BENNINGTON -- Emergency responders flexed their disaster preparedness muscles Wednesday by opening a shelter at the Mount Anthony Union Middle School and the local hospital’s medical surge section.

Bennington Police Lt. Lloyd Dean said his agency worked with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, the American Red Cross, and the middle school to practice setting up the shelter and medical surge unit. The exercise began between 3:30 and 4 p.m. and was scheduled to end before 8 p.m.

Dean said the training is to prepare local responders for a potential disaster.

The middle school was used as a shelter in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene caused statewide flooding at levels not seen in nearly 100 years.

He said the drill is not only to test the setting up of emergency shelters and medical care units, but to ensure the lines of communication between entities are open and working.

Independent evaluators were at the middle school Wednesday.

Disaster drills are being held all across the state this week, according to Mark Bosma, public information officer for the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

"Nearly 1,600 participants will be faced with scenarios that will require them to perform life-saving duties or tasks in the aftermath of a catastrophic incident," Bosma wrote in a release. "Health care facilities will be presented with a surge of patients, a number of towns will set up emergency shelters to accommodate those who have been displaced from their homes due the simulated disaster, utilities will be faced with special challenges, and more."

The Vermont Emergency Operations Center will be opened and on Friday will run a 36-hour exercise.

The entire effort has been in the planning stages for the past two years, wrote Bosma.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.