Mr Wallace said.

In his first year he has appeared in all six versions of the 2020 Australian Firefighter Calendar and even scored the cover of the horse edition, what he called the “cherry on top” for his horse-loving wife.

Mr Wallace joined the Bendigo CFA when he returned from 15 years and four overseas deployments in the Australian Army.

“And I’ve always thought about being a firefighter from a young age, which I think most kids do.”

When it comes to the calendar, he appreciates the opportunities it gives him to visit hospitals, deliver hay, and support other charities.

“We’re not models, we’re just firefighters; we just want to help out,” Mr Wallace said

Ben Wallace smiles for a photo sitting in a fire truck with his young daughter on his lap.
Mr Wallace decided to leave the army to spend more time with his wife and two daughters, aged three and six.(Supplied: Ben Wallace)

Face of Australia during tough time

Helping out is something Mr Wallace wish he could have done more of this summer.

He and his family were in Spain visiting family over Christmas when flames continued to rip through the country.

It is an emotional toll Mr Rogers has had to be especially aware of when managing his team.

“It’s a devastation that’s been really playing on their minds,” he said.

“They find it very hard to, day after day, see the devastation of the country and also the devastation of our citizens.”

The effect of the fires on human and animal life has been an extra motivator for the guys taking part in the making the calendars.

“They’re not bushfires anymore, they’re wildfires and if we don’t do something… I’d hate to think our guys were going face these things on a regular basis,” Mr Rogers said.

Whether it is encouraging tourists to Australia or raising money for conservation, he wants the calendar and its following to be taken more seriously here.

“I’m going to keep pushing the government and our tourism industry to try and use these guys as much as we can,” he said.

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