BACKGROUND The recommended dose for pediatric defibrillation is 2 J/kg, based on animal studies of brief duration ventricular fibrillation (VF) and a single pediatric study of short duration in-hospital VF. In a piglet model of out-of-hospital (prolonged) cardiac arrest, this recommended dose was usually ineffective at terminating VF. We, therefore, hypothesized that pediatric dose defibrillation may be less effective for prolonged out-of-hospital pediatric VF. METHODS We evaluated retrospectively all cardiac arrests in children less than 13 years old in Tucson from November 1998 to April 2003, with special attention to all children in ventricular fibrillation. We determined the rate of ventricular fibrillation termination after pediatric dose shocks in this cohort, and compared this rate with a published historical pediatric in-hospital defibrillation control group. A pediatric dose shock was defined as 2 J/kg (+/-10 J). All shocks in both groups were provided as monophasic damped sinusoidal waveforms. RESULTS Thirteen of 151 (9%) children with out-of-hospital cardiac arrest had documented VF. Eleven children received a total of 14 pediatric dose shocks. The median minimum untreated dispatch-to-shock time in unwitnessed arrest or collapse-to-shock in witnessed arrest for those 11 children was 11 min (interquartile range 25-75%; 9-15.5 min). Seven of the 14 pediatric dose shocks terminated the VF (six to asystole, one to pulseless electrical activity). Nine children (68%) died in the emergency department and four (31%) in the pediatric intensive care unit; none survived to hospital discharge. Failure to terminate VF after a pediatric dose shock in this study group with prolonged out-of-hospital ventricular fibrillation was substantially more common than the previously reported in-hospital data (7/14 versus 5/57; OR 10.4; 95% CI 2.6-42; P=0.001). CONCLUSIONS Termination of VF after a pediatric defibrillation dose is substantially worse for prolonged pediatric out-of-hospital VF cardiac arrest compared with in-hospital (short duration) ventricular fibrillation. The optimal pediatric defibrillation dose for prolonged VF is not known.